Vulnerability is Rewarded or Punished
There is a lot of conversation these days about psychological safety. What is it, and how do we create it? To quote Dr. Timothy Clark, you can sum it up in five words; “Psychological safety is an environment of rewarded vulnerability.”
What comes to your mind when you consider the idea that vulnerability is either rewarded or punished? When you feel vulnerable, other people’s opinions and thoughts of you really matter.
You may remember feeling less than confident after speaking up in a meeting or in a conversation with a loved one—anywhere where you care about the outcome.
If in that vulnerable moment you received a verbal or non-verbal message that punished your vulnerability, you no longer felt safe. Most likely you withheld your big idea by shutting down, walking away, or irrationally arguing your point. These are all automatic survival strategies that do not encourage a safe space to collaborate.
This focus robs you of your Creator essence, erodes your confidence, and triggers a Victim mindset. Your internal story may sound like, “I could look bad.” “I feel like an imposter.” “They won’t like me.”
Recall a time when you received positive feedback in a vulnerable moment. Others smiled at you, and you felt heard, seen, and validated, which helped calm your reactive brain. You may have said to yourself, “I feel confident.” “I feel connected,” “I feel valued.” You chose to share your innovative ideas—exactly what having a safe space provides.
Your Creator essence flows at such times.
I experienced this recently when I worked with a group of executives to expand their emotional intelligence. While the majority were fully engaged, one person was clearly not. He sighed, rolled his eyes, and looked at his phone and said, “Emotions! I hate talking about emotions!”
My initial response was to feel victimized by his attempt to control the room and criticize my efforts. His lack of respect and value for the work we were doing felt personal and I became vulnerable. I saw this person as my Persecutor, thwarting the experience I wanted for the team.
I realized that I was narrowly focused on this one person, caught in his force field. When I pulled free, I was able to look out and around at the other people in the room. They were looking to see how I would respond. I sensed their vulnerability in that moment, as the strong emotions dominated the room and ceased discussion.
Then I remembered one of the mantras of psychological safety: Even if you disagree with me, don’t make me wrong.
I took a breath and knew I had an opportunity to reward vulnerability. I validated his emotions (not shutting them down or giving them too much power) and integrated his concern into the conversation. I was able to see each person as a Creator and focused on what they wanted for the organization, not my agenda or my opinion.
We often reward or punish vulnerability based on the outcome of the situation. If the person is successful, they are rewarded for their courage. If they fail, they are punished for taking a risk.
Psychological safety is a challenge to co-create and it is easy to dismantle. In the days ahead, look for opportunities to practice rewarding someone’s vulnerability. If you engage with an authentic and positive response, you will encourage their gifts to shine. If you ignore their vulnerability, you may shut down their creativity and cause more withholding.
Engage with others knowing that almost everyone feels vulnerable most of the time!