Vulnerability: A Virtue, Not a Vice

If you want to be a successful professional in today’s tough business environment, you’re going to have to be willing to ask for help—and know how to do it. Indeed, asking for help in today’s rapidly changing and complex workplace has been found again and again to increase learning, foster creativity and enhance change as well as organizational performance.  A great deal of research has revealed that seeking help can contribute very positively to one’s success. Yet, seeking help,  especially by men, is often viewed as a sign of incompetence. And so, paradoxically, when leaders engage in these very useful behaviors of vulnerability, many are fearful of threat or embarrassment, believing that their skills and abilities as leaders may be questioned.  

Why this frustrating paradox? And what can be done about it? An extensive summary of previous research as well as two studies by the authors, Rosette, Mueller and Lebel, in the December Leadership Quarterly, confirm the issue, explain the roots of the paradox and point to some resolution. 

Differing theories. . . same conclusion
These overlapping theories are based in leadership role and gender orientation. Leadership roles are defined by a set of shared assumptions and expectations that are consistent with male cultural expectations that run counter to help-seeking, such as dominance, independence, competitiveness. This congruence makes it easier for men to assume leadership, but inherently rejects those feminine skills which inevitably include help-seeking. Obviously, the cultural orientation to leadership as masculine poses difficulties for women.

In contrast, the second theory begins with gender orientation. Community building, collaboration and seeking counsel, which are traditionally considered feminine behaviors, negatively affect men’s perceived competence. Whether the study begins with gender or leadership definitions, the conclusions are identical. The paradox is real and poses difficulties for men. The theories detail the difficulties women have in taking on a leadership position, and clarify the concomitant difficulties of men engaging in help-seeking activities.

In sum, these difficulties reflect American gender distinctions. On the one hand our culture aligns seeking advice with female characteristics only. For example, there are strong proscriptions against men seeking counseling, taking time off for a new baby, engaging in or attending some of the arts (think ballet). Questioning, a key skill in help-seeking, is rarely used by men. If you pay close attention to conversations involving men, you’ll find a lot of declarative statements from on high and little to no questioning. As a consultant, I learned that executives get around this bias by hiring a personal coach—and keeping their office door shut. Indeed, questioning and asking for help is so seldom verbalized, they wouldn’t know how to do it if they had the guts to take that action. It’s an interesting form of macho ignorance and career suicide. The “suicide” inevitably shows up in personal failures.

Although questioning was a normal part of my vocation as minister and teacher, when I got into business and consulting, I was initially gutless about asking questions that were not obvious. Fortunately, one of my early clients, a CFO from American Express, chided me about the issue and insisted that I ask any question that came to mind whether I thought it might be threatening or embarrassing. As my consulting business expanded, numerous clients began to talk about talk and ask with “can I ask that?” or, “should I ask that?” Obviously, their questions needed to be asked in spite of their supposed vulnerability. But gradually, I helped them to open Pandora’s box and desensitize their fears. Doing so reaps significant rewards. When it comes to vulnerability, the juice is worth the squeeze. Indeed, great questions, delivered well, bring respect, liking and “pull.”

FYI: Fears of vulnerability may be generational. As “an old white man” myself, it intrigues me to meet some Millennials who seem to have no fear of vulnerability.

A better model for help
Rosette, Muelter and Lebel conclude that leaders cannot possibly have all the answers all the time. Hence, effective leadership may necessitate a balance that incorporates collaboration, relationship building, and seeking assistance from others, including subordinates, when needed. Our results suggest that finding the right parity may not come easy for male leaders, but for the good of the organization (and not just the leader), it should be worth pursuing.

In a personal conversation with Ashleigh Rosette, she agreed with me that the above conclusion regarding the “right parity” is significantly contextual and applies strongly to “old white men” and the traditional workforce. Some organizational cultures and business disciplines are much more amenable to help-seeking, especially those like software development, a discipline in constant change and flux. Cultures also vary in their intentions to resist or support seeking advice. And many cultures are making change which supports asking for advice or personal counsel. I consulted at the 3M Corporation from the late ‘eighties until nearly the twenty-first century. Although the firm was historically very open to technical help-seeking, it was not at all open to interpersonal, management and people-skill advising. But during that time period I observed the culture go from profound resistance to a fair amount of openness and support for seeking help, counsel or advice  in all areas.

         Three questions about questioning.

It’s important to recognize that historically, the avoidance of help-seeking belongs to the heavily hierarchical industrial age where promotions and success were tied to corporate ladders and loyalty. Of course, that world was neither fast-changing nor globally competitive. So it resulted in strong managerial hoarding of information since sharing it might play against one’s success on the career ladder. Significantly, this traditional, fixed perspective on advice-seeking can’t succeed in a fast-moving, global economy. Yet, many are like chimps, still cracking the same stones and nuts.

There’s no question that the fear of vulnerability creates organizational misunderstanding, fancy footwork and malaise, resulting in a great deal of skilled incompetence. People work very hard to manage potential minefields, personal or group responsibilities, personal or group embarrassment and conflicts, all for the sake of avoiding blowups. In their refusal to ask the important questions that might threaten or embarrass, the entire system suffers.

To be identified as a leader, fearlessly vulnerable and willing to ask advice, a different reality structure–a mindset toward continual growth–is required, as well as an “openness to experience,” a major personality characteristic. Openness to experience reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity and preference for novelty. People with a high openness to experience typically pursue self-actualization. Those two fundamentals set you up for help-seeking, and the development of what we call the vulnerability skills–a unique set of competencies. Although all of the skills are learnable, we find nearly all professionals need to beef up the skill set. Since much of the skill language is bantered about in business, most think they get it and can access these skills readily. That is definitely not the case. Done well, all of these skills have a degree of surprising complexity.

The vulnerability skills
The act of vulnerability has one overall competency—seeking advice in the form of questioning. Although questioning is always taught as the means for gaining the information needed, done well it functions to do a lot more than that. When issues are complex, it takes really astute questions for collaboration and information. But intelligent people respond emotionally to savvy questions. Indeed, you can tell a lot more about a person by the questions they ask than the answers they give. Thoughtful questions tend not to be merely about information but ask the respondent to make judgments about information. Ultimately, the person who is very good at asking such astute questions and engaging another in conversation develops “pull.” People want to be around a person like that. They want to get to know them, become a friend or colleague, want to understand their brilliance and deep smarts, even access their knowledge-base for themselves.

There is a cycle of skills related to smart questioning.

  • Metacommunication: explaining why you’re asking the question to the person from whom you need the answer. It’s talk about your talk.
  • Active listening: this competency includes the basic skills of iteration and paraphrasing, but goes beyond them to different levels of meaning, beginning with the linguistic, and proceeding to non-linear interpretative messages as well as the relational.
  • Iteration: willingness and ability to rephrase, reframe or iterate the question if it’s not understood or the answer is inadequate or incomplete.
  • Parroting and paraphrasing: repeating and/or explaining what you’ve heard or understood.
  • Humor: particularly the self-deprecating.
  • Confidence: refusal to be cowed by insecurities along with a strong sense of the importance or necessity of your questioning.

All of us, as individuals and groups, have a number of critical issues, knowledge-bases, and relationships that limit our effectiveness. Things happen too fast. The pressure for results is too great. The potential for misunderstanding is almost unlimited. The fear that arises in people at the thought of asking questions, revealing ignorance or slowing down processes is too overwhelming. But the practice of seeking information, advice, counsel and revealing our vulnerability is a powerful panacea—a magic bullet–for business and life.

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