On a recent episode of the Radio Advisory podcast, Craig Pirner, managing director of talent development at Advisory Board, and executive coach Alicia Graham discussed why vulnerability is so hard—and why and how health care leaders should consider stepping out of their comfort zone right now.
Alicia Graham: For me, vulnerability is about being real. It's about being real with somebody else, being open to who you really are, and giving others the opportunity to really see you. Many people are naturally afraid of being vulnerable; people don't want to be hurt in any way. But at the same time, the one thing we crave when we are interacting with another person is connection--the ability to speak openly, to be truly heard, to be accepted just as we are. To have that requires vulnerability; letting them see and really get to know you so that they will let you see and get to know them.
Craig Pirner: As rewarding as real connection is in a relationship, it's hard to start. It strikes me that there's this game of chicken, almost: Who's going to go first? And while sharing the real story might be met with real acceptance, it might also not.
Graham: In any relationship, somebody has to make the first move. Otherwise, that relationship stays at a surface level and the real challenges don't get addressed. And yet when we have real conversations about difficult issues, trust and relationships deepen. And that opens the door to innovation and to growth.
You've worked in health care much longer than I have. How often do you hear health care leaders talking about the need for vulnerability in leadership?
Pirner: Certainly less often than in some other industries. …. In health care, it's been in the vocabulary about patients for a long time. For example, nurses take very seriously their commitment to advocate for vulnerable patients. And professional societies highlight care disparities for vulnerable populations. So the concept is not foreign.
The role of leadership vulnerability is newer. I certainly see it starting to take hold among executives and human performance leaders [who] I consider progressive.
Graham: I agree. Outside of health care, overcoming the fear of being vulnerable is one of the key skills I work with leaders on, and that's been the case for a while now. Yet, I keep hearing from health care clients either saying they're skeptical about it or that it's simply new.
Pirner: I think some of that skepticism is, honestly, that it's been trained out of people. Medical culture implies, often, that vulnerability is for patients, not providers or administrators. Clinicians are expected to be the expert. Medical students are expected to respond quickly to a bedside quiz about a patient's condition or treatment plan. It can feel like a culture where there's little room for "I don't have the answer" or "I don't know."
Since you're so familiar with how leaders are using vulnerability outside of health care, talk to me about how you see vulnerability applying in health care, especially in the midst of Covid-19.
Graham: Vulnerability as a leadership trait is really important right now for a couple of reasons. First, being vulnerable helps you build strong relationships, and in order for leaders to lead confidently and sustainably through a crisis, having the support of others is crucial.
Second, vulnerability is critical in finding creative solutions to challenging problems. We need that now more than ever considering what the community and organizational recovery journey will look like.
Pirner: You said that being vulnerable helps build strong relationships. With whom should a leader aim to be vulnerable?
Graham: It's important that you have a healthy dose of vulnerability in all of your relationships, but for this conversation, I'd like to focus on the relationships that we have with our peers and within our teams because at work, they're the ones that make the difference.
Pirner: So how does a leader get started with vulnerability?
Graham: Well, this would not be a conversation about vulnerability without me mentioning one of my favorite researchers, authors, thinkers on this topic: Brené Brown. Dr. Brown has written many books about this, and she speaks about it in a very compelling way. A thought of hers that I am reminded of right now is, "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness."
Pirner: "Sounds like truth, feels like courage." Help me move that from concept to something a leader might actually do to get started.
Graham: What I don't recommend is going around sharing all of your deepest darkest secrets. Vulnerability is not about being one of those oversharers who make others feel uncomfortable. The whole point of being vulnerable is about creating connection. So, what you share about yourself must be done in service of others--in service of creating stronger, more trusting relationships.
Pirner: What kinds of things create that sort of connection?
Graham: Like every action that takes courage, you probably want to ease into it. Start small. Let's use the way we greet each other as an example. Say you already have some trusted colleagues. When they ask you, "How are you?", take the chance to actually answer: "Today, I'm feeling flat,” or “Today, I'm feeling a bit anxious." Be true and fair to your current state. It allows you to time ask the question back and get a full answer.
So, for example, when someone says, "I'm fine," you say, "How are you really?" Most of us just let a "fine" go, because it's easier, it's safer. But this is a chance to invite vulnerability in others by creating space for them to be heard and to be accepted–even if you don't know what to say in response.
Pirner: I'm thinking now about the number of "fines" that I've let go by in my life. Certainly lots of people have left my own "fines" go by too. Is that a bad thing?
Graham: It's not a bad thing. It's very normal, especially when we're busy or overwhelmed. And I think we have to be realistic—not every conversation is the right time for a deep moment of sharing, nor is every person the right person to share our feelings with.
Without boundaries, genuine sharing can become careless. So I suggest that we start with being intentional. Start with, "With whom do I need a stronger connection?" That's probably not everyone. And start small.