Vulnerability: the best-kept secret of collaboration & leadership

Collaboration can be defined as two or more people working together towards a common goal; or in plainer speak, teamwork.

If you examine all the world’s top performing teams, they’re underpinned by a common factor: trust.

Without trust, people feel uncomfortable asking for help or admitting weakness. This scuppers our ability to get the most out of a team, since a balance of diverse skills and attributes always produces a better result. If we can’t openly tell our collaborators that we need help, have messed up, or aren’t really good at a particular thing, that leaves us alone and struggling to achieve the desired outcome. It’s an obvious conclusion that this hampers our ability to achieve team goals: either we’ll collectively fail, or take way longer than necessary.

I’m privileged to be working with a world class team at Best Companies, the employee engagement people behind the Best Companies to Work For Lists. In strategy meetings, we share personal stories, express our views, beliefs and fears, engage in passionate but respectful conflict and admit to our weaknesses and mistakes. We’ve laughed, cried and continuously strive to move performance up a notch – as a team and as an organisation. The upshot is that we waste zero energy on putting a guard up or trying to come across a certain way. We waste zero energy on politics.

This may sound utopian, but we’re by no means perfect. Our openness can result in emotions running high, occasional clashes between strong characters and challenges with sticking to an agenda and reaching clear outcomes from our meetings; but the saving grace of openness is willingness to learn from these experiences, adjust and improve. We have ups and downs, but we’re all pulling in the right direction, together, for the right reasons. Just as humans aren’t perfect, nor is collaboration, but give me an open team over a political team any day, hands down.

The reality is that you, me and every other individual on the planet has a finite amount of energy and focus. Perhaps if you’ve watched this video you’ll understand just how finite our focus is; and what we can miss when it’s compromised with distraction. The trouble is, many teams, particularly in competitive, political, corporate environments, find themselves concerned with how they look and sound, whether they’re coming across as credible, whether their peers doubt their abilities, what they can say next to make them look smart and other common distractions that detract from achieving the team’s real purpose. With every insecurity, paranoia and competitive notion we bring to a collaborative situation, our energy and focus is divided, distributed and subtracted from the main thing.

Building teams based on trust, by enabling vulnerability, is blatantly more challenging in some company or industry cultures than others. Often people take their cue form whomever is perceived to be the leader. The upshot is, if you’re the leader, you need to lead by example and readily show vulnerability. This doesn’t need to mean rampant laughter, emotion and tears, or anything touchy feely, if that’s not your style – but it does mean being open about your strengths and weaknesses, asking for help, sharing your experiences, understanding others’ unique traits and consistently following through by doing what you say you’re going to do (and quickly apologising or acknowledging when you don’t).

There are two key ways to transform collaboration and team productivity by increasing vulnerability: -

  • Use an ‘ice breaker’ in meetings. If the term ‘ice breaker’ makes you cringe by conjuring up painful memories of awkward conference settings that aren’t your thing, don’t label it ‘ice breaker’; but do be aware that if you share something personal at the beginning of a collaborative session – and you continue to do so over time – those shared experiences will build trust. You could start with a question around your biggest fears, a childhood experience, or anything that might elicit a personal story that shifts the dynamic between group members and breaks down some of the guards and barriers we often put up in the name of ‘professionalism’ (an unfortunate misinterpretation of ‘professionalism’). Whether you think it’s cheesy or not, just try it! I’m a recovering skeptic; and now if we miss the icebreaker in monthly strategy sessions I feel a bit disappointed. Some of these openers have been nothing short of really moving experiences, which might be a bit weird for the less emotional types, but they’re memorable and bonding regardless. Bear in mind that as you get to know one-another and build trust, you can be more personal and challenging with the questions you choose, but if you’re a new group or have members whom you know may struggle with being put on the spot, keep it simple. -
  • Use personality profiling to understand one-another better and create a common language for interpreting behaviours. Again, regardless of skepticism about the accuracy and effectiveness of Myers Briggs and other behaviour profiling tools, the ability to tolerate our differences is vastly increased by having some kind of framework to refer to. In our monthly meetings, we have three ‘Powerful Warriors’, for instance (one of which is me), based on a model we use called The Identity Factor. When sparks fly, the ability to acknowledge our specific traits and tendencies not only increases self-awareness so we can tone down our natural need to dominate and control, but also increases the ability for others to leverage us at our best and tolerate us at our worst! It’s natural to resist being labelled and put in a box, but there’s no doubt we each have particular behavioural tendencies that impact our actions and reactions; so being aware of these and referring to them continuously sets the foundations for trust, respect and teamwork.

