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Navigating Vulnerability at Work

This week's episode is a team favorite, and is definitely worth the listen. Tim and Junior talk about why the workplace is a vulnerable place, what vulnerability is, and why actively rewarding vulnerability matters. Whether you're motivated by making others around you feel comfortable at work, or you want to improve team performance, you should model and reward acts of vulnerability across The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.

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Episode Show Notes

Vulnerability and interaction are inseparable (03:00). The workplace is vulnerable because it’s full of humans.

Why does vulnerability matter? (08:30) There’s a spectrum of vulnerability and a spectrum of responses to vulnerability. You can reward it, punish it, or do something in between.

How do we create healthy company cultures? (11:30) If we want healthy cultures where inclusion and innovation are the standards, we must reward vulnerability.

What are red zones and blue zones? (13:15) Red zones are environments of punished vulnerability, and blue zones are environments of rewarded vulnerability.

Vulnerability occurs across the 4 stages of psychological safety (24:30). Tim and Junior share common acts of vulnerability found in inclusion, learner, contributor, and challenger safety. 

Vulnerability and inclusion safety (26:00). Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to be included, accepted, and belong. It means it’s not expensive to be yourself. 

Vulnerability and learner safety (43:00). Acts of vulnerability in Stage 2: Learner Safety relate to learning and the discovery process. Because learning is fraught with uncertainty and risk, every person brings some level of inhibition and anxiety to the learning process. 

Vulnerability and contributor safety (48:50). Acts of vulnerability in Stage 3: Contributor Safety relate to making a meaningful contribution and reflect a willingness to be held accountable for your performance.

Vulnerability and challenger safety (53:20). Acts of vulnerability in Stage 4: Challenger Safety relate to challenging the status quo and creating value in new and different ways through innovation.


The Ladder of Vulnerability webinar:

The Ladder of Vulnerability ebook:

The Complete Guide to Psychological Safety:

How to Connect with a Person Not Like You:

Episode Transcript

0:00:02.4 Producer: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddie, one of the producers of the podcast. Today's episode is a great one on navigating vulnerability in the workplace, red zones and blue zones. Now, I don't say this every time, but this is definitely one of my favorite episodes that we've ever recorded. I'm confident you'll walk away with a new appreciation and understanding of vulnerability and some new language on how to talk about it. As always, you can find links to the resources mentioned in this episode at forward slash podcast in this episode's show notes. In addition, we've recently made all our resources on the website searchable at forward slash resources. We're confident that it's one of the most comprehensive libraries of psychological safety content available anywhere. Thanks again for listening and thank you for your reviews. We really appreciate you. Enjoy today's episode on vulnerability in the workplace.

0:01:03.6 Junior: Welcome back everyone to Culture by Design. We hope you've been enjoying the episodes. Tim, we heard this last week that we crossed listeners in more than 50 countries. Can you believe that? Really? 50? More than 50. That's amazing. We were looking at a few of the podcast analytics and they're very encouraging.

0:01:03.6 Junior: So, in advance today, thank you for your attention. One of the things that we find is that our listeners are people that are interested in making the world a better place as we are. So to those listening, to all of you, thank you for your effort. Thank you for what you do. And thank you for joining us on this journey to transform cultures through psychological safety. So, today, Tim is with me again. We're going to be talking about navigating vulnerability in the workplace. What do you think about that topic, Tim?

0:01:48.9 Tim: Well, I think it's central to everything we do, regardless of where you may be, regardless of the social setting you're in, regardless of the human collective that you may be a part of. It's going to be relevant. So this discussion today is relevant to you if you are a human being. If you're not, maybe less relevant, but for every member of the human family, it's going to be relevant. If you're not, you're still welcome to stick around and listen.

0:02:16.0 Junior: That's right. That's something interesting about the human race. So inside that topic, navigating vulnerability in the workplace, we're making the assumption that the workplace is a vulnerable place. I'd like to spend just a few minutes talking about that. So Tim, in your opinion, what makes it vulnerable? Why can we consider the workplace a vulnerable place?

0:02:37.1 Tim: Right. So let's just go back to your premise. The premise, the overarching premise, the global premise is that human interaction is a vulnerable activity. Why is that? It's the truth because when we interact, there's always exposure to some risk of harm or loss. It may be a little, might be a lot, depends on the situation, the circumstances, the people you're with, a lot of different factors. But the point is that when humans come together to interact, you can't eliminate the vulnerability. That interaction introduces vulnerability by definition. As soon as you get together, you've introduced vulnerability. As soon as you've begun to interact, there's vulnerability with you. And there's no way to take that away. There's no way to eliminate or neutralize all of that. There is no human interaction without vulnerability. I guess it's that simple.

