Would it change the way you think about your co-worker if you knew they were the oldest of five kids and they grew up in a single-parent home in a rural area? They became like parents themselves at a very young age and have little patience for child-like behavior or goofing around at the office. They still operate in survival mode.
Or, what if you knew your direct report was an only child who attended a private school and rarely saw their mom and dad? She only got attention if she performed perfectly, dressed well, and made no waves. There was little conflict in her home and if it appears at work, she heads the other direction.
Do you think they’d think differently of you if they knew you worked multiple jobs through college, had two jobs up until a few months ago, and have recently welcomed your first child (and all the chaos that comes with it?)
It would make a difference, wouldn’t it?
Opening up and sharing our vulnerabilities, or scars, as I like to call them, is the only authentic way to bring lasting progress to any environment – work included.
What’s a scar exactly? It’s that faded part of you that is so normal you barely notice it, but others can still see it. Even though you might not think of it often, the way you got that scar may have an impact on how you show up on a daily basis. Our scars set us apart as individuals and are often at the root of disagreements.
Remember the fight you had a few months into a relationship? You learned something about your partner that opened up a new perspective. They got vulnerable and shared their scar with you. Since then you can better understand their needs and their abilities. That knowledge will serve you for years to come.
It’s the same at the office.
Past generations tried to label it as touchy-feely nonsense, but in a world where management spends 25-40% of their time dealing with workplace conflicts, can we afford not to understand one another better?
That’s one to two days of every work week that leaders are spending managing disputes. Think of what they could be doing in that time!
If you think sharing personal history isn’t professional, think again. Being willing to share your hardships and stories is a sign of resilience, strength, and determination. Lost productivity and petty conflict…that’s what’s unprofessional.
The only answer to lasting change is to dedicate time to building trust and getting real about who we are, where we came from, and where we ultimately want to go. Everyone has a past, and your willingness to get real can make or break an organization.
Have you ever seen a start-up of 10 people accomplish what a business of 100 can only dream of? What’s the trick? People can accomplish incredible things when they trust, like, and respect one another.
So, what’s the right time to get vulnerable? When is your team ready to go deeper? And will they be willing to go down this path?
Don’t assault the new hire with questions that will make them look for the nearest exit. Rather, work with small groups of individuals who already have some degree of trust and familiarity. Start with three carefully designed questions that will help them to see one another as individuals that carry their own set of scars, manage their own daily struggles, and work hard to overcome obstacles others could only imagine.
First, get clear that the goal is to make everyone’s lives easier and to accomplish more, individually and as a team. A workplace that lacks chaotic conflict and drama is a pleasant place to come, day after day. That team will put their newfound energy toward creativity, growth and results.
We have all have a story from our upbringing that influences who we are today. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Learning about your staff and coworker’s upbringing is a way to start getting more vulnerable with one another and build trust.
- What was your favorite game to play as a kid?
- Which TV show did you make sure you watched every week in your childhood?
- What was a challenge you faced growing up?
These questions will offer insight into who the person sitting next to you really is. No one needs to share their darkest day or a terrible memory. But, they might share just one tidbit of information that helps you to communicate better or work more efficiently together.
When I do this exercise with teams, I hear the following kinds of responses that open up perspectives:
“Oh, you’re the middle child. So is my best friend, I get it.”
“Brad comes from a huge family! No wonder he is always loud. He is just trying to be heard.”
“Angela is fierce at work because that’s the only way she thought she could get ahead as part of an immigrant family. That makes perfect sense.”
“Mary is taking care of an elderly parent. I can’t blame her for being distracted at times. She isn’t usually like this.”
As you understand more about those around you, team trust grows. As trust grows, people are more open to admit mistakes, apologize, and ask for help. When people can be emotionally honest, it changes how people work together, work through conflict and get results.
Maybe Angela can relax knowing that she is in a workplace that prioritizes communication and hard work. Brad can feel calmer at the office knowing that he works for someone who hears and values his opinion.
If you want to create a healthy work environment and retain great people, make it a priority to get real with one another. Carve out time meant for getting to know one another. These three questions are the perfect place to start. The funny thing is you don’t have to devote a lot of time and feel like you’re having a therapy session. People share, thank one another for how it helps them understand each more, and move on.
Understanding your scars, being willing to share with others, and seeing your colleagues through a lens of compassion will bring the meaningful change you need to take your organization to the next level.
Are you interested in learning more about how being vulnerable improves your work environment?
Schedule a complimentary call to develop a plan to improve trust with your team.