If you feel skeptical about techniques like these, I can sympathise. I’ve wrestled with natural skepticism for years, but I’d like to think I’ve largely overcome it (or at least I catch myself), mostly because I’m now aware that it’s neither cool nor productive. Skepticism and dismissiveness are, in fact, based on a tendency to judge; and being judgemental is a symptom of underlying fears and insecurities that we reflect onto others. This makes us closed to opportunities and it makes us waste energy and put blockers up in collaborative situations, sabotaging our personal success and that of our teams and companies.

Being brought up in Shetland, until I moved to London when I was 21, I found myself hypersensitive to BS. Just to illustrate how seriously anti-BS is embedded in Shetland culture, I’ll tell you a brief story. I got a job at Shetland’s only software company back in 2002; and they gave me a laptop. One day I walked out of the office with my laptop bag in hand, crossed the road, and that act alone was enough to incite a passing group of lads in a van to wind their window down and mock me with ‘oooooooh!’ shrieks, at my businessy-ness. God forbid if I should ever wear a suit.

It took me many years to unravel my skepticism and recognise how closely aligned it is to lack of openness. I’d interpreted certain acts of openness as ‘BS’ – this was the meaning I’d chosen to assign to behaviours that were outside my comfort zone. I didn’t recognise, for many years, that there is a marked difference between ‘BS’ and genuine improvement techniques with the intention of increasing success odds, that happen to be delivered in a style I’m not used to. Having studied many of the world’s most successful people and teams, I came to the conclusion that skeptical, eye-rolling presumptions of cheesiness or BS are self-limiting, self-sabotaging attitudes. I suppose I got over myself, which is ironically what I thought those cheesy BS pedalling folks needed to do, with their personality profiling tools and ice breakers :) I was wrong.

Years later, I’m more aware than ever of the difference between ego-driven BS and openness to embracing all kinds of practices and learnings to see what works, even if they feel unfamiliar or aren’t an obvious match with my identity. It takes a lot of confidence to be willing to be vulnerable; and stretching the realms of what’s comfortable is one form of that, as is failing fast and often, an overused mantra relative to the number of people who practice it. Learning this lesson has made me more likely to have successful collaborations, where goals are achieved and breakthrough innovations are dreamed up and realised.

Even as a speaker, I’ve got it wrong at times. I thought the best thing I could do to impress my audience was to be flawless. Then one day I delivered an utterly flawless speech on ‘Social Business in a Networked World’. It was a beautifully scripted essay on cool futurist stuff, but it fell disappointingly flat. I felt like the weak link in a line-up of world class speakers. I watched it back and it was fluent, insightful and perfect – every single world – but I’d got it wrong. It wasn’t a disaster, it was ‘okay’, but I didn’t just want okay, I wanted impact.

Flawless professionalism isn’t what makes a world class speaker, no more than it’s what makes a world class collaborator, leader or team. Focusing on impressing an audience, rather than focusing on what you can openly share to add value to those people, is another road to nowhere. The fabulous Shed Simove got up on stage after me, shaky and nervous, but brimming with energy and vulnerability. He raced through some super-inspiring stories of products he’d dreamed up and launched, without getting hung up on perfect delivery or structure, running out of time and hurriedly speeding up at the end while the organiser made frantic ‘wrap it up’ gestures, to rapturous applause. Shed had showed vulnerability. I’d been flawless. He kicked my ass (and I thank him for it).

The more open we can become – the more we can overcome ego, politics and self-limiting beliefs – the more we can express our human vulnerability, fail fast and collaborate in game-changing teams to achieve incredible goals.

So know yourself, know your collaborators, be vulnerable, get real and work it; because those breakthrough innovations and game-changing moves aren’t going to make themselves.

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