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Lessons Learned

How Embracing Awkwardness Can Improve Your Work Relationships

That awkward feeling indicates that something's up. Tune into it, and you can build trust and intimacy.

How Embracing Awkwardness Can Improve Your Work Relationships
[Photo: Flickr user Milan Sijan]

Like you, I admire people who are effortlessly smooth in uncomfortable situations. And like you, I can be cool under pressure and warm easily to others—some of the time.

I’m not like that much of the time, though. Truthfully, I’ve felt awkward most of my life—and maybe you have, too. In fact, being able to tolerate awkwardness might be just as good a skill as avoiding or overcoming it. Here’s why embracing awkwardness can help us through tricky situations at work—and how to do it.

Awkward Moments Are Temporary

It’s often best to take the long view. You likely won’t remember this uncomfortable feeling in a few hours, days, or weeks.

One cold day shortly after beginning a new job, I took a new direct report to lunch. I noticed immediately how often the word "awkward" crept into our conversation. Putting on our winter wear, we began to chat about all the things you cannot do with gloves on. It seemed an apt metaphor for work relationships.

I decided then and there—and on some level we each committed—to "take the gloves off." We frankly addressed our structural relationship within the family business: I was her new "boss" and her father was mine. Since then, we’ve continued to speak openly about so-called "awkward" topics like authority, hierarchy, salary, our sense of value at work, and invariably, more personal matters, too.

The border between honesty and flouting the boundaries that help us feel safe is often where important if uncomfortable disclosures happen. It’s where "real talk" turns wary, where potential adversaries become partners; it knits together a team, and prevents us from wasting energy on collectively trying to ignore the elephant in the room.

Any awkwardness in that first lunch passed in a flash. The spirit of care has endured.

Stay Present

If awkwardness is particularly intense, the amygdala, the part of the brain concerned with survival, might be activated. The amygdala can’t differentiate an actual physical threat from a threat to our sense of our value in others’ eyes.

Rather than freeze (or fight or flee), we can reactivate our prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain, by switching the "lens" through which we’re viewing a situation. Try imagining the situation through the other person’s eyes. Chances are you aren’t the only one feeling awkward—what might they be feeling? In what way might that feeling make sense?

In addition to buying us time and calm, moving our attention away from ourselves lowers our self-orientation, winning us trust.

You can also give yourself a dose of realistic optimism. Ask yourself, "What’s the most positive story I can tell myself about this situation, without denying the facts?" For example, we might soundly reframe signs of someone else’s discomfort in a way that celebrates and confirms our relationship to them.

As author Susan Cain has observed in her book Quiet, "Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another." And according to the psychologist Dacher Keltner, its absence is actually the bigger cause for concern. Moderate embarrassment, he and his colleagues have found, is associated with altruism and trustworthy behavior.

Awkward Moments Hold Information...

Awkwardness indicates something is up. If we can bring ourselves to find out what, we put ourselves in a better position to address it. More often than not, the underlying concern is about connection: Awkwardness makes us alert to each other so we can make crucial adjustments. Social contact that comes in with a fumble can go out with a sigh.

A colleague and I facilitated a session on improving focus to a group of solo-preneurs. Before we began, we sensed they were apprehensive about "touchy-feely" content. Their fear, expressed in jokes, was that we would all soon be holding hands. Not our plan. At the close, though, a participant spontaneously took the hands of the person he was addressing. That participant, surprised and pleased, followed suit, grasping the hands of the next person he addressed. And so on.

The more disconnected we are, it would seem, the more "touch" we crave, and the more we benefit from developing a "feel" for our own inner states and those of others. So take the gloves off. There are so many things we can’t do with them on.

...So Get Curious

When we find ourselves in awkward situations, we can usually find a way to ground ourselves. Take a breath. Ask the other person, "How are you feeling right now?"

If the answer is, "okay" or "fine," we can push for a specific emotion by asking, "How are you really feeling—right now?" And be prepared to share how you feel, too.

This is important because feelings take up space—they continuously affect how we work together. Research led by Marc Brackett has shown that articulating an emotion can open the mind for learning and increase connection within a group.

In fact, at one global corporation where we introduced this practice, it took three meetings over six months before executives were able to actually look each other in the eye and say clearly, "How are you feeling?" instead of a terse nod, grunt, or "How ya doin’." On the first try, a tightly wound CFO averred that he didn’t want to know how others were feeling. The next time, when asked how he was feeling, he admitted that "every bone" in his body ached. His colleagues laughed nervously.

The third time, the group, including the CFO, carried it off. They asked. They listened. They shared. The room felt lively, relaxed. They began to build the muscle of tuning in to themselves and each other. It was awkward at first—but then it wasn’t. The truth is that intimacy builds trust.

As a result, information began to flow more freely to and from the initially recalcitrant CFO. Being able to communicate all manner of information was critical to keeping the company profitable in lean times. Care again proved the cure.

Awkward Moments Are Human Moments

While it’s sometimes painful, awkwardness delivers on our core need to feel valued and valuable. The digital age grants us the ability to endlessly edit ourselves. We can opt out of care and connection, or employ a "like" button as a distant proxy. But awkward moments, in real time, serve as a reminder of what it means to be human.

In fact, much of life begins this way—with effortful attempts to connect. We’re born trying to find each other. As adults, connecting remains difficult, especially at work, where many of us fear being fully ourselves. It’s hard to be a human, and life is rough. Yet, paradoxically, once we commit to traversing the ragged borders between us, life is also, if only more occasionally, round and smooth.

Dana Bilsky Asher is senior vice president of Organizational Transformation at The Energy Project, a leadership development and management consulting firm.

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