0:03:40.7 Junior: I think it is. So the workplace is a vulnerable place because it's full of humans. That's right. Right? Yeah. That's the assumption. And one of the things that I want to call out is inside vulnerability, we've got different categories. Not all vulnerability is the same. We have physical. And we've talked previously about the fact that we've solved for that pretty well. Physical safety, mental, emotional, social, psychological. There are all of these other categories of vulnerability and downside risk. And we've talked previously about just how risky some behaviors can be, just how much vulnerability there truly is. All the way to your career. If you're in stage four, which we'll talk about a little bit later, and you make a big challenging comment, it might not be just a little bit risky. It might not be just a little bit vulnerable. We're talking high stakes scenarios for every individual. So it goes without saying that it's vulnerable. We can see very obviously all these categories of risk that can be very, very poignant.

0:04:48.0 Tim: And then the other thing to add, Junior, is that not only do we have all those different categories of vulnerability, and we could even include political vulnerability, economic vulnerability. Oh, yeah. Every single category that you can think of that's non-physical. Right? Yep. In addition to those categories, we also have to acknowledge the fact that the level or the amount or the degree of vulnerability that you feel is a personal thing. And it's based on your perceptions, your feelings, your circumstances, your experience. You feel what you feel. You have some kind of internal equipment that measures the vulnerability that you feel. And you are the authority on the amount of vulnerability that you feel. No one can dispute that. No one can argue with that. No one can say, well, you shouldn't feel that way.

0:05:44.6 Junior: I appreciate you calling that out. I was with an executive team just yesterday talking about this very thing where our perception of what is vulnerable varies drastically person to person. There's not just a little bit of variance. For us 10 people, you might have 10 very drastic opinions about how vulnerable a certain situation is, a certain activity is. And it's important that we understand that going into this conversation. And I also want to address the fact that some people will look at vulnerability as a loaded word, as kind of a soft term, as something that really isn't core to what we're talking about in business and even culture. But we need to dispel that at the front end, help everyone understand that this is core to the human experience and thus core to business, core to culture, core to the culture of any social collective of which you're a part, not even business alone, but family, friends, any social group. And so if you want to make those places better places, this is a conversation to pay attention to and a topic that deserves a lot of attention.

0:06:55.6 Tim: Let's make another distinction, Junior, when we talk about vulnerability, there's voluntary vulnerability and there's involuntary vulnerability. Involuntary vulnerability means it's not your choice. You're being subjected to the vulnerability. You're being thrust into the vulnerability. There are forces that are acting upon you over which you have no control or little control that are subjecting you to vulnerability and you didn't choose it. But on the other hand, there's voluntary vulnerability, which means that you chose it. And when you choose it, it's actually a form or expression of courage. And what's interesting is that as a human being, you can't do anything good. You can't be yourself. You can't perform. You can't learn. You can't grow. You can't achieve deep connection with others unless there is some voluntary vulnerability. And so we're never going to try to eliminate it because it's so essential to the human experience as well. So we need to understand the two sides, the voluntary and the involuntary, and the fact that we absolutely need it in order to perform and grow and develop and flourish as human beings.

0:08:11.6 Junior: Well, thank you for sharing the distinction. I think that's very important. So we use this word vulnerability, but it's really an umbrella for a conversation that's very broad and very deep. And so we're going to dive into that today and try and unpack some of what lies underneath that umbrella that we call vulnerability. So there's a spectrum of response to vulnerability. And that's the next thing that we want to discuss is that we're presented with vulnerability and then something happens, right? And that something lies on a really broad spectrum. So that vulnerability could be all the way on one pole, punished, punished, hard, and on the other end, rewarded, and anything in between. So we're going to talk about that, that that is available to us. We are met with vulnerability, either as actor or there's someone in front of us who's done something vulnerable, and we have an opportunity to make some choices. We have a few options and how we deal with that vulnerability or respond, perhaps is a better word, influences the social dynamics and creates the makings for either a healthy or an unhealthy culture. So that's the hinge on which everything turns.

0:09:28.8 Junior: We talk a lot about psychological safety and our definition, a culture of rewarded vulnerability. This is the stuff. This is where it all starts. It all hinges here on this mechanism of rewarding or punishing.

0:09:41.6 Tim: Well, Junior, I think we need to restate what you just said. So if you're with people, if you're in a social situation and someone commits an act of vulnerability, whatever that may be, how about just showing up? Let's just start with that because that's the first one in sequence.

