Recently, while part of an Executive Coaching assignment at HBS (Harvard Business School), I was struck by how a team of leaders when, once given the space to be vulnerable with each other, the commitment and productivity of the group soared. One of my tasks in working with this group of 8 diverse senior global business leaders was ensuring they work as a cohesive team. Though we focused on understanding cultural differences, agreeing the rules engagement, expectations, etc., it was the exercise where people opened up and were vulnerable, that had the most profound impact on gelling the group together.
This is supported by the work of Patrick Lencioni in the Five Dysfunctions of a Team where he suggests that vulnerability will greatly enhance a trusting environment, which he defines as “the confidence among team members that their peer intentions are good”. As a result, this team over the course of 8 weeks demonstrated tremendous commitment to each other (not let anyone down mentality), great work ethic, really smart collaborative ideas and, ultimately an environment where they learned so much from each other. Why did this happen?
Firstly, as the old adage goes “you are most likely to tell your darkest secrets to total strangers” plays out because there is minimal risk that of any perceived or otherwise consequence; therefore, it is easy to be vulnerable. Most human beings really do care and when somebody shows some degree of vulnerability, people naturally want to support and help. But surely this can work to some degree with work colleagues also who, for the most part, have no personal affiliation.
Secondly, it puts everybody on a very even keel. Being vulnerable is a great equalizer, it shows you are human and what is really going on beneath that exterior. When people feel that they are among equals, they are more likely to open up and support each other.
Finally, what was clearly apparent with all the leaders at HBS was an individual strength and confidence, which worked perfectly in alignment with vulnerability. Perhaps it was this unique blend of strength and vulnerability (similar to Collins’ resolve and humility) that provided the basis for optimal teamwork based on dependability/reliability (outward strength) as well as trust/believability (inward vulnerability).
It is important to mention that being vulnerable is not about exposing weaknesses, but rather being truthful about who you are – what’s your real story??