Guest lecture

Guest lecture

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why be vulnerable?

When I posted my last blog post, “I can’t do anything right”,  I was doing what I set out to do:  write about my experiences in corporate life.  Good and bad.  

But, did I go too far?   I did for some.  When I first realized the story’s impact, my first thought was "shit" .  What did I do?  People now think I am an emotional wreck.  That I can’t handle stress.  What the hell was I thinking?   I shouldn’t have published this story. 

Of course, there were the real positive responses.  Friends and colleagues who encouraged me to keep writing.  They connected to the story because they recognized and related to it.  Mostly women though, only a couple of men (Millennials). 

Others felt really bad for me.  A kinda “poor you” response.  One of my girlfriends even stopped by my house after she read it with some flowers. To make me feel better.  

But the most upsetting feedback was not written in the comments or in mails.  I felt it when I asked for reactions.  The comments were something like:  "That was really personal stuff,"  "I would never publicly talk about that."  Clearly, these people felt it was too much.  Why did I show so much vulnerability, laying myself open like that, and share it with everyone?  Why would anyone in their right mind do that?
So, why did I do it? 

It all stems from my belief that we need a new kind of work environment.  That business as usual is about to be over.  That work is not solely about "rational" processes.  I believe that if we want to get the best out of our people, we need to become more human in the workplace.  And that means caring - treating people with respect, empathy and compassion.   

And yes, this touchy feely stuff has a place at work.  Not only because I think so.   Much is written about humanizing the workplace and unleashing people's potentional. There is a consensus that being human is good for business.  If we want innovation, if we want creativity, if we want breakthroughs, we have to open our hearts to the people around us. We need to care. To connect. To extend ourselves authentically.

But, we need to make sure that these are not just big words and noble ambitions. It is not so much about what we say.  It is about who we are. 

In the months leading up to the big transformation announcement, I saw colleagues who, like me, were trying to cope with the extra pressures. With the long hours and the massive workloads.  Who, like me, were struggling to keep the right balance, stay positive, motivated and not get overwhelmed.    

This is the reality of so many people, not only in our company.  With the economic downturn, a rapidly changing world, the restructurings, the lay-offs, we are asked to step it up all the time; we are expected to do more with less.  This is the world we live in.   
We also live in a culture of “never enough."  Where the fear of not being ____________ enough is rampant.  
Just fill in the blanks
Not cool enough
Not perfect enough
Not powerful enough
Not successful enough
Not smart enough
Not thin enough
Not tough enough 
Not strong enough
Not resilient enoug
Not political enough

My goal was to write a “me too” story. How I was dealing with the transformation, the stress, the balance and workload. How the fear of not being good enough affects me in my work.
The self-doubt I tried to describe is all-too-common for women.  I believe this is one of the main reasons why not more women rise to the top. 

A few years ago, I heard the CEO of my previous company talk about it.  He explained that men and women respond very differently to his question: "who is ready for a promotion?"  The men all raised their hand immediately.   The women were not so eager.  The women needed to be sure that they were ready, good enough, for the bigger job.  

Although men tend to be more outspoken, take more credit and display (over) confidence, that does not mean men have no fears.  According to Brene Brown, men are equally affected by not _________ enough.  "Basically, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak." 
Men are taught that being afraid, show fear or being vulnerable is just not acceptable.  Don't be a pussy. Man up. Pull it together.

And lets be honest, we like to see strength, dominance and confidence in our leaders. We do.  We prefer strong, bold and even aggressive people to be our leaders.

So, we tell women that if they want to make it they need to hide their self doubt and adopt the more masculine traits, like (over) confidence, taking credit, being outspoken.  

But, we want men to care more, to be more empathatic, to show vulnerability.  But, do we really mean that? 

We want that vulnerability because we want to be an agile, modern, successful company where innovation is part of our DNA.  We want it because we're told that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation and change.   Innovation is putting an idea on a table that half the people in the room thought was stupid. That the other half questioned.
We, as leaders, are called upon to exhibit the vulnerability that we want to see in our people.  That is not only about sharing innovative ideas.  It is also asking for help, saying you don't know, admitting you are wrong,  admitting that you failed, being afraid.  

If we want our people to feel comfortable coming up to us and saying "Hey, I don't really understand this and I want to understand it, I need some help," then we must open up ourselves, show our own vulnerability.  We have to be role models for taking risks and failing.
But it is not that easy. We all get very mixed messages. Make no mistake; showing vulnerability requires a lot of courage. Being vulnerable is truly disruptive. No one wants to do vulnerability. It sucks. It is scary. And it is risky, because vulnerability is still seen by many as a weakness.   And no one wants to appear weak.


The "me too" story I wrote is all about trying to connect.  Because connection is why we are here.  It is how we are wired as human beings.  It gives purpose and meaning to our lives.  Connection is about knowing that we're not alone.  To experience connection, we have to experience being vulnerable.

Also, I wanted to reach out to other women.  If more women understand that we all, even successful women, have a whole range of fears and insecurities, more women may go on to shatter more glass ceilings rather than succumbing to self doubt.

But, if my goal was to connect, did I succeed?
Honestly, I don’t know.  Did I show too much vulnerability?  Did I let it all hang out there?  Was I oversharing? 
What I do know is that vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust.  We don’t bear our souls the first time we meet someone.  We don’t start with: Hi, I am Maja and here is my darkest struggle.  That is desperation or woundedness or even attention seeking, it is vulnerability gone too far.  Being vulnerable can lead to increased connection and trust.  But, showing too much vulnerability too soon can do just the opposite; causing disconnection and distrust. 

So, did I increase connection and trust with my story?  I think it depends on who you talk to.  We all speak different languages.  We tend to give what we want to get, we communicate in the way we want to be communicated with.  Even if it isn’t what the recipient wants.

There are many who do not do vulnerability.  They won’t get it.  They won’t get me.

But, as Seth Godin, so eloquently put it:  “real change comes from finding and embracing and connecting and amplifying those that are inclined to like you and believe in you.”
So, I will stop trying to win over the critics and focus on the ones that get it.

Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?
Hmmm, I am not sure.  I hate the idea that some people may have winced at my story.  The “too much” reaction still stings.    

But, I tried to connect and build trust and humanize our transformation and work. 
I dared greatly.  And that is what counts most.  For me.

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