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Allowing Space for Vulnerability at Work

I was reading an interesting article that popped up while researching another piece of content. It was about how our ideas about masculinity can harm the workplace. Here’s a quick excerpt:

“It’s not about succeeding at whatever the work mission is, it’s about me winning and me proving I’m the winner by showing these dominant traits,” says Peter Glick, professor of psychology at Lawrence University. “It becomes so much a part of proving you’re the ‘man.’ That becomes the central thing.”

Workplaces that promote “show no weakness” attitudes are usually the ones most susceptible to a culture of competition among its employees, Glick says.

It’s an interesting read but to me, it goes beyond just unhealthy competition and ways of proving that you are worthy of being called a man.

Help: How We Get to the Best Work

In many environments, asking for help can feel foreign. We might associate that with white collar, knowledge-based work where someone may know all the answers or feels like he needs to take on the weight of the work. That’s problematic, too.

In blue collar work though, asking for help or pausing work when something isn’t right has to be repeatedly trained and rewarded in order for the habit to stick. For instance, a man may feel like he needs to push through fatigue but in a manufacturing environment, it can lead to mistakes or even serious injury.

Now, I’m at very little risk of being harmed if I nod off at work but outside of safety concerns, throwing up a hand that you need help is the best thing you can do to product the best work possible. For many, including me, it isn’t always an easy thing to tell people that you can’t do something or that you need help.

That’s less about competition and more about vulnerability. Organizations need to make serious, intentional space for vulnerability.

When “I Don’t Know” Unlocks the Truth

Knowledge work is driven by more than just knowledge. It’s also driven by ego, assertiveness, confidence, and a little—or a lot—of hot air. In the right situation, like in a meeting that requires you to think on your toes, it’s the difference between building and eroding trust.

That can be helpful in a presentation or a sales meeting, but in a collaboration with peers? Or an open consult with a client?

It can be toxic. It can encourage a lack of genuine vulnerability.

It’s really simple in practice. If I’m willing to admit that I don’t know everything (true, unfortunately), it builds credibility. People are more likely to believe me and listen when I do know something to, instead of just assuming that it’s me blowing smoke… yet again.

At times, even if I am unable to utter the words I don’t know, a simple pause of silence and waiting—sometimes very uncomfortably—can help someone else speak up.

Strengthening Our Weaknesses

Finally, vulnerability is good for admitting when we’re not good at something and getting better at it with the help of your team. If you’re the type that gets nervous for a presentation, it is easy to internalize the nerves and stress and just try to power through it.

For example, I had a client presentation that I was nervous about because I wanted to push them outside of their comfort zone. I talked to one of my colleagues about it and essentially said, “I’m nervous about this part of the presentation. We talked about this and you had some good points, so can you chime in there to just support what we’re recommending in your own words?”

Not only was this helpful for me, but it helped the person I was presenting with prepare for that section and know why I’m asking for support. I could’ve pushed through and maybe I would’ve been successful, but I played for a more assured outcome.

If you work in an environment where you can’t do this, you are assured that there will be some major screw ups at some point. Even allowing space is no guarantee that you won’t mess up on occasion.

I’m sure there are some organizations that could also swing the pendulum so far toward vulnerability that there is no room for any sort of gritting it out or overcoming obstacles. In my experience though, the vast majority of organizations are already oriented toward sucking it up and getting shit done. Easing off that stance is probably not going to kill your organization — and you might find that better work and a better workplace is the result.

Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash

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An Underestimated Transition

Many people overestimate the impact of change on their lives. Me? I do the opposite. This time, I paid for it.

Photo by kyler trautner on Unsplash

Not-so-secretly, there’s a part of me that always wants to be moving. I like travel. I like the discomfort. I like living in new places. The other part of me wants to be sitting on the couch watching Star Trek: The Next Generation re-runs on Netflix. It’s a hard balance to maintain.

So five months ago, I embraced the former side. I packed all my shit and moved from rural Eastern Washington to the San Francisco Bay area.

Exciting, right? But wait, things are a little more complicated.

The Pieces Fall Into Place

Fourteen years ago, my then girlfriend (now wife) followed me from Pullman to Portland and Walla Walla. After we married, I followed her back to Portland, then to Seattle and Kennewick. It was my turn to have her follow me, I guess. If it was just us, it would just be another adventure.

Something happened in our stop in Kennewick, though. We sprouted a little one. We bought a house. We had a small community we relied on. We even gained a new cat. Maybe we were there for good? Okay, probably not but it wasn’t a bad spot to be.

Something did change, the most critical was that a job at my company’s San Francisco office was available and seemed like a good fit. Another critical change? My wife was ready for something… different. After a decade of 70+ hour fall weeks of wine harvest, who could blame her?

If only just a year-long hiatus from the craze, the timing couldn’t be better. Our daughter, now four and a combination of outlandish, shy, and adorable, wasn’t getting younger. The pieces were in place for a successful move, a rare one where the person coming behind doesn’t have to worry — at least in the short term.

In Theory

Logistically, everything came together fine. The timing couldn’t have been better for almost everyone. The relocation went smooth. Even when a tree fell on my car an hour before our movers were showing up with a trailer full of my stuff? My only thought was, “This is as bad as it will get.”

Screw this particular car

I was right. At least, in theory.

In reality, change was only just beginning. My daughter, used to 8 hours in a full preschool environment, turned into a very small wrecking machine when she stayed at home full time. She frayed my wife’s nerves to exhaustion.

For four years, I was the primary parent for my daughter. I worked from home, 10–20 minutes away from preschool. I shuttled her to appointments. I went to almost all school functions. My wife worked an hour away in a time intensive industry, so there was no real conflict about this arrangement. For however difficult my job can sometimes be, it was the more flexible of the two. If work spilled over to after bedtime, a glass of wine would usually guide me to the end of an extended work day.

