What would it take to create an environment in your place of work where others feel safe to share their shortcomings? This question was posed by Mike on Thursday’s Leadershift call, and it deeply resonated with me. This question can be expanded outside of just work to also be applied in your home, in your social circles, or in your church. What can you do to create an environment where it is safe to be vulnerable, and why is that even important?
This is important because I believe the only way to grow begins with honesty and authenticity. If someone messes up at work but knows they will be yelled at and thrown under the bus for their actions, it becomes hard to “own your mistakes,” and it becomes even harder to actually grow from them. Or maybe someone has a concern about themself or a co-worker. If they don’t believe this concern will be well-received or taken seriously, they might not bother bringing it up, and that silence could be costly. On the flip side, maybe an employee has a brilliant idea of how to better improve the way something is done, but they’ve seen others be brushed off. No one likes rejection, and if that is a looming fear in the environment you’ve helped create, very little growth and authenticity is going to transpire.
Many students on Thursday’s call shared what they believe was needed in order to create an environment others feel safe to share their shortcomings in:
“Maybe having an opportunity to open up and throw anything out there that you’re feeling or seeing; just being able to share it without any kind of real come back or negative response.”
“Any problems at work, they know you’ll work together to fix it. You have their back.”
“You need to have a relationship with them [your people/coworkers] but also communicate your own shortcomings to them as well. Get their buy-in and create more of a team environment, even if you are their superior.”
“You need to be personable.”
“It helps to be transparent and approachable. Create the space for one-on-one when necessary.”
“Do not make someone feel like they are on trial.”
“Be sure to thank people for their honesty and transparency.”
A truth that is reiterated over and over in Leadershift is that growth isn’t automatic. It isn’t just going to “happen” to you. Growth requires responsibility, clarity, intentionality, and accountability. Likewise, you can’t dream up the environment you want to be in and just expect for it to happen- even if you “want it” bad enough. You must work to create this safe environment, and it won’t happen overnight. Mike pointed out that, “the environment that you spend most of your life in will impact you.”
If you are a business owner, does your business have an environment that challenges your people, supports your people, affirms your people, and truly listens to your people? The environment you allow is what will continue. There is a quote by Maya Angelou that says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way that you made them feel.” While I don’t full-heartedly agree with this, the sentiment is true. As humans, we identify most closely to feelings. We can remember for decades the way a job, an interaction, or a relationship made us feel.
How does your current environment make you feel? Or as an employer, how does it make your employees feel? Stifled? Unheard? Unsupported? Or, do people feel like they are able to express their concerns and admit their mistakes without being condemned or shutdown?
A healthy environment is one where you are continually being challenged, but when you miss the mark, you are surrounded by people who will help pick you up, discover with you where things went wrong, and encourage you to go at it again.
Like I mentioned earlier, the idea of a safe environment to be vulnerable in absolutely translates over into your home life and social life as well. What are the interactions like with your friends and family? In the relationships you are seeking to cultivate, what kind of environment do they currently exist in? What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe it?
Comforting? Inviting? Inspiring? Is there vulnerability? If it seems like these qualities aren’t very applicable in many of your relationships, I would suggest that you examine the common denominator: you. How do you come across to others?
A theme in the answers these students gave to this pressing question about environment was this: You must be transparent. Whether you are leading many or merely leading yourself, others take note of how you do it, and the “how” is what makes all the difference. Let others see when you make mistakes. If you are putting all your energy into maintaining an image that is put together and “perfect”, you will eliminate the opportunity for others to watch you own your mistakes. Lead by setting an example. Create an authentic environment by being the first to take a step into vulnerability. If those around you know that you messed up or you admit that you are struggling with something, how much more willing will those around you be to express what they too are struggling with? Emphasize that failure is not the enemy. Rather, it’s what you do with that failure that determines the direction things will go.
Communicate to your team that you are for them, not against them. Sometimes, something that may seem like common sense to you needs frequent reiteration to others.
Do your people know that you appreciate their vulnerability? I know firsthand what it feels like to be a burden. For years I carried a belief with me that I was a burden in practically every interaction I had with people. That is a heavy weight to bear, and while I was the one who created this false weight and chose to carry it everywhere, that truth didn’t lighten the load any.
Thank people when they come to you with their shortcomings. Let them know that it is through vulnerability that growth begins to happen. Let them know that through them expressing their shortcomings, they are helping make the business better than it was before.
Growth always comes from taking action, so start with assessing your current environment. Are you proud of it, or are there some clear changes that need to be made? Sometimes, the change has to start from within, and in this instance, that means it starts with you.