Ask Me Anything: The Power of Being Vulnerable

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  • June 19, 2018

President Obama surprised the world in 2012 when he logged onto Reddit and typed, “Ask me anything.” The forty-fourth president of the United States fielded unscripted, crowdsourced questions on topics like the troop surge in Afghanistan, money in politics, sports teams (he’s a Chicago Bulls fan), and net neutrality, among others. Most of his responses have long since been forgotten. But his extreme transparency—and vulnerability— left a lasting impression.

Since then, business leaders such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk have sat in the Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) hot seat. Why? In today’s digital world, transparency isn’t optional. If business leaders ignore tough or inconvenient questions, their customers and employees will seek answers elsewhere. Openness and vulnerability are inherently linked, and research indicates that leaders can leverage these traits to build trust, inspire innovation, and foster collaboration in their organizations, thus driving better business results. Trust, innovation, and collaboration are key ingredients of successful workplaces. In the modern era of crowdsourcing and distributed information, it’s more important than ever to leverage the power of openness—and vulnerability.

The Strong, Silent Type? Nope. Today, Openness Signals Strength.

Those old tropes about “strong, silent types” don’t hold up in today’s hyperconnected world. Why? Because being open requires us to give up control, and that requires us to face our vulnerabilities. Author and Forbes contributor David K. Williams explains, “In reality, vulnerability is a strength. Every leader has vulnerability. The greatest leaders have the self-awareness to recognize this fact.” Along with self-awareness, it takes a great deal of confidence in one’s ideas and opinions to be open to feedback and refine one’s approach. Remaining silent, meanwhile, shirks vulnerability and the open exchange of ideas.

Openness doesn’t merely foster strength in leaders, either. Sharing information can strengthen entire workforces. That’s why openness is a key characteristic of the new leadership paradigm. In a traditional command-and-control leadership style, information about business competitors, financials, and performance is withheld from downstream employees. But, as discussed in a previous blog post, information hoarding creates a layer of protection for top leadership while decreasing collaboration and innovation among employees. After all, “lower-level” employees who are left clueless to hard realities, challenges, and vulnerabilities the company is facing can’t offer solutions.

Want Stronger, More Innovative Workers? Build Their Trust.

A whopping 94 percent of senior executives who participated in a McKinsey survey said that people and corporate culture are the most critical drivers of innovation. However, 65 percent said they weren’t fully confident in strategic decisions made in these areas. Where’s the disconnect? McKinsey has found that an organization can foster a culture of innovation by inspiring trust among its employees and by ensuring that “dynamic innovation networks” allow information and new ideas to flow freely to and from employees at all levels. Sound familiar? Openness, vulnerability, and the free flow of information throughout an organization help achieve innovation and collaboration. How? By building trust. Various leadership styles and communication techniques can help you achieve that. Humble inquiry, an approach pioneered by organizational-development scholar Edgar Schein and consultant Peter Shein, is one such approach. “Appreciative inquiry”—a change method originated by authors David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney, and Jacqueline Stavros that engages all stakeholders in the effort to identify what works in an organization and facilitate positive change—is another.

Humble inquiry: Use vulnerability to cultivate trust, buy-in, and innovation.

Being open and transparent is a good way to build trust. But how you choose to communicate with individual employees is also a critical factor, and vulnerability is a big part of it. In his best-selling book, Schein explains that if we want others to trust us, we must learn to make ourselves vulnerable by being open about our dependence on them. He calls this communication technique “humble inquiry.”

Schein writes, “This can be difficult because one risks being snubbed or ignored, which can be humiliating. But it is essential because it shows the other person that you are willing to invest something, to go farther than just a minimum task oriented relationship. Your self-exposure, your vulnerability is the key ingredient in making the relationship more personal.” So, by making ourselves vulnerable to others, we build trust. And trust is a critical building block of a culture of innovation.

Appreciative inquiry: Be open about vulnerabilities to build a consensus and collaboration.

We live in a rapidly changing world. With shifting demographics and disruptive technology as the primary drivers, change has become the new norm. Being open and forthright about our personal and professional vulnerabilities can help build workforces that are more collaborative, cohesive, and resilient. One approach of “appreciative inquiry” is a change-management technique that requires team members to be radically open and honest with each other to gain an account of what’s happening, and why.

Change-management experts and authors Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair and Jeanie Cockell argue that this allows teams struggling to make a change to move beyond blame and work together to create a more resilient system. In their book Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry, they write, “Bringing together the whole is very important when working with teams, organizations, and groups of all kinds to build resilience. The power of deeply listening to stories of the same event from different perspectives cannot be underestimated.”

Final Thoughts on Leveraging the Power of Vulnerability

President Obama had no idea what questions he’d face when he logged on to the Reddit AMA session in 2012, but he had confidence that his opinions, policies, and positions would hold up in the face of radical openness and vulnerability. Today, we live in an “ask me anything” society. Business leaders build trust, collaboration, innovation, and resilience by being open and confronting vulnerabilities. Of course, not all information is meant to be shared. But judiciously sharing information and details can demonstrate that you’re deserving of trust.

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