Being a leader has nothing to do with your station. I maintain that one can be a leader in any capacity. To that end, I try to offer advice and feedback when I think it’s appropropriate. Sometimes, I find I should take my own advice. That happened today.
About a year ago, I was having a beer with a coworker and he described how his team was functional but admitted he didn’t feel that he was gelling with his staff. He unflinchingly stated that he believed he should maintain a strict separation between him and his reports. It was all about the work. There was no allowance for petty conversations or wasting time on anything that didn’t have a business outcome. Curious about this, I asked some questions to understand. What stuck with me was that he sensed his team pulling away from him.
When the second round came, I made a recommendation:
Open up a little. Share some small, harmless things about yourself.
In other words, strike up some light banter about the drive to work being terrible; that the dog didn’t want to go for a walk in the cold rain; how the vending machine ate his last dollar. Then, see where it leads. I bet him the conversation would turn to less superficial things. In short, I asked him to be vulnerable.
We’re social creatures and we instinctively seek out common bonds and shared experiences. However, beyond casual similarities, truly significant relationships will not form unless we find empathy in others. There are two sides to empathy. The first is when one is presented with someone else’s emotions. Being empathetic here is really a passive thing: it’s often best to listen and simply be present for the other person. The other side of empathy is more active. It’s you showing your emotions. It’s vulnerability. People connect with that.
Several months later we followed up and my friend stated simply:
He told me how he’d started to open up and share things with his team. He’d started seeing immediate results and positive changes in behavior. He was getting to know his reports better. Not only did his staff appear happier, he seemed more fulfilled as a result.
So it was that recently, I found myself wrestling with some emotions whose source I could not immediately identify. Feelings can be hard to handle as it is; not knowing why we feel a certain way makes it all the more difficult to deal with them. And as a fixer, I often spring into action and start drafting solutions.
Instead, I stepped back for a moment, and did something else. I went for a run. The next day, I was able to identify why I felt as I did. I named the anxieties I was experiencing and recognized how confirmation bias was feeding into my continued distress. Most importantly, I knew what I had to do.
I needed to be vulnerable. I needed to share what I was feeling with my coworkers.
Taking that step, opening up, is an active choice. And it can be damned scary. Because, honestly, it doesn’t always pan out. The other person may not be ready, for any number of reasons. They could be emotionally immature, distracted, or simply not know what they need to do (winks at the fixers in the audience). And, to be fair, you might also stumble, trying to express yourself or helping the other person understand what you expect to come from the conversation.
What does such a conversation look like, then? You’re opening up, so you set the tone. You can do one or more of the following:
- Ask the other person to simply listen and be free from judgement.
- If you don’t expect anything to be done as a result of the conversation, assuage the other person that there’s nothing they need to do to address this.
- Conversely, if you wish to make changes, clarify what those changes look like.
- If you sense there’s concern over the conversation appearing confrontational, speak in Is, not YOUs. This is especially important if you are being vulnerable to someone that is contributing to your discontent.
Vulnerability != Conflict Resolution
Demonstrating vulnerability isn’t always about handling conflict. In fact, very often it can be quite the opposite. Share your hopes, your accomplishments, and your joys. These resonate just as strongly with the people in your life.
Being vulnerable is being self-aware. And self-awareness is a key ingredient to developing and maintaining empathy. It’s important to note that empathy isn’t a skill where you acquire a certain level and maintain it. Empathy is a muscle you need to constantly flex to keep it strong. The more you are actively vulnerable, the easier it becomes to identify the source of your feelings. From that point, you can do something about them. And sharing how you feel with those around you (family, friends, coworkers) strengthens the bonds you have with them. Further, the more others see you behave this way, they more they will reflect that behavior.
Be a leader. Be vulnerable.