My wife stepping into not just being the primary parent, but going from working full-time to watching your daughter full-time at age four? With no ramp up?

Four-year-olds are their own version of insane. My wife is a wonderful parent, but she was shifted into an entirely different role that is nearly impossible to prepare for. I won’t write on her behalf but even taking a temporary break from your career, even without the stress of a move and caring full-time for a kid, is no easy task. She’s handled it remarkably well.

What About Me?

In theory, everything is fine. The job is going great. San Francisco is as advertised. But reality is more complicated.

I miss the people I love, of course. Although we’ve moved a lot, we’ve never been as far away. That’s tough.

The part that surprised me is that I miss a lot of my old, boring daily life.

I didn’t realize how much I personally got out of ferrying my kid back and forth from preschool or just being there for silly little after school moments while cooking dinner. And I was damn good at it. We had such a solid routine and this kid really appreciates that. There were months where I would arrive back at home within about a ten minute window. I would schedule 8am meetings without hesitation. I loved being able to be at almost every dance class and negotiate every side trip to the playground, driving detour over the white cable bridge, or a walking spot on our way home.

All while belting out my favorite Frozen or Moana songs.

I did get lonely and I did miss the in-person camaraderie of an office. I hated traveling so frequently, especially from my crappy airport, which required at least a layover each way. I hated that my wife spent two hours on the road, in addition to the crazy hours. I didn’t like the amount of time our daughter spent in preschool.

It wasn’t perfect but I perfected it. Why did I need to change it?

Disrupted Perfection

Photo by Lance Haun

I don’t know if there is a moral to this story. I’ve always been happy to take risks and not wonder “what if.” I know what life would’ve been like if we had stayed. This has been a more difficult five months than those ones would’ve been.

Working with industries where disruption is often seen as a net positive, I can’t make a call on that with my own life disruption. At least, not yet. But even through some of the lower moments of the last few months, I’ve felt optimistic. I’ve looked up more than down. I’ve felt pain, but some of that pain is growth. It feels good in that way that change always feels good to me.

As I get accustomed to commuting and we prepare for a new preschool and the routines that brings, a new normal approaches.

That will feel good, at least for a little while. Then?

Well, I guess we’ll see.

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It’s Not Fair

When you’re a little kid, everything is unfair.

The fact that I had to go to bed before the end of a basketball game on TV. Or that my sister got birthday presents on her birthday but not me. Or that I couldn’t ride my bike out to the lake with my friends.

It wasn’t fair. So because it was unfair, I gave myself a license to throw a fit and act like a little jerk.

So when we did an internal promotion a couple of years ago, I heard the same refrain again. Only this time it was from a sales rep who thought he should have got the job. He berated the process, the people involved and the person chosen all because, in his mind at least, the process was completely unfair.

No hiring process is 100% fair. I don’t know about anyone else in our industry but I do my best to try to make the process as fair as possible. To take any non-job determining factors out of the equation is a minimum. To take active steps to ensure fairness throughout is just a good practice.

And that’s exactly what we did.

So what was unfair?

Our sales representative wasn’t prepared. He bad mouthed another co-worker. He inadvertently advertised that he lacked judgment and leadership we were looking for. We needed a person who could step into the role with minimum training. I knew from looking at everything in his background that he could do the job. He had the right skills. But by not showing up for the interview, he didn’t inspire the confidence of our group. We had several qualified candidates too so it wasn’t worth the risk.

It was totally unfair.

It was unfair that he wasn’t prepared. That he made it difficult for us to evaluate his fit for the position. That he didn’t give it 100%.

Organizations should concern themselves with fairness. They should make sure their human facing processes take advantage of that. But when employees and job candidates use fairness as a way to excuse poor performance, bad behavior and major mistakes, that’s not fair. Not to their employer. Not to the company they applied at. Not to themselves.

Fairness can be a real issue in business but it is never a reason to give less than your best.

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Not Everything In Life Is A Lesson

I watched the NBA Finals on Sunday night like a lot of people. As a Portland Trail Blazers fan, watching the Lakers win was like watching Lex Luthor (Kobe Bryant) take down Superman (Dwight Howard): the villain won. As I watched as the Lakers celebrated and the Magic sat there with glazed over eyes, I was looking for a lesson I could share with you about HR or about organizations or about your career. Maybe I could talk about the fall and rise of Kobe. Or how Dwight catapulted himself into the national spotlight. They were stretches but not any worse than what I have done in the past. Then I decided:

Not everything in life is a lesson.

I think bloggers are particularly guilty of this but it is a very human trait. We seek explanations for everything that happens in life to us. We try to extract more meaning from every little thing. We laugh in the face of microscopic evaluations. “Please! Give me more detail!”

Can I tell you what happened in the NBA Finals this year?

The best team won. The other team was great too but it wasn’t enough. There’s no secret lesson to tell you about. No insight beyond the minutia. The most talented, skilled and experienced team won the series. It happens in life all of the time:

  • You don’t get the job because the other person had more experience.
  • A candidate rejects your job offer because his wife was given a big counter-offer to stay.
  • You got the sale because they talked to you first and just wanted it done.
  • You get a great deal because the other person just got a call to clear everythng out.
  • You stumbled upon a great candidate through a chance encounter.
  • You pick the slowest line at the grocery store.

We have become so programmed to look beyond routine happenings and try to replicate the good and eliminate the bad. When we can’t replicate results or eliminate negatives, we figure we just interpretted it all wrong.

Sometimes there is nothing to interpret. As my good friend Rasheed Wallace used to say, when “both teams played hard” and you still lose, there’s nothing to take from that.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes there is nothing to learn from either one.