You Can’t Change Your Organization Without Embracing Vulnerability

Story 1: The Interview

One hour before the interview, I changed my clothes, brushed my hair, put on some makeup (my son’s having night terrors was taking a toll on my face) and prepared mentally. I checked my internet connection and Google Hangouts and ensured everything was functioning. I was ready.

The interview went well until it got to the tricky question. You know which one, the one about your weaknesses. The “trick” question. I have weaknesses: “I am a perfectionist, I sometimes give solutions to my teams instead of coaching, and I am not the most patient person, but hey, I’ve been working on these for years”.

I don’t mention that sometimes I miss my son during the day. I don’t say that sometimes I am engulfed by imposter syndrome, especially in front of a group. I look at all those friendly faces and wonder, “what can I teach you? I know so very little”. I don’t mention that long meetings are draining my energy; I get restless and need to move to stay focused (or awake, depending on the forum).

I don’t want to seem weak.

Story 2: The 1:1

I’m face-to-face with my manager during our regular 1-to-1. We chat about how work goes, my teams, and how I am. I am deeply unhappy, but I can’t point that out. Not in today’s work culture where we are all meant to be bundles of joy and shine positivity on others. Many times during my coaching years, I was told that a team member “was too negative and was influencing the others. So can you coach him?”. So I smile and say I’m not at the height of my spirits, but I’ll be fine.

I don’t want to show too much humanity. That would make me look weak.

Story 3: Guiding a colleague

I’m having a conversation with a colleague. She’s not at her best, and her confidence in her skills is lower than ever. She tells me how much she appreciates my assertiveness and confidence; I always have answers and know everything. “You are so fierce”, she says. The little meagre imposter mouse inside me shrieks and runs to hide under a chair. I don’t find myself in her words. I know so little. But I don’t say anything; I smile and listen.

I don’t want to show vulnerability. I don’t want to look weak.

Vulnerability as a weakness

We’ve been taught that vulnerability equals weakness, and we should avoid it like the plague in our work and relationships. This learning is more imprinted on men than women, as men showing emotions is considered weak and unreliable. But:

“Vulnerability is not a weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous.

I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty, … vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”

Brene Brown, Listening to Shame Ted Talk

Dr Brené Brown has dedicated her life to studying vulnerability and shame’s impact on humans during and outside work. She became world-famous with her story of vulnerability, which now has over 41 million views on Ted.

After many years of research, she discovered that the key to connecting with others and finding meaning in life is not to have everything under control (her life mantra and mine) but the opposite. The key to connection is being open to vulnerability, the exact opposite of control. Yet we are raised and trained to hide our vulnerability, feelings, and emotions for fear of appearing weak.

But awareness and learning don’t come without pain. Following this discovery, she had a breakdown or a spiritual awakening. She dedicated her life to embracing vulnerability in her own life, relationships, and work. She shared her learning, knowledge, and research in her best-selling book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012).

Vulnerability is a strength.

Let’s turn my stories around and see vulnerability as its true strength.

My interview:

  • I miss my son during the day at work: so I don’t waste any time on invaluable work. However, my productivity goes through the roof when I can’t wait to get home and get that long-awaited hug.
  • I’m struggling with the imposter syndrome since I know myself: I constantly read (I managed to read 90 books in the first half of this year already), learn, do training, meetups, and workshops, and put myself in uncomfortable situations. My imposter syndrome accelerated my learning tremendously.
  • I have no patience in meetings: my meetings are short and sweet. No time is wasted on useless discussions; we stick to the point or agenda and park unrelated conversations. I wouldn’t have them any other way.

My 1:1: By fearing to express how I felt, I lost a chance to profoundly connect with my manager, ask for advice and get some well-needed wisdom during a hard period of my life.

My discussion with my colleague: once again, I had the chance to deeply connect with another person and maybe inspire them with my courage to overcome my fears and show up, be confident and fierce every day.

Now I am working on using the vulnerability to deeply connect with others and find hidden strengths within myself. I’m learning to embrace it, to expose my authenticity and drop the fear that “my weaknesses” will scare people away.

Vulnerability and change

Brené Brown mentioned in her second Ted Talk that she got a lot of workshops or talking invitations from corporations after her very popular Ted Talk. But the invitations came with an odd request: “We’d like you to come in and speak. We’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention vulnerability or shame”. Instead, the organisations wanted a talk about innovation, creativity, and change.

So let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.

To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.

Brene Brown, Listening to Shame Ted Talk

Change always gets blocked at the individual levels: “we are agile, we are doing the movements, but the mindset isn’t there”; “people don’t trust each other, we’re not sure how to make them collaborate more”; “we tried Scrum [insert any other framework here], but it didn’t work; people just don’t want to do it“.

The one thing that companies ignore when they push their organisation through change is encouraging vulnerability for leaders and their teams. Building deep connections will allow people to share issues, concerns, and lack of understanding that would push the change forward. But companies want their people to do all this while showing no sign of vulnerability.

In the end, vulnerability equals courage. And courage is one of the most important values in your organisational transformation (and a stated value for some of the most popular Agile frameworks out there – XP, Scrum).

How do you find your courage?

To find your courage, start with breaking the myths surrounding vulnerability. Learn that vulnerability is not a weakness; we can’t opt out of it; it is a measurement of our courage. Next, we have to learn the following:

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” 

Brene Brown, Listening to Shame Ted Talk

Lastly, we need to learn to understand we are enough.

Start with listening to the incredibly authentic (and hilarious) Brené Brown:

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