Why Doing Awesome Work Means Making Yourself Vulnerable

In "Daring Greatly," Brené Brown illustrates why in business, as in life, giving your all—and asking your team to give their all—means opening up.

The first time Brené Brown read Theodore Roosevelt's exhortation that it is not the critic who counts, but rather "the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood," and that "if he fails, he at least fails while daring greatly," the author knew that what the pugilistic president was talking about back in 1910 was what she researches today: vulnerability.

And so those last two words are the title of her newest book, Daring Greatly, from publisher Gotham. Fast Company talked with Brown about why vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, how engagement got to be uncool, and why perfectionism is the enemy of getting work done.

FAST COMPANY: If I were to say to you, "I'm in business, I don't do vulnerability"—how would you respond to that?

BRENÉ BROWN: I would say that you do do vulnerability. There's no way to opt out of vulnerability. You do do it—so if you're not aware of how you do it or how you deal with it, that is probably holding you back in business somehow.

Vulnerability is simply defined as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. And if you are alive and in relationship, you do vulnerability. If you are alive and in relationship and in business, you do it hourly.

The question becomes, what do you do with it?

The more you're aware and awake to what you do to it, the more you can make really mindful conscious choices every day that move you along in your business life, your family life, your community life.

I think I spent my entire life, probably until the last five years, saying that I don't do vulnerability. But then when the research led me to a place where I was like "Oh my god, we all do vulnerability, to be alive is to be vulnerable," then I had to ask the hard question, "What am I doing with it?"

I was performing, I was perfecting, people pleasing. It turned into anger and judgment a lot. And so business, by definition, is uncertain, full of risk, and to be engaged is always emotionally exposed. So you do it.

You either do it consciously or it does you.

So what's a healthy relationship to have with vulnerability in the workplace?

It would be helpful to understand the four big myths of vulnerability. The relationship, the ultimate relationship, is to be aware of our vulnerability and engage wholeheartedly in it.

There isn't an easy how-to, but if I were to talk about how that process would look like, I would talk about first, dispelling the vulnerability myths. That vulnerability is weakness, that we can opt out of it, that vulnerability is unfiltered disclosure, and that we can go it alone.

I've never been in a business that would be able to serve its mission and reach its goals without relationship, and vulnerability is the glue the binds relationships together.

The second part, I think, is to do a rigorous inventory of our armor. How are we protecting ourselves? I love the fact that "persona" is the Ancient Greek word for "mask." What personas do we assume, what masks do we put on?

How would you extrapolate that to a manager?

To be all-knowing, to be bulletproof, to be failure-proof. We want innovation but we have no tolerance for risk or vulnerability—and vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation and creativity.

I define a leader as anyone who holds him or herself responsible or accountable for finding potential in people or processes. We're called upon to model the vulnerability we want to see in the people on our teams. If we want people to come to us and say "Hey, I don't really understand this and I want to understand it, I need some help," then we have to model that behavior. We have to model taking risks and failing.

Entrepreneurship is all about vulnerability. When you meet the ones who are very successful, their mantra is often fail often and fail fast. Clean up your mess, gather up your learnings, and move forward. That's why we're here.

How is it that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation?

I would challenge to anyone to point to any act of innovation that was not born of vulnerability, that was not born of putting an idea on a table that half the people in the room thought was stupid. That the other half questioned.

If the idea that makes sense to everyone right away, there's nothing innovative about it, right?

The other thing that's completely vulnerable in this culture, which to be honest with you, I was really shocked to see this—that's engagement. We live in a culture today where the one job of a manager or leader is to cultivate engagement. You think that's a fair axiom?

Engagement is almost seen as uncool. You see a group around a table talking about a project. The manager's excited about a project. And someone around the table says "This is awesome, I'm excited, I'd love to be responsible for a part of it."

Invariably, two or three people in that room will turn and say, "You're brown-nosing. What a suckup."

It's almost like we're afraid to buy in because we'd rather live disappointed than feel disappointed.

The minute we're engaged we're invested and we have something to lose. And our tolerance for loss becomes so diminished, that we're afraid to be all in.

How can you sculpt an environment where being all-in is secure?

You have to create a culture of engagement. Where work is humanized, where relationship is valued, where very explicitly, people feel safe making mistakes, asking for help, and trying new things.

How does that relate to shame?

You can't do that without assessing your organization for shame. Vulnerability is showing up and being seen. I can't think of a single leader who doesn't want that of his or her people.

How can you show up and be seen when you're terrified by what people might think? When you work in a culture where shame is a management style? Where favoritism is rampant? Where gossip is out of control? Where perfectionism is curated?

You can't do that and ask people to show up and be seen.

Tell me more about how perfectionism and how it relates to striving.

Wherever perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun. Perfectionism is not about healthy striving, which you see all the time in successful leaders, it's not about trying to set goals and being the best we can be, perfectionism is basically a cognitive behavioral process that says if I look perfect, work perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid shame, ridicule, and criticism. It's a defense mechanism.

When I interview leaders, artists, coaches, or athletes who are very successful, they never talk about perfectionism as being a vehicle for success. What they talk about is that perfectionism is a huge trigger, one they have to be aware of all the time, because it gets in the way of getting work done.

And that ties back into failing fast. So how is vulnerability a necessary part of doing great work?

You gotta be in the game. By virtue of the fact that reflexive cynicism is rampant, showing up requires a lot of courage. I don't downplay that at all. I feel like I'm up against it all the time in my own life.

I feel like every time I get on the phone to talk to someone like you or I give a talk, I have to decide, am I going to walk in and say some stuff that might piss people off or might make me seem vulnerable or crazy or am I just going to play it safe?

I think as dangerous and daunting and scary as vulnerability can be, I don't think it's ever as dangerous, daunting, or scary as reflecting back on moments in our lives where we wonder what would have happened if I would have shown up.

Follow Drake Baer and Brené Brown on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user EJPhoto]

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5 Comments

  • Doyle Buehler

    Vulnerable doesn't equate to weak. It means that you are open and receptive to innovation and new ideas. Nice piece.

  • The connection between vulnerability and success at work is direct and potent. The process of practicing it and becoming fluent in the skills Drake speaks of hear is what we frequently coach clients about as they lead and as they follow. Showing up does require a lot of courage, and the mighty really are those who can palpably demonstrate their humanity.