0:10:00.2 Junior: And very vulnerable, very vulnerable for a lot of people.

0:10:02.2 Tim: For a lot of people, it's at the top of the list in terms of the amount of vulnerability they feel doing that. But someone begins with an act of vulnerability and they're in a social setting. There's going to be a response to that. And as you said, the response pattern to vulnerability shapes the interpersonal dynamics and the overall group dynamics. It shapes that. It shapes the culture. It shapes the experience. That's what shapes it, is that someone comes in with an act of vulnerability and then we see what happens next. And what tends to happen is that there's a pattern. And when there's a pattern, then that becomes what we call a norm. So when people either commit acts of vulnerability or respond to acts of vulnerability in a pattern like way, then we can say that we see the formation of a norm. And back to your point, it shapes the group dynamics. So how important is that? It's crucial because that determines whether this is going to be a good experience, determines the performance of that social unit. It determines everything. Everything, as you said, hinges on this.

0:11:24.6 Junior: Yeah, there doesn't seem to be anything upstream from this. And so if there's one thing that you could focus on to learn about culture, to make it better, it would probably be this. If you did nothing else but focus on rewarding vulnerability, you'd probably make it pretty far. Yeah. Don't you agree?

0:11:41.0 Tim: Yeah, I agree completely.

0:11:42.3 Junior: So the assumption here, we want healthy cultures, right? We've talked in previous episodes about these two goals that are universal goals that are shared across almost every team and organization that we've ever had the chance to work with. Those two things are inclusion and innovation. There's this social, this moral force pushing towards inclusion, and there's this competitive force pushing for innovation. And those two goals can be accomplished with the same answer, the same mechanism of psychological safety, rewarded vulnerability. So all this to say in the introduction that if we want healthy cultures, if we want inclusion, we want innovation, we must reward vulnerability. So moving into the next segment, we're going to be talking about red zones and blue zones to give us all some language that we have found works very well. So Tim, explain that to us, red zone, blue zone.

0:12:41.3 Tim: Right. So it's simple terminology that we use to capture the essence of what happens in an environment of low psychological safety, where there's pervasive punishment of vulnerability. We call that a red zone. On the other hand, if you're in a culture or an environment that rewards, consistently rewards vulnerability, we would call that a blue zone. So it's very simple terminology. It's an oversimplification, of course, because psychological safety is not binary. It's a matter of degree, but it gives us some simple, clear language to help us understand. So it's instructive.

0:13:21.1 Junior: I've found this language to work very well across organizations. It's very scalable language. We need easy, simple language and this scales well. And it's fun to see organizations using this and people will ask, you know, is this a red zone? Is this a blue zone? Sometimes ingest, but it's powerful language to help set the stage for what proceeds, what type of a conversation are we going to have? So let's talk brass tacks for a second. How do you create a red zone? We say that we do that through punishing vulnerability. So as an example, I might ask a question. This is an honest question, right? I want some information about something that we're talking about. How might you punish that vulnerable act, Tim? Well, I could just ignore you.

0:14:05.2 Tim: True. Right? So I could just ignore you. I could brush you off. So that's one way of doing it. I could silence you by saying, well, that's a really stupid question. I could be demeaning. I could be humiliating. These are all forms of punishing your vulnerability. And there are many ways to do it. I can't even count the number of ways that we could respond to your question, to a question in a way that punishes your vulnerability. There's so many different things that we could do or, or ways that we could do it. Right. But it's all in the punished category.

0:14:46.6 Junior: Just blatant disregard. Right. It could be very, very sharp or it could just have a little bit of an edge to it. That's right.

0:14:54.1 Junior: Yeah. So it could be very subtle rebuff, a very mild way to ignore you or be sarcastic or be demeaning or look put off or I can't believe that you would ask something like that. As you say, we're down here at the mild, subtle end of things, right? And then we can go to the other side too. Yep. And it also has to do with body language. It's not just in what you say back the way that you respond to my question verbally. It's in the body language. You could say the right thing, but your delivery might be bad. It might be poor delivery and that's all it takes to punish. It could be a slight eye roll. And so as we're talking about this, I think it's important for each of us to think about the way that we respond to questions, not just questions, but these acts of vulnerability that we'll get into. And it requires a very high degree of self-awareness if we're going to become proficient. And it's something that each of us can improve. And I think that's part of the great opportunity in this particular episode is to take inventory of how we're doing and leave the episode looking at the acts of vulnerability happening around us and pay attention to how we're responding because it happens constantly, every day, all day we're interacting with people.

