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The First Rule of Vulnerability, You Don’t Talk About Vulnerability!

I am sitting with a director of human resources talking about the impact and connection that a culture of storytellers has on a business. Everything from closer connections between team members to an increase in idea sharing to feelings of joy since meetings aren’t mind numbingly boring.  

Then they asked me “How do you broach the subject of Vulnerability with leadership?” 

I followed up with “does your leadership consist of a bunch of white males?” 


“Well, then, I don’t.”

My answer may surprise you as it did the HR director so let me explain. 

Saying the word “Vulnerability” to a bunch of men, especially if they are older and white, is like yelling “BOMB!” at the airport. The whole thing shuts down. 

I have a fun and lasting memory of working with a team of leaders in agriculture.   I kicked off our one hour session by saying “for the next 6 hours we are going to talk about our feelings”. Immediately all of them stiffened, crossed their arms, looked down at the floor, and grumbled some form of “absolutely not!”  I told them “ahh, just kidding, we’re not going to talk about your feelings and vulnerabilities today. In fact you can take those emotions and put them into a mason jar along with a bit of vinegar and bury deep in a cold dark place so they can pickle to perfection.” I saw them sag with relief then they proceeded to be vulnerable without it feeling like they were being vulnerable, through improv, activities, and stories.  It happened organically, naturally without having to call it out.

While I regularly kick off my session with men like this, in order to disarm them, it is a clear example how men react to the idea of vulnerability. 

The idea of vulnerability to men stems from our upbringing, from how young boys are taught to be tough and to “man up”. Men experience difficulty being vulnerable due to societal pressure of masculinity. From an early age we are told that vulnerability equals weakness, that we need “to be a man about it” when faced with adversity like bullying, and that “boys don’t cry” when their feelings get hurt. Even the dictionary identifies vulnerable as exposed, liable, susceptible, defenseless.

Therefore it is no wonder that men shut down emotionally when they are put in a situation where they are expected or told to be vulnerable. It is only because they do not know how to act in that situation or that they will be judged as being weak. It has taken me years to understand that coming from a place of vulnerability can mean being strong, knowledgeable, reflective, in touch. 

If men are triggered when put in a position to be vulnerable what can you do to win them over? It is as easy as my answer to the HR Director. 

“Don’t talk about it, just do it.” 

The program we were discussing, TrustWorking, creates the opportunity to develop meaningful, long term connections. Through our interactive and playful approach - leveraging improv, storytelling, and team challenges - we build communication confidence, teach connection tactics, and enhance team trust. We know that this type of experience will have the participants experience vulnerability in a safe and constructive way. A way that is non threatening and disarms them from feeling exposed or defenseless. 

Yes! I believe that organizations need to spend time breaking down the barriers around vulnerability and in order to do so we need to be tactful. We need to take the same approach our moms took when we wouldn’t take our medicine and they wrapped it up in a piece of chocolate. 

For men, giving them the tools to develop greater levels of Trust, Empathy and Understanding is a lot sweeter than telling them they are going to work on being vulnerable, they just won’t Mountain Dew IT! 

If you'd like to subliminally work on vulnerability in your organization, reach out, we won't talk about it.

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