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Power of Vulnerability: Leadership in an interconnected age

A while ago I had come across an interesting article on what constitutes an effective team. This was a research done by Google to deconstruct successful, productive teams and replicate the findings throughout the organization. Like the mammoth search giant that it is, it went about that task by mining large amounts of internal data looking for common factors or underlying patterns among high performing teams.

They found none.

What they found instead were some behaviors that effective teams displayed. Apart from the regular factors like clarity of purpose and goals what they observed was that each team member roughly had equal “talk time” and social sensitivity, or a sort of awareness of the needs and emotions of other team members. These proved to be the key factors in powering team effectiveness.

In short, highly effective teams are a group of people who simply feel safe around each other. They are able to take risks in airing their opinions freely without fear of being judged and are comfortable expressing and picking up on each other’s feelings.

This finding is not new. Academic papers published earlier have pointed to the same. A paper by Amy Edmonson from Harvard published in 1999 talked about the need for psychological safety in teams in order to make them high performing.

But what does that mean, and how does one get it?

High performing teams “feel” more energizing , because in the presence of a safe environment , their energy is freed up to do what humans do best when they are not feeling threatened - be creative, learn, take risks and grow.

A lot of companies or managers, more so in India, operate in hierarchical structures. Speaking one’s mind, especially if it contradicts the opinions of those of the leader, entails considerable risk. Many people who talk about stress at work mention the need to be “always right “ and feel the need to “protect” themselves. In contrast to energizing , effective teams, these teams feel exhausting, because a lot of energy is expended defending and guarding one self.

In a “boss is always right” culture like ours , the leadership then plays a crucial role in fostering a feeling of safety. We hear buzzwords that talk about team spirit and organization health, but how often do we really bring under the scanner the emotional fitness of those that are leading teams and organizations?

Too often the image of the leader is that of someone invincible, someone always right. The prevalent belief is that a leader who displays weakness ( Read Emotion / Vulnerability / Openness) will not be respected. Here I quote a senior manager expressing his belief about his workplace and colleagues . “ I cant afford to show my weakness, they will sit on my head, I will be finished !” . The resultant behavior to mask the feeling of perceived threat and gain control is often aggression, the culturally acceptable face of a leader.

Leadership development places emphasis on building business skill and setting goals but what more importantly needs to be focused on is the aspect of emotional skill building. Yes, learning to explore, understand and harness our emotions is a skill and its time it became an everyday focus not just limited to sporadic out bounds and presentations that use stock photo’s of people meditating / playing with a puppy.

In the work environment , mostly certain emotions are acceptable, and by acceptable, I mean what we even give ourselves permission to feel. These are typically anger and happiness. These emotions we understand, we get the nuances and we also know how to use them . We know and understand that Anger and Happiness operate on a scale and we have experienced the range of those emotions. However when it comes to the more undesirable feelings like Vulnerability we shun it like the plague and operate in the “Goldilocks paradigm” of extremes. Admit it , the word Vulnerability conjured images of someone bunched up in a corner crying, didn’t it ? It’s either that , or completely denying the feeling and becoming wooden. The trouble is , by labelling some feelings as okay to have and some as not, we don’t allow our full selves to function. This makes work stressful and worse, suppresses potential - both our own and those we interact with.

Vulnerability teaches us the power of acceptance. What we accept, we can change or harness. Its why we love our comic book superheroes – they make peace with their vulnerabilities and then become free to achieve their own greatness. Superman would get into a lot of trouble if he was in denial about his vulnerability to kryptonite, would he not? Learning to examine and accept our vulnerabilities needs to be treated as a skill. Because only once we are okay with our own human frailties, can we really be okay with another’s. And that’s when we create safe environments for truly empowered, effective teams to thrive.

The truth is, making peace with vulnerability requires courage and a sensitivity towards the self. It contributes to our emotional health by making us feel whole as we learn to embrace and not reject parts of ourselves we wish were not there. Once we give ourselves permission to do that, will we be able to extend that freedom to the people we work with.

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