Do you know one of the biggest elements missing in most companies as the reason why they don’t have a winning culture?
The missing element that many companies wish they had (or perhaps don’t even realize they don’t have ) that is key to cultivating a winning culture is vulnerability. Vulnerability is crucial to a strong company culture & a leader’s ability to influence leader because it’s that one thing that allows true connection between you and the people you’re trying to influence.
Think about it.
Vulnerability creates connection, which creates trust, which creates a sense of belonging and teamwork and unity. It’s not just “me on an island by myself.” It’s “us, in something together.”
Vulnerability is the key cog in our personal and our professional relationships because it’s what connects with others. Granted, this entire article is coming from someone who has struggled with vulnerability.
When I was training as a new speaker years ago, the other speakers in my program will hammer me on being more vulnerable. They pleaded for me to simply open up more, help them connect with me. At the time, I just didn’t understand it. I thought “I’m being honest, I’m being transparent, I don’t have anything to hide,” but what I was actually doing is keeping space between myself and them.
I didn’t dare let them in to see my faults, which ultimately prevented me from really connecting with my audiences my first year in the business.
Vulnerability, as I (incorrectly) saw growing up, was a sign of weakness. The more vulnerable you were, the more likely you were going to get hurt. It was dangerous to be vulnerable because many times I had opened myself up to dating relationships or friendships, only to be burned. I didn’t see this as part of life – I saw this pain as something to be avoided at all costs.
So at an early age, I built a wall. I built this protection to guard myself and to keep everyone at a distance. It didn’t matter how close our relationship appeared to be, there was still a wall between us. At the time, I saw vulnerability as a sign of weakness and “weak people don’t win.” I felt that if I was vulnerable, all that was going to do was allow me to get hurt. What it really did was prevent me from truly connecting with other people. Looking back, it’s no surprise that some of my early relationships struggled because they lacked true connection that can only be found through vulnerability and the building of trust.
I failed as a leader in my early professional days by keeping teammates at a distance. I would try to rally them behind my mission, but kept as much distance as possible so they couldn’t see that I didn’t “have everything handled.” I sunk into a quiet, secret mental spiral while battling debt during our early growth days. I thought I could build a strong team without opening myself up to see that everything wasn’t always “perfect.” As Brene Brown, Patrick Lensioni and other leaders continue to point out, vulnerability is vital to our ability to influence and lead others.
We don’t have to cut ourselves open to and pour all of our secrets into the world to be vulnerable. We don’t have to be sitting around a campfire seeing Kumbaya, either. There are strategic ways that leaders can be more vulnerable and connect with their teams in a way that will lay the foundation for a stronger team culture.
So how can we start doing it this week? Here are three ways to encourage vulnerability & start building a championship company culture in your workplace:
1. Share Your Experiences (and Failures)
We have to be willing to share our own experiences. Specifically, we have to share our failures. One of the things I laughed about, especially for the first few years after starting Compete Every Day, is how people would talk to me and ask why I was always in a good mood. I must never have bad days or struggle. From behind my “safety wall,” I had given this impression that everything was always good.
“How do you always have good days? How you always just seem to be on cloud nine, like everything going well, everything happy-go-lucky?” I had to laugh because knowing my entire story (not just what’s posted on social media) was anything but good days. I would struggle alone looking at bills. I would battle dark feelings of overwhelming fear & stress. I had plenty of bad days – I just chose to never share them.
I began to realize that my front to always be ‘on’ as the “Compete Every Day” guy was only continuing to build a wall between me and those I was trying to serve. I had painted an unrealistic view of my life to them, further preventing me from connecting with them. They knew they had bad days, and if they believed I never had bad days, then how I could I understand and connect with them? I realized that I needed to be more vulnerable, share some of my failures, and show that it wasn’t that I always had great days, but that I was committed to simply overcoming the bad ones.
One of the best things we can do as leaders is share our failures with our teams. It’s creating the space to open more and talk about the experiences we’ve had, when we’ve been less than perfect, and how we’ve learned to rebound. We need to talk about the times we fell short, the bad decisions we made early on that buried us under a mountain of debt, and how we found a way to chip our way out of it, to climb out of that hole. Our teams need to know that we have hard days – and they need to know what we did to overcome them and who we surrounded ousrelves with during the climb.
That opening up – showing our faults and imperfections along our own journey – creates opportunities to connect with others. In many cases, the people on our teams are struggling with some of those same things and by learning that we did, we create a) connection, b) relationship growth opportunities, and c) the chance to inspire them that they too can overcome their challenge.
Share your experiences & share your failures. Don’t let your pride deter your opportunity for connection because the truth is this: every successful person has failed. The difference is that the successful person refuses to let that one failure be the end of their story. They’ve learned from it, grown through it, and gotten better so that they could win the next time.
2. Ask Better Questions
Ask open-ended questions to your teammates, to your coworkers, ask thoughtful questions.
- What inspires you about the work you do here?
- What do you love to do outside of work that really re-energizes your spirit?
Get to know your team on a personal level. Avoid close-ended questions. Avoid the easy “yes or a no” or quick answers. Create space to get to know them and (while actively listening) find opportunities to open up to them.
It’s on us as a leader to ask better questions that create conversation & space for building trust. Trust is key, regardless of whether we’re in a corporate setting, on a military expedition, or lacing up our cleats for the biggest football game of the year.
Great teams actively pursue a shared goal because they’re able to trust their teammates. The first way we start building that trust is by opening ourselves up and asking questions that go beyond the surface level of close-ended questions.
Ask better questions.
3. Remember the Bigger Picture of Life
It’s crucial that a leader knows how to occasionally pull their focus from the narrow lens of just our office and onto the larger picture of life. Think about sports – at its very basic level, it’s just adults playing a child’s game. There’s millions of dollars on the line, bragging rights, and yes, even massive egos. But it’s still just a game.
Daniel Cole’s book Culture Code peeks behind the curtain of legendary basketball coach Greg Popovich and the championship culture he’s developed with the San Antonio Spurs. Popovich intentionally builds his culture of trust & vulnerability in a number of direct & indirect manners. One thing that stood out to me about his process is how he will use the lens of what’s going on in the world to remind his team that basketball is still just a game.
He’s known to show films and documentaries about important points in our history, and then ask players their opinions on what was just seen, how they might respond differently in that time, and how what they saw impacts their lives today. Popovich is incredible at reminding his players that they play an incredible game of basketball. They’re gifted with this great opportunity to be great in a sport, but that there’s also a lot more to life than just the sport.
It’s one way to remind them “don’t get too low on your lows & don’t get too high on your highs. Just keep showing up, doing your best, being a part of the team at this great game you get to play.” Remind your team of the bigger picture.
It can be helpful for leaders to pull their team’s focus from the immediate picture right now in our office and look beyond into our local community or nation.
If we want to be leaders that build a winning culture, we have to encourage vulnerability – first in ourselves, then with our teams. We do that by opening ourselves up, sharing our own experiences and failures, creating that sense of trust that we’re not perfect and we don’t expect you to be either – but we do expect you to keep showing up to try and be better.
Asking better questions help us get to know people on a more personal level, building trust & creating opportunities for connection.
Finally, learning to move our focus toward the bigger picture may shift the stresses of our current work – stress that’s keeping us tight, anxious, and preventing us from performing at our best – and remove it. Removing some stresses by changing our perspective can be the catalyst to unlock creativity, stronger team conversations & better production.
A vulnerable leader is a winning leader.