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Is vulnerability really accepted in your team?

In my team and group coaching work, I support them in developing bounds and trust to better perform. To do so, as their coach, I need to create a safe space so that they can show their vulnerability, for example, by expressing what they don’t know, or opening up about a mistake. When it happens the team reaches another level of motivation, drive and trust in their capability to reach the objectives. They know that they have each other’s back and learn to support each other when someone experiences a setback. They are in the flow.

But what actually is this safe space?

In a previous blog[1], I talked about “neuroception” and gave tips for creating a safe space.

Now I want to talk about the levels of depth of this safe space within a team:

1. The first level is about knowing each other’s roles and responsibilities. It seems obvious that people working together have this knowledge, but very often this doesn’t correspond to reality, in particular in newly formed teams. In this case, during the team coaching, we give space to each team member to elicit their roles and responsibilities to the team. Thanks to this work the team members feel responsible about what they need to accomplish and collaborate with each other because they know what’s the scope of their work.

2. The second level is about talking about themselves as persons. This generates a deeper level of trust. When the team members know each other, they better understand where they are coming from, and they discover commonalities and differences. They learn how to bond on a personal level. During team coaching, we usually make the “tree exercise” where each team member explains their roots, where they come from on a personal level, what they value in life, their projects, their passions, etc. When they know each other at this level they start becoming confident to show more vulnerability for example by admitting their mistakes and seeking the support of the team to find a solution.

3. The third level is the one I less often see in the workplace, yet probably the most important. It shows when the team members are capable to show a deeper vulnerability when they are capable to share their concerns at a professional and personal level. This level typically shows when you’re asking someone “how are you?” and they answer “not well, this is not my day, I had a difficult evening at home”, or “My daughter is a difficult teenager and this takes me a lot of energy”. By opening up, they become able to show their deeper feelings and connect to each other at this deeper level. This openness has positive effects on their work together. They become capable to hold each other accountable, giving feedback, even tough feedback because they know that it will not put their bond in danger.

The only “but” is that on many occasions I don’t see that this third level is happening. It requires such a deep level of trust that takes time and intention to build. People can give tough feedback only if the relationship is deep enough to know that it comes from a good place and is aimed at the greater good of the individual, the team, and the organization.

When it happens I also see an increased solidarity within the team. For example, if one of the team members has a personal setback like a divorce or an illness when the bond is strong, the other team members are more than keen to support the one who experiences a difficult time.

If this deep bond is not in place, I noticed that, for example, when people talk about illness the reaction is different. Very often there is the belief that one will not provide a good performance as before or will not be motivated as usual. Therefore, people often tend to hide their health issues, at least until they cannot anymore. They are afraid of revealing their situation because they consider it to be a weakness and are afraid to be marginalized.

Recently I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. As a coach, I am supposed to provide a good service to my clients, which I did during my illness. I hesitated to tell the Chief People Officers I have a long work relationship with, about it. I had thoughts such as “will they think that I am not able to perform as usual?”; “Will they give me more projects?”…

Finally, I decided to open up because I had to take some days off and I didn’t want them to think that I was unprofessional. To my great relief, the professional relationship didn’t change. On the contrary, I am receiving more projects than usual!

Stepping back I asked myself why these positive reactions are happening, and I realized that it is because, over time, I created this trustworthy relationship. My clients didn’t think that I was “less”, they were empathetic. They told me that if I needed to take some time off, they could wait. On my side, I realized how work was important to me. It helped me to focus on something else and was good for my morale.

I also realized that I am very fortunate to work with people I appreciate and appreciate me in any circumstance, even in my illness. That gave me a big boost and supported me in these difficult moments. I felt a great sense of purpose and the desire to provide excellent service.

Imagine if this level of vulnerability is accepted in a team, the energy that liberates, the joy it provides to go to work every day, even on the bad days. The team members have the sense that they are accepted as they are, without “masks” and therefore they don’t have to spend their energy in protecting themselves, in building this “mask”.

I invite you to reflect on the factors that can liberate your energy, and how can you support your team in accepting each other and supporting each other. Sometimes the team is not ready yet to go at a such deep level of openness, it’s a long-run job. How can you initiate it, how you, as a leader can show the way by opening up?

I wish you to feel the joy of this deep cohesiveness, it is worth it!

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