0:16:22.3 Junior: So if you're interacting with people, vulnerability is happening and it's up to you how you respond. So blue zone, an environment of rewarded vulnerability. So over here to that question, what are we doing? We're affirming, we're validating, we're expressing curiosity. And we're going to talk a little bit more about those types of specific things that we can do to reward.

0:16:45.1 Junior: I just want to say a word on that, Junior, because I'll go back to some research that maybe many of our listeners are familiar with. And that's research that came out of UCLA and from the psychologist, Albert Morabian, because he studied nonverbal communication. Well, he studied total communication and he tried to figure out how much of it is body language, how much of it is verbal. Do you know what he came up with? He came up with 55% is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% is the content of the words that you're using. Now you may take issue with those findings and you may say, well, that's a little much. I don't know that I think it's that much. But even if you take issue with those results, we all have to acknowledge that the nonverbal side of communication is at least half. So let's just stipulate that it's at least half. If it's at least half, then think about all of the ways that you can punish vulnerability nonverbally, let alone verbally. So it just gives us a perspective because we are constantly, even if we're not speaking, we are constantly communicating.

0:18:07.0 Tim: I'm sending a stream of data to you. If we're communicating, whether it's face to face, whether it's virtual, we're sending streams of data back to each other and it's constant, right? But some of it's verbal, some of it's nonverbal, but you can't turn it off as long as we're interacting that's happening.

0:18:27.0 Junior: Yeah. It also informs, I think, the ratio in which we should be paying attention to those two things, the body language and what it is we're actually saying. Because let's say that in any given message, it's 80% or 50% or whatever it is, body language. We probably don't spend that much of the attention monitoring the delivery, if that makes sense. We probably spend the majority of the energy monitoring the words that we're saying, the literal message that's being given. And not enough on the delivery, the body language and the tone. One of the things that I'll interject here is I think that there's a big opportunity in the digital age to enrich some of the communication. And as we're talking about vulnerability, one of the things that I've found to be very effective is to change the channel of communication. So if it's pure text, you lose so much of that richness. If you get an email or a message that's a little bit vulnerable, let's say that it's a little bit on the edge, whoever's giving that to you, much more difficult to acknowledge the vulnerability and reward that in plain text. And so one of the things that you can do is send a voice memo, record a video.

0:19:42.5 Junior: And in some cases, that's even faster than responding to a long email. But that's one of the things that I've found to be extremely useful is to be very intentional about the modality, about the medium of the communication. And I found that, you know, just like you and I right now, not necessarily to the listeners, but you and I, we can see each other. We can look at how the body language looks. We can look at the expressions. And it's important that we consider that in all of our communication, how that plays into vulnerability. So if someone says, hey, here's an example. Junior, unfortunately, I found a mistake on this piece of content that we put out or in this piece of technology or whatever the case may be. I could write back in plain text. It's OK. That happens. Let's move on. Right. And on the other end of that message, holy cow, you don't know where I'm at. Whoa. Whoa. And you may read that back to yourself and say, oh, you know, I think he's upset. I think I think we really stepped on a landmine here. It's not good. Alternatively, I can send a quick voice memo and say, hey, thank you for sending me that message.

0:20:57.4 Junior: I appreciate it. We're not going to bat a thousand. I get that. I realize that this was a mistake, but, you know, I'm on the hook for it, too, because of this, this and this. Let's just make sure the next time we change this thing so that we get a better outcome. So I'm good. I appreciate all you're doing. Have a wonderful day. Yeah. And completely change my voice. Right. Completely changes the dynamic. So I know it's a little bit, you know, off the rails here, but I think that that's something that's important to call out as a tool.

0:21:23.9 Tim: Well, it is true. Now, does tone come through words? Yes. Just in the example that you just gave. But in those few words, right, it's short. And because of it, it sounds terse. It sounds short and it sounds abrupt and it sounds rude. Right. Yeah. And there's no context. There's no we're not setting things up. We're not establishing context. We're not doing any personal connection. We're not building any rapport. Yeah. So we have to be careful about that.

0:21:57.6 Junior: It's something that I've had to work on personally as someone who in an attempt to be efficient or pragmatic or whatever word you want to use, you shoot back a quick message. Right. Yeah. And I'm guilty of that just as much as the next person.

0:22:11.4 Tim: But you use a lot of use a lot of video, though, Junior.

0:22:15.1 Junior: Oh, I do.

0:22:16.3 Tim: So what have you learned?

0:22:17.7 Tim: Because you use more video than most people and you're very good at it. What have you learned doing that?

