Exploring Vulnerability-Based Trust in Leadership and Teams
During my research studies at Hyper Island, I aimed to explore the importance of vulnerability in founding a productive team culture, and also uncover some tools to help teams an ethos of vulnerability amongst themselves. However, I couldn’t ignore the fact that leadership plays an essential part in influencing culture.
But can a leader be vulnerable yet effective?
What is “vulnerability”, and what is not?
Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” really helped me to dive into this subject.
“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both. It’s engaging. It’s being all in” — Brene Brown
She highlights the importance of stripping back the personal removedness typically associated with our professional personas, and instead committing to owning and engaging with our vulnerability. The confidence to speak aloud and put our ideas forward without letting ourselves be inhibited by the fear of judgement is the backbone of vulnerability. Opportunities to embrace our vulnerability as humans are woven through our personal and professional lives every day, particularly as experience designers constantly immersed in the creative process. If we are to engage in the meaningful as a group ; the constant iterations, and the adjustment and expression of ideas, then what calls is for an open and accepting team culture to be in place, where all ideas are considered instead of instantly being classified as good or bad.
Seth Godin, in his (really fun) book “V Is For Vulnerable” points out that vulnerable is the only way that we can feel when we truly open up and share our art with those around us.
“When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we’ve given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us” — Seth Godin
Releasing our ideas into the arena in order for them to be critiqued, and being willing to sacrifice our pride to open the door to flexibility, are two values that make up the core of vulnerability (and both of these things are easier said than done, in my opinion). An interesting point from Brené Brown is that vulnerability is not the practice “letting it all hang out” and revealing everything about ourselves. Opening up is based on trust and the willingness to expose our inner workings, but boundaries do need to exist to avoid oversharing, and to ensure that we’re sharing our experiences and feelings with those who have earned the right to hear them.
Immediately releasing all of your innermost thoughts and emotions to people who may be little more than strangers is not productive for the team, and it is important to recognise that trust is something which is built up and developed over time, through the allowance of time to deal with interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
How can vulnerability-based trust be achieved in a team?
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — Peter Drucker
Despite what your team may be capable of creating in skill or intelligence, the full potential will never be reached in the absence of a strongly defined set of team values. So, I began to ask myself: how we create the optimal conditions for a culture of vulnerability-based trust to thrive? Here are some of the points I came up with.
Very often, people place childlike creativity on a pedestal as a sort of designers nirvana; the ultimate state of enlightenment. How can children be so unapologetically creative and how can we, as designers, revert our minds to this way of thinking? Children are born with an unselfconscious mindset that has not yet been tainted by social constructs. But this does not last long.
“Over time, because of socialisation and formal education, a lot of us start to stifle those impulses. We learn to be warier of judgment, more cautious, more analytical” — David & Tom Kelley.
In school, we are taught to fill in the gaps with a single right answer; our creativity and right to think outside the box and improvise is hindered. As a result we develop a protective shell which provides defence against criticism and after a while, lets us put on a mask to hide our fear of being judged for being incorrect or ignorant. Consider the huge contrast between a playful, explorative five-year-old and an awkward fifteen-year-old. It only takes a few years for our fear of judgement to manifest itself but it remains inside us throughout our adult lives.
For a team to foster vulnerability-based trust, the fear of taking risks and the need to self-edit must be removed. Instead, we must run towards boundless ideation and impracticality. Some techniques that have helped me personally include introducing games and energisers to the workplace, as these can increase empathy between employees and encourage expansive thinking. For example, my team took some time out to play a ridiculous game called “Hello Kitty” which we found in the Hyper Island toolbox. At first we felt really stupid pretending to be cats and dogs, but by the end of the game I had tears of laughter rolling down my face and we spent the next few weeks reminiscing about how much fun it had been. It really helped us to see the silly sides of each other that were sometimes buried in work. (Try watching one of your coworkers crawling around acting like a puppy. I’ll give you a prize if you don’t laugh).
Feedback is a huge part of the culture that we practice at Hyper Island. Exchange of frequent feedback is key to openness. But it can’t just be any old commentary on your teammates, and learning to frame your feedback in a constructive way and practicing the acceptance of feedback with gratitude and without self-defence is important. Vulnerability-based trust and feedback are inherently linked, because in order to be comfortable giving and receiving honest feedback, we must be comfortable with revealing our weaknesses and also drawing attention to the weaknesses of others.
Brené Brown discusses the importance of normalising the discomfort surrounding the feedback process, pointing out that giving and receiving feedback always ignites feelings of vulnerability, even if one is trained and experienced in it. There are a few things that can help with the feedback process. One is making sure to ask for the permission to give feedback to your teammates. Another is considering the semantics, as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feedback technique can be deciphered by the language we use. Beginning feedback with the ‘I message’ (“I feel…”, “I like…”, “I wish…”) creates a constructive frame and makes your observations difficult to dispute, while negative phrases like “that will never work” can shut down ideas and prevent other people from growing. While giving feedback requires skill and practice, so does receiving it.
Feedback should be looked on as a gift, rather than as blame or criticism. Instead of jumping to self-defence, we should consider how it could help us out and accept our own flaws instead of trying to achieve perfectionism.
But can a leader display vulnerability, too? Though a flat organisation structure is ideal in my opinion, it can rarely be completely flat and devoid of all hierarchy and it is important to acknowledge the influence of a leader on spreading cultural values. As with a majority of cultural initiatives in the workplace, a culture of trust and openness needs to be built from the top down and implemented by example. However, people sitting in the ‘leader’ seat have often been taught to portray an image of being unfailingly calm and collected. Often times, the tendency to remain aloof is more pronounced in professionals that are farther down their career paths because by then they have learned two things: competitiveness and protectiveness over their reputation. Breaking habits and being willing to be publicly expose your learning process is something that in itself requires vulnerability and self-acceptance. In order for a leader to encourage vulnerability-based trust, they must be willing to openly fail and forget about creating and maintaining a flawless image. This is the only way that they can convince their teams that this kind of behaviour is not just accepted, but encouraged. We feel more comfortable around a leader that is authentic and vulnerable, and this makes us feel positive, constructive and trustful in their abilities.
However, this is not to say that the concept of a ‘vulnerable leader’ is not problematic and paradoxical. It is. Leading by example means you have to be raw and unfinished, and some would argue that vulnerability is linked to mundanity and an increased likelihood to fail. Open vulnerability could cause followers to be less dependent or loyal to the leader because the leader is working on an equal level rather than assuming a more traditional leader position. However, in my opinion, this again relates to whether an organisation or team aims to operate in a more hierarchical or a flat structure, because a less layered structure shortens the distance between leaders and followers. In an environment where leaders are encouraged to be more directly involved in projects, they can act as team members rather than solely as overseers. In the seam of these two arguments falls Goffee and Jones who suggest that if a leader distances themselves from time to time, this is enough to help their followers to push themselves. To me, this seems like a fair (and achievable) trade-off between the two extremes. It takes skill to simultaneously be vulnerable and lead.
“Vulnerability is like being naked onstage and hoping for applause rather than laughter” — Brené Brown
The foundation and maintenance of a creative and productive team depends on the ability to be open and honest with each other when something isn’t working, and to present ourselves in a defenceless way. However, though the clear virtues of vulnerability-based trust are apparent from the argument, creating and developing such a culture does not come without it’s challenges.
About the Writer
Laura Morley is an Irish social scientist and experience designer based in Manchester, where she is completing Hyper Island’s MA Digital Experience Design programme and working as a UX researcher at My Clever Lab.
She is passionate about human-centred design, music and travel. Check out her website for more.