A couple of weeks ago I was helping a group of successful, articulated and intelligent women to get started with stories at the workplace, and inevitably the conversation moved on to authenticity and vulnerability.
The truth is that most of us are not trained to have honest conversations with our customers: we’re advised to keep a distance between ourselves and our co-workers, and told not to show emotion because it doesn’t look professional and to always keep an eye on our quota when in discussion with a customer. And on top of this narrative we’re also told to connect with our customers, create trust and make them feel that we don’t just see them as a number.
It doesn’t add up.
Connect without showing emotions
Create trust while keeping a distance
Authenticity without vulnerability
Part of the problem is the bad press attached to being vulnerable at work.
Once I heard Annette Simmons tell the story of how she was facilitating a dialogue for a group of people at the Pentagon, most of them men. There was a two-star general in the room who was full of himself, and at one point he leant towards a female lieutenant colonel and yelled at her “Why don’t you just grow up?”
To which she responds: “I don’t want to be disrespectful, sir, but could you be more specific?”
I love this story because she shows us another way of responding to aggression, not with tears or anger but rather by setting limits and staying open.
This is strong vulnerability in action. She put herself at risk by staying in the middle of the chaos while holding self-respect and dignity for everybody in the room.
There is a lot for us to understand and explore about vulnerability at work.
We need more stories about how to empower, foster and encourage this kind of conversation and space at work: stories in which vulnerability is not about my weakness but about respecting both who I am and who you are.
When thinking about stories in the workplace, don’t think only about stories of how weakness was turned into strength but also about how self-respect and setting limits have helped you to be strong while also staying vulnerable.
We are going to have difficult conversations at work in the coming months. Strong vulnerability is a good place to hold onto while everything is spinning around – and a good place to find your next stories.