0:22:23.1 Junior: I appreciate the question because it's something that I've had to develop because of the feedback that I was getting and because of the responses that I could see around me. And again, you know, for me personally, I don't bat a thousand, but I've become better. And video is such a rich format that it allows you to really buffer whatever the message is and make sure that you're not being misconstrued or misinterpreted. And so if there's an email, I do this client facing as well. I send a lot of video. I just find that for me, that's the best way to get my point across and ensure that like even right now I'm using my hands, I'm being expressive. And I just find that there's so much advantage in doing that, helping the person see that on the other side of this message is an actual human who's talking to me. It's not a keyboard and a robot is just shooting me a message that's terse and short to your point. There's just more richness, the intonation. We can choose our words in plain text and that's important and that's a tool, but it will not replicate what we can communicate using video or face to face or some of those other things.

0:23:32.4 Junior: So I would just encourage everyone to be intentional about that. It's something that I've found to be very valuable myself, something that I continue to work on. And in many cases, it's actually more efficient. That's right.

0:23:43.8 Tim: There's the irony. I know. You do a better job. I know. You're communicating emotion better. You're giving a more thorough message. You're probably even giving, yeah, you are. You're talking about, you have an opportunity to talk about implications and contingencies and questions that you anticipate already. You can address those. So you're doing a better job, more efficient. We have the benefit of your facial expressions, your vocal characteristics, all of those things. It's just a more complete communications experience.

0:24:21.3 Junior: Yeah. And there are a lot of enabling tools that help in technologies coming a long way. So red zones and blue zones and vulnerability and communication and all of that richness, we want to move into vulnerability happening across four categories, coincidentally stages. You've heard us talk about the four stages of psychological safety, and we're going to be talking about vulnerability as it relates to those four stages in what we call the ladder of vulnerability. Some of you may have been present for the webinar we did earlier this year on the ladder of vulnerability. Some of you may have your results in front of you from that experience. It's something that we have found to be extremely valuable. The point is vulnerability is different for every person. I liked what you said earlier, Tim, about the fact that I'm the authority of my own vulnerability. You can't tell me what's vulnerable for me. And likewise, I can't tell you what should be vulnerable for you or what shouldn't be. So vulnerability happens across the four stages. And as a quick refresher, those stages are stage one, inclusion safety, stage two, learner safety, stage three, contributor safety, stage four, challenger safety.

0:25:34.9 Junior: So we're going to be going through each of those four stages and helping everyone realize which acts of vulnerability might lie in each stage. That helps us understand how we can respond to those acts of vulnerability most effectively to improve the cultures of our teams. So stage one, let me give a brief definition. Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to be included, accepted and belong. It means it's not expensive to be yourself. You're accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics. So Tim, you mentioned that showing up can be vulnerable for people. It can be risky. Does that fit in here?

0:26:16.5 Tim: It does. Right. Because showing up is an act of vulnerability associated with being included or not being included.

0:26:24.5 Junior: It's the first thing we want to know. It's the first thing. So at stage one is inclusion safety. Do I feel included, accepted? Do I feel a sense of belonging, connection, appreciation, valued? Showing up is the initial encounter with the social unit. And so then what happens, right? So here we go. Here's the first encounter. We're coming into contact here. What's going to happen? And so that obviously is an act of vulnerability related to stage one inclusion safety. So let me give you some more. And we have a more comprehensive list in the actual asset, the ladder of vulnerability. We'll provide a link to that in the show notes. I found that to be a very valuable resource. It's free, but you can go ahead and download that and get access to it and see the full list. But here are a few additional acts of vulnerability that we might put in this stage. Recognizing another person's major life event, acknowledging someone's presence, disclosing a weakness, expressing individuality and dress or appearance, encouraging another person, joining a social setting, walking into a meeting, turning on your camera in a virtual meeting, offering praise, providing allyship, setting and holding boundaries, sharing something about your personal life, sharing a challenge, speaking in public, speaking with an accent, talking about your mental health, validating another person, reading a prompt.

0:27:48.8 Junior: This is just a short snippet of the acts of vulnerability that we could put inside inclusion safety. So hopefully that provides some color, just going through a few of those to the breadth and the number of acts of vulnerability that happen all the time.

0:28:06.4 Tim: Yeah. So Junior, let's go back to the definition. Part of the definition of inclusion safety says it means it's not expensive to be yourself. So for all of you listeners out there, just go through this exercise. Think about a time when you were in a social situation, some setting, and you felt that it was expensive to be yourself. What that means is that you have a sense of punished vulnerability. It's expensive. Stage one inclusion safety means it's not expensive to be yourself. So anything associated with being your genuine, authentic, complete self relates to stage one inclusion safety. You can tell, right? You have the internal equipment, the perceptive capability to feel whether it's expensive to be yourself or to what degree it's expensive to be yourself. And we've all been there. We've all been in situations where we felt that it was expensive to be ourselves. Yeah.

