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Creating a culture of vulnerability

main.jpgWe've all been there. Our anxiety goes up while we scroll down on Facebook. We think "Why is everyone else's life so perfect, while I'm a mess?" One friend just got her MBA ("I don't think I could pass the GRE"), another posted a whole album of photos of him and his boyfriend in Las Vegas-smiling and laughing in all of them ("Me and my partner are bickering a lot lately, is she the wrong person for me?"). A cousin just posted about their 7-mile jog around the lake ("I haven't worked out in 3 weeks, I'm so lazy").

Facebook updates are symptomatic of a broader cultural truth: vulnerability is not rewarded. Revealing our weaknesses and shortcomings is not wise. What we're taught to do instead is hide our faults, embellish our positive qualities and try to one-up everyone.

There are three consequences if we choose to do this:

  1. We get exhausted and anxious trying to keep our weaknesses a secret.
  2. We come across as disingenuous because everyone around us knows our faults anyway.
  3. We absolutely squelch any possibilities for collaboration, self-awareness and openness for feedback.

I was talking with an executive director of a nonprofit the other day about her successes and what traits are essential to effective leadership. At one point during the conversation, she paused and said, "I'm going to tell you a secret I learned in my 40s." She leaned in and whispered, "Nobody knows what they're doing."

She elaborated how we are all continuously learning in our work and that "you should feel most days that you don't know what you're doing” and that one should "fail early, fail fast." Failure is going to happen, so we might as well make failure something to build off of rather than to be afraid of.

I truly believe that, but we've gotten really good at developing a facade that fools others into thinking that we know it all. We spend our energy convincing others that we are flawless and have got everything down. But it's tiring living a lie. What we really want--and need--is to have a safe space where we can admit we're struggling and ask for help.

Organizations need to ensure that they are creating an environment where people are not afraid to admit their shortcomings; in fact, I would argue that a culture of vulnerability is essential for maximizing organizational outcomes. When people aren't afraid to talk about their weak spots, and know that their co-workers and leaders won't hold their weaknesses against them, you create a space for meaningful opportunities for development.

While organizations regularly give feedback to employees about areas of growth, when employees don’t feel their supervisor is invested in their development or feel their supervisor looks down on them because of their weaknesses, they will be handcuffed by anxiety and development cannot occur.

Ultimately, it is up to the leader to create this environment. We all know leaders who acted like they had it all together and never admitted mistakes or faults, but when he is off at a meeting, everyone is talking about everything he sucks at. Humans are intuitive; there is very little a person can hide, especially in a workplace. Leaders who try to put on know-it-all facade and never make mistakes only hurt themselves in the long run.

Finally, effective feedback doesn't occur in environments that don't value vulnerability. If a leader doesn't take feedback, they send a message to their staff that feedback is not valuable, or that somehow they are flawless while everyone else has a list of things to work on. Simply put: if a leader doesn't take feedback seriously neither will their staff.

And your staff won't collaborate either. The fight to out-facade your co-workers is an endless and exhausting one. It's a battle of wits. Who will be the first to break? No one wants to be the first to admit a mistake, or get called out for a mistake. This pits people against each other, killing any chance of collaboration and, subsequently, creativity and innovation.

It's tiring, really, to be inauthentic and disingenuous. Let's value vulnerability. Let's value growth mindsets. Let's value environments where we can feel safe to be ourselves, to open up, to ask for help. Let's value the will to empower and admit we don't know what we're doing. How to start? Be the first one to say "I don't understand this, let's figure it out together."

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