Diversity at Work: Vulnerability (2)

This blog is the second in a series of 4 about creating a culture in which diversity is not only present, but also explored and used to the business’ advantage.

Diversity at work

Diversity is hot. Every organisation stresses the importance of ‘getting the numbers right’ these days. Every organisation tries to make minority groups disappear by creating equal chances for all. Getting the numbers right however is only step one. Organisations do not benefit when all flavours of human diversity are represented well, but different voices don’t get heard. The culture has to change, not the numbers.

A company culture is truly diverse when employees invite and welcome differences. This is a culture where people explore their differences (curiosity), can welcome different views than their own (vulnerability), feel invited to be different (make a difference) and clearly express their differences (clear communication).


Attitude 2: Allow for vulnerability

People should feel free to speak up, and share different thoughts and ideas in the organisation. Every organisation will tell you their people are stimulated and encouraged to express themselves and contribute. The reality however is often different. While nobody will intentionally block others to speak up, we often establish a culture in which it is not ok to differ from the norm. Speaking up requires courage. And if you think your company is open to different ideas and stimulates their people to speak up, consider the following thoughts:

  • Why is the idea-box in our company anonymous? Do people at the lowest levels in the company feel safe to come with groundbreaking ideas?
  • Are we surprised often by the outcome of the yearly employee engagement survey? Why do people need the anonimity of the survey to say what they really think?
  • How often do you meet someone who really makes a difference, simply because of his or her unique way of looking at problems, and coming with out-of-the-box solutions? Not often, right?

It takes courage to speak up when you have a unique idea or contribution. You have to feel that people won’t laugh at you or make a fool oof you. Unconsciously, you’ll even decide not to express your thoughts because you are afraid of the consequences. People may turn down your ideas openly and criticize your ideas (it’s even likely this will happen). They may neglect your contribution, and that doesn’t feel nice to you. Your colleagues may politely say they like your idea, only to kill it when you turn around. The cultures we build in companies often do not stimulate ‘diversity of thought’.

Culture of Vulnerability

People feel safe to speak up in a culture of vulnerability, even when their idea is not be welcomed or accepted. The culture invites people to put themselves in a vulnerable position, and take the risk that your new way of looking at things may not be welcomed. Employers pay professionals for their opinions, and for their sound judgment of situations that require their expertise. Consequently, most corporate environments reward the people ‘who know’ and who express their vision and their opinion. People who do not speak up will hear in their yearly performance appraisal that they are not visible, and that this hampers their career. The cultures we build are cultures in which you are expected to have an instant opinion about things. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this (although it leads to cultures where the ones who shout loudet are heard first). The consequence however is that ‘not knowing’ is not ok, and this is where we start to block true diversity. For radically new ideas to be expressed, you need a culture where it is ok ‘not to know’, and where people feel safe to express doubt and uncertainty.

One of the most impressive acts of leadership I ever witnessed was a very senior manager at the end of an ‘alignment meeting’ between two teams. Everybody at the end of the meeting said it was a good meeting and that much progress had been achieved. This manager however expressed openly that he felt stuck and didn’t know how to proceed to get two teams interacting more cooperatively. “What frustrates me most is that again I have worked on this problem for the last four hours, and that I did not succeed to change things for the better”, he said. This expression of uncertainty and doubt put him into a vulnerable position. It is not hard to imagine people thinking “This guy is incapable as a manager”. But what we needed at that time was exactly that: a person who expressed his inability to change things. We felt invited to welcome rather than oppose the change.

Not soft

Don’t get me wrong: a culture of vulnerability is not ‘soft’, and not a “everybody is always happy”-environment where it is ok not to have an opinion. There’s nothing soft about what I’m proposing. It is a culture where it is ok to state what you know, but also to state what you don’t know. Where it is professional to express uncertainty and doubt.

For this to happen, people will need to allow doubt into their work culture. The doubt that is needed to question your own wisdom every now and then. And where – certainly when you have a strong opinion on something – you keep realizing that ‘you could be wrong’. Where you accept that the one with the odd idea or contribution ‘could be right’.

This culture is realized when quick judgment is replaced with careful (but not slow!) analysis. Where people look for nuance. Where the shades of grey are explored before we state things black and white.

I once worked with a call center in India, that did not meet the needs of our organization. We got frustrated about their lack of service, their passiveness and lack of pro-activeness when new opportunities came up. We all – including myself – openly ventilated our frustration and had strong judgment about the way-of-working of ‘the Indians’. I was reading a book at the time (don’t remember which one) where I read the line “Could it be that your frame of reference is insufficient to understand them?” I remember this quote until today and use it frequently in my cross-cultural work. What if your picture of the world is simply incomplete, and you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle to understand them.

A company only starts to benefit from diversity when people ventilate these thoughts and ask questions. Doubt and vulnerability can come to the surface in these companies. People discuss in a constructive way about all kind of things that they normally would not speak about. I see more and more that team interventions I do focus on helping people to create more meaningful dialogues. Dialog helps people to interact more critical and open with each other, such that the painful and necessary questions get asked. Where ‘not knowing’ is ok. And where people can put themselves in a vulnerable position. There’s nothing soft about that.

What to do?

So what can you do to create such a culture in your team? I summarize 3 tips that I use frequently with teams:

  • Start small. You cannot change a company culture from one day to the other. But you can change the way you deal with each other in your team. Create a ‘pocket of excellence’ in your team, where people are ok with putting themselves in a vulnerable position.
  • When you are sure about something, or when you conclude on something, ask openly the question “What if we are wrong?” Spend a few valuable moments considering this option. I have often seen this leads to remarkable new insights.
  • End a meeting or team discussion with questions such as “What did you wanted to bring up at some point and didn’t?” or “what has not been said that should be said?” This creates safety for people to contribute.


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