0:29:14.7 Junior: I mean, you put yourself, you're 14, you're getting ready to go out and you're deciding which pair of shoes to put on. There's a pair that you really liked, but you're not quite sure if everybody else is going to like that pair of shoes. You're doing this equation. Is this going to be an expensive choice or could this be an expensive choice? And it might not be a fantastic example, but there are others and we have each had those types of experiences where we're doing that calculation and we're trying to figure out like, ah, I wonder, you know, what's the spectrum of risk in making this decision. It really is who I am, but is this going to be rewarded? Is it going to be punished? And it also is important to note that you may have made one of those choices in the past and you were punished for it. People didn't like those shoes and they let you know. And those experiences can be much deeper than that. They can be much more personal than that. And those are experiences that we each have, that everyone around us has. We're a basket of experience.

0:30:16.8 Junior: And that's part of the reason that we perceive vulnerability differently is you may have had a few of those experiences that still live in vivid memory inside your brain that you can call to mind at a moment's notice. And some of those never leave us. It may have been a learning experience. It could be, I mean, we'll talk about the subsequent stages, but inside inclusion, particularly social rejection, that's one of the most difficult things a human can go through and the way that it's processed. We know we've learned a lot about that and it's a very, very important category, something we need to pay attention to.

0:30:54.5 Tim: Junior, here's the dilemma. So you come away from, well, and to your point, what do we remember? We remember experiences that are remarkably good or remarkably bad. Unremarkable experiences kind of fade from memory. They don't stay with us. But we could just say, well, human interaction is a vulnerable activity. Therefore I will avoid human interaction. There you go. So there's the answer. The problem is that you are biologically and socially and emotionally and spiritually driven to connect. You're not going to come to that conclusion. Even if you have experienced painful social rejection and painful punishment of your vulnerability, you still have that deep human need that you want to satisfy. It doesn't matter how many times it's been punished. It doesn't go away. Good point. But your need to satisfy that human longing that we long to belong as humans, that's not going to go away even though it's been punished so many times. And so what happens is what are we striving for? We're striving for healthy connection. It satisfies this deep seated human need. What often happens, and you can see the pathology with people, is that if they can't achieve healthy connection, they will often resort to unhealthy attention as a close substitute.

0:32:15.6 Tim: But of course that's not good. And it leads to all kinds of negative unintended consequences, right? That could be destructive for the person and destructive for others. But the need to connect is so deep and so persistent that it doesn't go away even though we have bad experiences. But as I said, sometimes we will resort to unhealthy attention if we can't get healthy connection. I think we need to think about that.

0:32:43.1 Junior: Deserves a lot of thought. Yeah, it's got my mind going. This is a fascinating question. So if we take one of these, sharing something about your personal life, that's an act of vulnerability. Let's talk about how we might reward that, how we might punish that. This happens all the time. And if you're not hearing about people's personal lives, you may have a problem. This may have been an issue in the past, and now you're not hearing about it because of the way that you responded. Food for thought. So if someone shares something about personal life, let's say we're at work. One of the things that we could do is ignore it, move right into the item of business, whatever else is next on the docket. And I think we've probably all been guilty of this. There's stuff to do, right? There's stuff to do. So, hey, you know, I did this thing yesterday. Oh, that, you know, that's really great. So about this piece of work, the person is probably less likely to share something like that in the future, depending on how harshly you punish it. But if you ignore it enough, you brush it to the side enough, you're going to stop hearing about it.

0:33:48.2 Junior: And that person is going to stop reaching out for that connection. And you're going to start to move into that red zone territory. And depending on the nature of the situation, it could spiral downward into very crimson red, and we're not in a happy place and the team is dysfunctional. So we moved from neutral to negative very quickly in that example. Alternatively, oh, that's very interesting. Thank you for sharing that. Here's something that happened to me. I remember when this, how did you feel when that happened? Fascinating. Tell me more. That response is different. It shows curiosity. It shows intent. It shows investment. You're taking some time. And so that's something to pay attention to is you can look at each one of these acts of vulnerability and keep an eye out for them in your day to day life. And not just how you respond to them, but just watch other people, observant third party, right? How other groups of people are interacting with each other, the team dynamics, peer groups, and how those things flesh out when someone does one of these things.

