I have a question…
Q. What do the following have in common?
- A CEO referred for coaching
- A Team Leader with a grievance lodged against the
- 500 employees listening to the announcement of organisational change
- A couple experiencing conflict
A. Success or failure in these tasks will primarily depend on how each of them respond to vulnerability.
Vulnerability is not a very Corporate sounding word and consequently, this is a bold assertion. I’m not sure there are many MBA units dedicated to the topic. Yet in my 20 years of working with people in the board room, the counselling room and the class room, how people respond to vulnerability is the fastest way I have of getting to know both their capacity for learning and their most powerful development task.
Brene Brown writes extensively in this area, and notes the intolerance we have developed in the present day for vulnerability. Take emailing over face to face communication. Face to face communication brings uncertainty of how the conversation will unfold. It is dynamic and emerges as we speak. It may not go well. Electronic communication doesn’t have the same vulnerability and is therefore becoming increasingly the communication method of choice. We can take our time. Draft and redraft. There is no delete key to wipe a conversation away word by word and try again.
Vulnerability tolerance is about the ability we have to sit with uncertainty, disquiet , conflict or distress, and not do anything with it. For most of us, when organisational change is announced we need to make a story from the uncertainty. This may be dangerous for me. I bet they knew about this ages ago. When a complaint is lodged or a relationship is ending – It’s not my fault or “I must have done something wrong.” The desire to run toward or against; to put up a wall or to blame, is engaged in a millisecond.
It is a little like being caught in a rip out to sea. Rips don’t hurt you (neither does emotional vulnerability have a death toll that I can find evidence of!). The panic is what kills people – the rip itself will always pass. Such is our aversion to vulnerability that anything is better than it. Brown states that even when people are experiencing great joy such as watching their child peacefully sleep, it often creates a vulnerability in them that is quite profound. What if something happens to her? When a partner criticises us; Go ahead and leave, I don’t need this. When a team project doesn’t go well; It’s not my fault – there weren’t enough resources.
The next time you hear the unrest of vulnerability, my very humbling vantage point in the world has taught me you will have 3 options:
- Leap over the sandbags and position yourself in the trench, gun at the ready.
- Crumble, in sheer devastation.
- Sit cross legged in the middle of it.
For most of us, we try different positions on this first. Either the cold war or defensive response for some time before then softening into reflection; or the tears and distress followed by consideration.
Option 3 is your chance to be a better leader. A more connected person. A more present family member. You see, when we are not fearing or avoiding vulnerability, we don’t need to man the radar and keep a look out for danger. We can absorb every learning opportunity knowing that vulnerability, like the rip, will pass. It will pass on its own, and engaging in panic and damage to ourselves or those around us is the optional extra.
So a challenge, if you will?
The next time you feel vulnerable, don’t do anything except notice it. You may hold that for a second, or even an hour, before you start trying to make sense of that. I promise you that the longer you can just notice it and not react to it, the faster it will teach you something important, and then pass. And the faster, more than anything, that you will be the kind of leader, partner or parent you aspire to being.