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3 steps to build a culture of vulnerability on your team

Throughout 2020, teams have experienced unimaginable challenges, from furloughs to changed and expanded roles. And chances are that your organization hasn't gotten everything right in response, leaving many staff frustrated. With this in mind, a lot of leaders are asking us, "How do I start to rebuild trust and engagement with my team as we move forward?" Our take: Start by building a culture of vulnerability on your team.

Radio Advisory episode: How to embrace vulnerability as a leader

What does it mean to embrace vulnerability?

When we think about vulnerability in leadership, it's about embracing uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure in order to deepen your relationships and enable innovation. Brene Brown, the lecturer and best-selling author, defines it best: "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they are never weakness."

And while vulnerability isn't always a trait we associate with successful leadership, having honest conversations about how your staff are feeling is essential in the face of so much uncertainty about what the future holds. There's even evidence that authentic, vulnerable leadership yields more engaged and productive behavior in employees.

So although your instinct as a leader may be to provide certainty and structure, you must first address the ways that Covid-19 has affected the emotions and needs of your team. When you open up the space for these conversations, you can start to reengage your team and move forward. And as added bonus, we've observed that when individuals feel safe and understood at work, they're more likely to share creative and innovative ideas with their team.

3 steps to build a culture of vulnerability

While there's compelling research out there about the power of vulnerability to inspire innovation and progress, it can be difficult for leaders to take the first step. Leaders who manage engaged teams are often open about their own feelings—they set the precedent for others to share and unpack their own emotions. But for many of us, being vulnerable at work can be intimidating.

To help, we've outlined three steps you can take to promote a culture of vulnerability on your team:

  1. Acknowledge your own feelings—and practice sharing them

    Many leaders have spent the last couple of months running from meeting to meeting. But when we're dealing with "fires," it can be easy to overlook our own feelings. Great leaders break that pattern of behavior by checking in with themselves—are you feeling frustrated, upset, or guilty? Give yourself time to sit with those emotions and unpack them.

    Then, share how you're feeling with your team. Remember that vulnerability isn't about oversharing or making others uncomfortable—you should share information with the end goal of creating stronger relationships with your colleagues.

    So, what does that look like in practice? Here's a helpful exercise based on an interaction we all have every day: When someone asks you, "How are you?" at the start of a meeting or in passing, resist the urge to reply with just, "I'm fine." Instead, share something you're feeling excited about that day or be honest that you're feeling worn out and a little disengaged. If this feels uncomfortable—that's normal. Being vulnerable takes practice.  

  2. Ask questions that spark a deeper conversation

    After you've shared how you're feeling with your team, dedicate time with staff to get a sense of how they're feeling. Set up one-on-one or group conversations to have an open-ended discussion about how Covid-19 has affected your staff's engagement and get a pulse check on what they need going forward. One rule: Don't have these conversations over email. Because it's a sensitive subject, it's best to reserve time in person or over video chat to engage with your team.

    Next: Be sure to ask the right kind of questions, questions that encourage the responder be vulnerable by opening up about their feelings. These conversations should be about understanding how your team is feeling, not just getting feedback. Sample questions might include:

    • How are you really feeling?
    • What would you like your workplace and team to look like right now?
    • What would be helpful for you right now?
    • What does "good" look like for you at the moment?

    Remember that this is a time for you to listen—not react in the moment. Even if a colleague raises a point you want to counter or shares a difficulty you want to help solve, now is not the time. Instead, listen closely and demonstrate you're paying attention, such as by repeating back some of the things they relay to you.

  3. Make changes based on what you're hearing

    Listening is the first step to re-engaging your team. But to build trust, staff need to know that you've heard their concerns and that you're taking action. For instance, if a teammate expresses frustration about their workflow, follow up with them on tweaks you're making as a result. And of course, be honest about the things you can't change. Clear communication will help prevent your colleagues from feeling frustrated when you can't deliver.

Experimenting with vulnerability? Avoid common pitfalls.

Being a vulnerable leader isn't easy, and you'll likely run into challenges along the way. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid as you lean into vulnerability:

  • Avoid getting defensive. When you open up the opportunity for staff to be vulnerable, you'll likely hear negative feedback from your team that can feel personal. Instead of taking their feedback as an attack, use it as a learning opportunity. Remain calm, hear your staff out, and then dig deeper to understand why they are feeling frustrated or angry.

  • Be okay with the uncomfortable moments. Having conversations about your feelings and emotions, especially in a professional setting, can feel awkward. But remember: If these conversations are uncomfortable, then you're doing it right. Be honest with your team that you're learning a new skill, too.

  • Be patient with yourself. Recognize that practicing vulnerability is like stretching a muscle; these conversations can leave you feeling drained. Don't beat yourself up after a conversation if you think you said the "wrong thing" or overshared. Instead, notice where the process makes your team stronger—and learn from your mistakes.

Creating a culture of vulnerability is the first step in building an environment where your team can hold each other accountable to your mission and goals. Next week, we'll share some tips on how you can use this foundation of vulnerability to build your team's purpose and deliver on what your patients and organization need most.







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