0:34:54.3 Tim: Let's come back to your example. Let's just split it up into verbal, nonverbal. Yeah. Let's start with the nonverbal. So if you share with your team or someone on your team, some personal experience, something personal, nonverbal to reward, I would face you physically. To punish, I would kind of turn away. To reward, I would maintain eye contact. To punish, I would not make eye contact or I would not maintain it. To reward, I would listen actively and with sincerity. To punish, I would look as if I'm not listening or I might interrupt you. To reward, I might summarize what you've said and try to convey that back to you. To punish, I wouldn't say anything.

0:35:49.4 Tim: So there are so many things that we can do to demonstrate interest, to demonstrate good faith, to demonstrate genuine intent, to demonstrate that we care or not. You have incredibly well-calibrated equipment to sense whether the response is a punishing response or a rewarding response. Humans have very good equipment, high sensing equipment when it comes to responses to vulnerable behavior.

0:36:23.8 Junior: It's also reasonable to believe that a lot of what happens on the punishing side is unintentional. So punish seems like a very active word, but it can just be the result of neglect. It can be the result of just not paying enough attention. And so that is an important thing to keep in mind is that we may not be actively punishing, but just not paying enough attention could be punishing and vulnerability. One of the ways that I see just as a practical note to really punish vulnerability is to have a phone out. I've seen that time and time again. Technology can be a killer when you're having a conversation with somebody, be it in person or even virtually. So in person, let's say I've got my phone out, I'm not maintaining eye contact, I'm looking at whatever's going on on my phone or my watch.

0:37:08.4 Junior: And digitally, I've seen this too, which has kind of been an interesting thing over the last few years is in a video call, you don't see what's on my screen. I might be doing something totally different, looking at a different part of my screen and you're talking to me, but I'm doing something else and my mind is not there. And so that's something to keep in mind as we talk about stage one, inclusion safety is presence is very important. Attention is very important. And as you say, we have great detection equipment for whether someone is really paying attention to us or not.

0:37:39.2 Tim: Junior, that reminds me of an example from, it's not too long ago, but we can punish each other's vulnerability one-on-one, but we can also do it in groups. Give an example, I was with an executive team not very long ago and we're all together in a room and what does the CEO do several times? Gets his phone out and he's doing whatever he's doing on his phone. Email, whatever. And we're having extremely important discussions with the executive team and he didn't do it just once. He did it several times. Well, that's a way to scale punishing vulnerability, to do it in a group setting. And it wasn't benign. Everybody was, I think they really felt that and they felt embarrassed and rebuffed a little bit by that. They really did. And so this just highlights the importance of self-awareness when it comes to rewarding or punishing vulnerability. Because the other thing that we need to mention is that sometimes you unknowingly punish vulnerability and you really didn't mean to, that was not your intent. Well, that's a case where intent does not match impact. And even though you may have had good intent, your impact was negative and adverse.

0:39:07.3 Tim: And so we have to pay attention. At some point, impact counts. And that takes us back to self-awareness. You can't just keep saying, well, I didn't mean to. Really sorry, I didn't mean to. Yeah, you can only do that so many times. You can only do that so many times before you're under the obligation to be more self-aware and to be responsible not only for intent, but impact.

0:39:29.8 Junior: I'm glad that you said that it wasn't benign. It's a fair point. And one that we need to pay attention to because rarely is interaction completely neutral. It usually will fall to one side of positive or negative. And that needs to be the assumption. I think a lot of us think that, oh, it's just par for the course. It's just normal. Like the realm of normal or innocuous or benign is like really broad and we really live there. That's dangerous. I think that the more practical, useful assumption is that neutral is like a knife's edge and that you're usually going to be on one side or the other. That's right.

0:40:10.1 Tim: Unless you can stand on the knife edge. And you can't. As you say, you're going to fall to the rewarding side or the punishing side. So I think the operating assumption is that there are no neutral responses to acts of vulnerability. They don't exist. And even if there were one, I would still say, assume that there aren't any.

0:40:32.9 Tim: Yeah. It's just not useful. They don't exist. I certainly haven't seen one yet.

0:40:37.6 Junior: I think that's fair. So stage one, inclusion safety. So that's the first rung on the ladder of vulnerability, if you will. It's one of the first things that we look for when we enter a social group is do we belong here? And that occurs not just once, it's ongoing. It happens all the time. And we need to pay attention to the way that we respond to those acts of vulnerability. And consequently, we naturally are going to be paying attention to how people respond to our own acts and that will dictate our behavior. So if you find yourself in a team that's really quiet, think about this. It may be one of the things that's happened is that that has been punished for long enough that people aren't, they're not engaging the way that they were before.

