Remember the time when your friends gave you birthday bumps or smashed cake on your face? Did you feel those strong feelings of vulnerability come back to you? That feeling of acceptance of things not being in your control? That willingness of letting go for the sake of enhancing belonging and connection?
“People tend to think of vulnerability in a touchy-feely way, but that’s not what’s happening. It’s about sending a clear signal that you have weaknesses, that you could use help. And if that model of behaviour becomes a model for others, then you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other and help each other,” states Dr Jeffrey T Polzer, professor of organisational behaviour at Harvard Business School. When such a model of behaviour and empathic concern is standardised in an organisation, then the managers can set their insecurities aside, stop playing the status game and start connecting and trusting each other, as observed in the case of the three business heads.
According to Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston in the US, vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity and empathy. When leaders let their guard down, say by sharing their stories, seeking feedback or admitting to mistakes, it allows managers to feel more comfortable being open and honest about their concerns, questions, mistakes and roadblocks. It creates a real connection between them, which has been proven to drive creativity and help in faster problem-solving.
To navigate uncertainty and address the growing need to rehumanise business for diversity, inclusion and sustainability, sharing vulnerability serves as a bridge from effectively empathizing to thinking creatively. To come up with novel solutions, it is necessary to first empathise with the person we are solving the problem for and then freely share ideas without the fear of being judged. But in order to effectively empathise, Brené’s studies show that leaders who have high self-awareness and are comfortable with sharing how they feel tend to connect better with their employees and are more effective in driving excellence in the organisation. Their ability to empathise with others greatly increases when they are more aware of their thoughts and actions.
This could be with internal employees, external customers and even partners with whom managers need to collaborate. In a country like India which is born out of hardship and necessity, leadership is not for the soft-hearted. In fact, being bold and assertive, even in normal circumstances, is seen as a key trait of strong leadership. According to the GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness) research 2020 – of cultural practices, leadership ideals, and generalised and interpersonal trust in 150 countries in collaboration with nearly 500 researchers – India ranks below the average GLOBE score on the following leadership scores for outstanding leadership: Participation (the degree to which managers involve others in making and implementing decisions) and Team-oriented (ability effectively build teams and implement a common purpose or goal among team members). A leader opening Pandora’s box of emotions in front of others would be taken as a sign of weakness, and that is why, perhaps, in round two of revealing their superpower, they expressed resistance. But they eventually opened up when they were nudged, and a safe space was reassured.
This case study showcased the power of play to help Indian leaders become more self-aware of their thoughts and actions, allowing them to reflect and regulate emotions as needed. It helps share our deepest fears openly without the fear of embarrassment. When leaders are able to be more open and share their vulnerabilities with their teams, a culture of risk-taking and innovation can be developed.
Sharing vulnerability results in being more approachable and allows for better self-expression and creative collaboration, not just within teams but across the organization. Relational authenticity or the ability to disclose and share information openly to relate to others is a key component of authentic leadership. Having honest conversations about themselves can allow leaders to rehumanise work. This is now even more relevant in the post-pandemic era where the notion that leaders need to be in charge and must know all the answers is being challenged. Leaders for long have been expected to wear the armour of perfection and always put up a brave front. However, according to Brené, perfection is a defence mechanism.
While many think putting on a perfect front means striving for excellence, it is quite the opposite. You are actually trying to protect yourself from shame and the embarrassment of failing. Brené’s studies show that this crushes creativity and is seen as detrimental to effective creative leadership. Also, author and Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill states that rather than the conventional, commandand-control way of leading innovation, the future of co-creation requires a different kind of leader. She shares an anecdote of what Andrew Stanton, the Academy Award-winning director of Finding Nemo, learned from his mentor John Lasseter: “What I realised . . . is, ‘Fine, I’m not an auteur. I need to write with other people, I need people to work against. It’s not about self-exploration – it’s not about me – it’s about making the best movie possible’. And as soon as I admitted that it was amazing how the crew morale pivoted and suddenly everyone had my back. If you own the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’re still taking charge, you’re still being a director . . . I learned that from John [Lasseter] on Toy Story – every time he got confessional and said, ‘Guys, I think I’m just spinning my wheels’, we’d rise up and solve the problem for him.”
Being human means that we are naturally emotional and playful. Self-expression and curiosity disintegrate in a work environment where play is prohibited. Managers lose their capacity for original thought when they are instructed to suppress their emotions at work in the name of professionalism. By showing humility and having the courage to share their vulnerability, leaders can create a culture of empathy and belonging that in turn helps in strengthening connections and developing a collective sense of ownership for better innovation outcomes.
Excerpted with permission from Play to Transform: How Your Inner Child Can Accelerate Change and Rehumanize Business, Avinash Jhangiani, Penguin India.