To succeed in the corporate world is to be ruthless and to trust no one… right?
Maybe not. A growing body of research suggests that companies embracing a culture of vulnerability and openness are outperforming those that perpetuate toxic competition among employees. Davelle Lee looks into the relationship between vulnerability, innovation and organisational transformation.
If you’ve ever been called out for having a “stupid idea” by your boss, you know that it does not feel good. All of us seek approval from others, especially those around us whose opinions matter to our success. So naturally, it stings when we are harshly criticised by our supervisors and coworkers for wanting to try something new or different.
It’s one thing to be personally attacked for coming up with something your boss doesn’t like, it’s another to be simply shut down without being allowed to first make your case. The truth is that while most managers know how to turn down an idea with tact and civility, not all take the time to consider where their staff is coming from before deciding to axe it.
Why you need to embrace vulnerability at work
This isn’t just a matter of bruised egos. The more destructive effect is that this kind of feedback suppresses creativity and openness within the team, worse still if it extends beyond the team and permeates the entire organisational culture. Faced with repeated rejection, employees feel unheard and undervalued, and they become disengaged.
“As millennials, we need to find meaning and purpose in our work,” says Olivia Coleon, a Singapore-based entrepreneur who runs an event series called Naked Nights, which celebrates and encourages vulnerability at the workplace through storytelling and group mentoring. “We’re not going to find that by having leaders who have fixed mindsets, who are putting themselves on pedestals saying ‘I’m your boss, you’re my subordinate, this is how it’s going to be.’”
If the company makes them feel like they’re just tiny replaceable cogs in a system and that their views aren’t valued, they either learn to shut up or just leave the company altogether. Olivia says that this ultimately affects the company’s bottom line.
“In companies where you have toxic work environments, the turnover rate is going to be higher,” she explains. “The engagement level and the productivity levels are going to be a lot lower. Employees are going to be gossiping and job-hunting.”
In fact, this is a widespread phenomenon occurring across the globe dubbed the worldwide engagement crisis. Currently, research shows that up to 85% of workers are disengaged at work.
“In the US, it’s costing the economy US$450 to 550 billion a year,” Olivia adds. “Managers who aren’t cultivating positive work environments [are] costing your company millions of dollars.”
Vulnerability is scary but necessary
On the flip side, companies that foster a culture of vulnerability and openness can enjoy innovation and growth. Through case studies on Exiade, DBS and other big organisations, Olivia has observed that “pivotal moments of change and transformation [were] moments of vulnerability when somebody in the organisation said something isn’t working, we need a change.”
In each case, the company benefited from sweeping organisational reform brought about by these moments. But what exactly does vulnerability entail?
“Vulnerability is the root of all experience and emotions,” Olivia says, citing leadership researcher Brene Brown. She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. Vulnerability is what allows someone in upper management to admit that they don’t have the answers to everything.
“It’s really difficult as a leader to be open to feedback and really listen to what your employees have to say,” continues Olivia. “You need to ask yourself, can I take criticism graciously? And can I use it to make things better? You have to be prepared to receive it without being defensive, or overly self-critical.”
Humility and trust are crucial to making this work for you and your team. Apart from listening to what your employees have to say, you also have to give them the agency to make judgement calls. In other words, stop micromanaging. After all, they were hired because they were the most competent candidates for the job. So you should be confident in their ability to do it. “Even if they mess up, it’s not a big deal. They’re going to learn from it,” says Olivia.
Which brings us to another important element in creating an environment that encourages vulnerability: embracing mistakes. “Celebrate mistakes as growth,” Olivia says. Your staff should not fear for their lives when they commit an error. If their biggest concern is punishment, they might try to cover up the mistake, which creates many more problems down the line. Instead, you should encourage them to take ownership of the mistake and share it with you and your team so everybody can learn from it and find a solution together.
A culture of vulnerability results in better mental health
Employees thrive in a work environment that endorses open and honest communication. When they are more engaged and motivated at work, their psychological well-being on a whole improves.
Studies have shown that employee mental health directly impacts the financial success of a company and poor mental health results in huge productivity losses. So companies really stand to gain from a healthier organisational culture. Our personal lives also benefit, says Olivia. “The future of work is about … integrating work and life. The separation of professional and personal life doesn’t exist anymore.” Rather than tap us dry of inspiration and confidence, work should reinvigorate you and cause whatever positivity and meaning that is generated to spill over into our social lives.
Tips to introduce vulnerability within your team:
- If you aren’t the manager, make sure to bring it up with them and explain the benefits of open and honest communication. Only go ahead if they’re on board.
- Have a meeting with the whole team to discuss how each of them would like to talk about issues that they face. For example, some people prefer to raise issues with their direct supervisors in private, while others want the whole team to be present to provide moral support.
- Make a deliberate effort to know the different perspectives and personalities within the team, so you can support each other better. For example, before each meeting, one member of the team could do a short personal show-and-tell about a topic or interest that is close to their hearts.
- Get the ball rolling. Be the first to raise an issue you’re struggling with that could benefit from the help and support of your team members.
To find out more about vulnerability at the workplace, listen to this episode of Some Scuffs, a podcast about embracing social anxiety and discovering identity in Singapore. In it, I talk to Olivia Coleon to find out all about what it means to be vulnerable as a manager, an employee and an entrepreneur.