Training: The Value of Vulnerability

In our September/October 2019 column, we described how inappropriately expressed anger can erode employee morale and compromise productivity. This issue’s stroll through the human resources bookshelf brought us head to toe with additional factors that needto be reckoned with if an organization is going to be productive and operate efficiently. These include vulnerability and its antithesis, shame.

And although to some managers, talking about emotions and feelings may seem starry-eyed in the rough-and-tumble world of construction, it nonetheless remains that 1. how employees are managed after they’ve been through a company’s training and development programs, no matter how well-designed and managed, has substantive effects on the application of what they learn, and 2. to be effective, training must go beyond job operations and procedures.

The fact is that training, from office to field personnel, is only as good as the follow-up. As we learned about anger, incompetent management and a toxic workplace can sabotage the best-designed and most well-delivered training. Our discussion of anger was based on the work of Dr. David Burns, an expert on the non-pharmacologic treatment of depression. In this issue, we take our cues from the University of Houston researcher and organizational consultant Dr. Bené Brown. A regular on the corporate talk circuit whose books routinely appear on the New York Times Bestseller list, Brown writes about a multitude of interpersonal issues that have direct application to the workplace. In 2012, she published Daring Greatly, in which she discusses the value of vulnerability, providing insights that apply to a range of situations, from work to personal life. The book takes its title from an address delivered by Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910.

Roosevelt, you may remember, was the 26th president of the US, known for his hard-charging ways, including the infamous assault up Kettle Hill with his Rough Riders Volunteer Cavalry Regiment during the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt led the attack singlehandedly, the only one of his troops with a horse, and when the horse got tangled in barbed wire, he sprinted the rest of the way on foot. He was a sickly child who overcame asthma by strenuous exercise, the son of a prominent New York family, who, when his wife and mother died in the same year, escaped to cattle ranching in the Dakota Territories.

Roosevelt was firm in his belief that no matter what the endeavor, one’s job is to show up and to be counted. In his Sorbonne speech, he described his ideal citizen as an individual who, although he knows both victory and defeat, when he fails—as he no doubt sometimes will—does so “daring greatly.”

This passage caught Dr. Brown’s eye, and her book challenges both managers and employees to take Roosevelt’s advice and be “all in” in whatever they chose to do. Her work reminds us that the best employees are often risk-takers, and that courage and trust are critical in a productive workplace. Also, the best managers establish an environment where the people who work for them feel comfortable taking initiative, even in the face of potential failure. This isn’t a willy-nilly try, try, and try again. It’s trying, particularly in cooperation with management and your fellows, and learning from situations where your efforts produced less than you might have anticipated. The idea here is a work atmosphere where employees feel rewarded for utilizing their abilities and talents in a way that enforces their job satisfaction and increases their value to their organization.

Cueing off Roosevelt and based on her wide-ranging research, Brown suggests that the most valuable employees are those who think outside the box while feeling assured that they are supported by their corporate environment in doing so and without fear of hazing or reprimand.

She calls what she advocates being comfortable with being vulnerable. It’s important to note that this is not a vulnerability of the thin-skinned, tiptoe-around-me variety. Just the opposite. Although typically associated with a state of being unguarded and unprotected, Brown’s application of the term emphasizes accessibility and what she refers to as being “engaged.” A person who is appropriately vulnerable is comfortable with uncertainty and risk-taking, and to some degree, with emotional exposure—“I’m really invested in accomplishing thus-and-so.” Most important, in Brown’s terms, a vulnerable person is someone who, like Roosevelt, is prepared to take a chance even when conditions and his or her capabilities may not be perfect, and the contemplated action may be less than “bulletproof.”

Once again, the employee doesn’t do this alone. “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust,” says Brown. To be vulnerable in a rigid organization that prides itself on rule-making and where managers feel free to call down workers when things don’t go as planned may produce an orderly workplace, but more often than not is likely to result in a group of flat-line employees toiling away with little initiative and inadequate reward. Not to mention the loss of the benefits that might accrue from whatever talent may be hiding quietly somewhere under a rock.

Leaders who demonstrate vulnerability, says Brown, tend to be perceived as courageous and often serve as inspiration for the rest of their team to step forward with their own ideas and suggestions. There must be a point where vulnerability and trust go together. Workplace logic would suggest that for a person to allow himself or herself to be vulnerable in the mode Brown describes, they must trust first that they have what it takes to pull off what they have in mind, and second, that they won’t be taken down for taking action.

That brings us to vulnerability’s nemesis, shame, which is fear of taking a hit for being creative or criticized for taking initiative. (It’s difficult to think of shame as a word that appeared in Teddy Roosevelt’s vocabulary). Shame typically results in what Brown calls dis-engagement. Effectively, the person who fears being shamed withdraws—from his or her job, from other employees, from organizational goals, and direction. What you end up with is an individual who shows up but does the minimum—no charging up enemy-held hills. For this kind of person, there is no rock large enough to hide behind.

Shame can come at us from the outside, as a function of that all-important corporate culture, particularly our immediate managers or associates, but perhaps as often from within ourselves—“I just don’t have what it takes.” We fear that no matter how good our idea may appear, the bar is just too high and we don’t have the wherewithal to pull it off and what we have to offer just isn’t good enough. Brown is specific about this. “A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere.” But just the opposite happens when an employee feels otherwise. “Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid.”

“When one’s self-worth isn’t on the line,” says Brown, “we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts.” And this, my friends, is where good training comes in. Aside from presenting the nuts and bolts of a job, an important part of solid training and employee development programs, buoyed by an informed human resources regime, includes identifying and helping to develop and support individual employee talents and gifts. Nor does this apply exclusively to the worker bees. Too often managers are left behind when it comes to this kind of training, the rationale being that once they’ve reached a certain organizational level, they know what they need to know about drawing out talent and assuring the most productive match of employees and job positions. Again, this is a particular challenge in the lower echelons, at the level of office managers, say, and field supervisors, who are in the most direct contact with employees.

Good training programs can help employees cultivate their intuition, release perfectionism, and abandon fears of what people might think if they fall short. A good training program encourages the belief that what matters is what we know, perhaps even more than who we think other people think we are, and that our goal should be to show up and put our talents and capabilities to work. Too often managers amplify shame by reversing that equation, focusing on what they see as the shortcomings of an individual, rather than what might have been a less than stellar performance.

A good training program also benefits from the capability to identify and provide special attention to talented employees who tend toward old-style vulnerability, particularly self-shame, because they feel inadequate to meet the requirements of a promotion, say, and help prepare them for the next phase of their career.

Sometimes, says Brown, our greatest critics are ourselves. When this liability is left unattended in less courageous employees and then combined with inadequate training programs, a rigid corporate culture, and managers who themselves are uncomfortable with risk-taking and uncertainty, you have a recipe for stasis and stagnation. Without training that allows some room to address individual employee talents and liabilities, without solid human resources support, without well-designed feedback, there is little way out of this predicament.

“When shame becomes a management style,” says Brown, “engagement dies. When failure is not an option, we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.”