0:41:12.7 Tim: Junior, let me just point out one other thing.

0:41:17.2 Tim: And that is, we did talk about the fact that this is personal. What that means is that people on your team are not having the same experience. Often we assume that, well, we have this culture on our team and everyone feels this way. That's not true. People have individual experiences based on, as you said, the confluence of factors, your upbringing, your socialization, your lived experience, your knowledge, skills, your confidence, your sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. All of these things are coming together to produce your ability to perceive punished or rewarded vulnerability. So the reason I say that is that you may have a team where eight out of 10 people feel a high degree of inclusion safety and they feel that their vulnerability is consistently punished, but two members of that team may feel marginalized. They may feel that they are in the shadows. They are having a different experience. And Junior, as we know, because we are measuring teams every week from around the world and we look at these data, this is the reality. They're having an individualized experience. Now, can we capture and measure the prevailing norms of a team? Yes, we can.

0:42:41.3 Tim: But even with that, it doesn't mean that there's this monolithic, uniform, standard, shared experience. Often that's just not the case at all. There's a lot of variance at the individual level in what the experience they're having.

0:42:57.3 Junior: Yeah. Thank you for calling that out. So let's move to stage two, learner safety. We're going to move through the subsequent stages a little bit faster now that we have this format. So let me read a brief definition for learner safety. Then we'll go into some of those behaviors that are acts inside this stage. Learner safety satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. You feel safe engaging in the learning process, including all aspects of inquiry, experimentation, and analysis. Acts of vulnerability in stage two relate to learning and the discovery process. Because learning is fraught with uncertainty and risk, every person brings some level of inhibition and anxiety to the learning process. So let's go through some of these behaviors. Admitting you don't know, admitting you made a mistake, asking a question. I like this one. Asking a second time for help with the same question or problem. I love that. That's a good one. Yeah. Discussing past failures, giving a wrong answer, experimenting, slowing down to ask for clarification, stretching yourself, sharing past mistakes, listening to better understand someone's perspective, looking something up that you previously didn't know.

0:44:01.1 Junior: So again, shortened list from the ladder of vulnerability. These are some behaviors that I see people engaging in all the time and that I engage in myself. And the same rules apply in this stage. These acts can be punished. They can be rewarded. If they're punished, we get into a red zone. We have low performance, low engagement, high turnover, all of the consequences of low psychological safety that we don't want. Conversely, you start doing enough of the rewarding side of the equation and learner safety and what are you going to get? You're going to get a lot of questions. You're going to get a lot of admitting you don't know, discussing failures, experimentation, all of the raw material that you need for innovation. This stage is crucial as it relates to the path to innovation. It's crucial. If you don't get this stage right on that path, it's unlikely that you're going to move much far past this.

0:44:52.6 Tim: Well, Junior, you just mentioned 10 or 12 examples of acts of vulnerability that relate directly to learning. So for all of the listeners out there, ask yourself this question. Can you do your job without engaging in these acts of vulnerability? Can you just do your job? And the answer is clearly no. You can't even do your job. That's how important these acts of learning vulnerability are. These 10 or 12 that Junior just listed off, you can't do your job without engaging in these. So you will be engaging in these acts of vulnerability. That's a foregone conclusion. So now we got to think about, well, what kind of response pattern are you getting? Is it consistently rewarded? Is it consistently punished? Is it a mixture? What's going on? That's how crucial this is.

0:45:36.1 Junior: Imagine a scenario in which these acts are punished as early as onboarding. Think about that. What that does for the socialization of the new team member into your team and organization. If this starts getting punished out the gate, how's the person going to respond? Well, they're not going to keep asking questions. And so they're going to start faking it. They're going to start trying to, I guess, figure out without talking to anybody else, what is it exactly that I should be doing? You're not going to be able to gain all of the insight from the addition of the team member in terms of their different perspective, their expertise. This is one of the things that is top of mind for me because I talked to a couple of teams recently where this was the case, fairly new teams, fairly new team members. And it was not a safe place to learn. And so pretty soon, the heads just go down and people try and get to work with what they think they should work on. And very quickly, you have a pretty dysfunctional team. So very interesting. And this is true, of course, not just in onboarding, but throughout anyone's tenure in any team.

0:46:46.7 Junior: But I just see that as so important during the onboarding process to get these norms right during team creation. If you're having some sort of reorg or there have been adjustments, setting these norms right from the outset is, man, very important.

0:47:02.7 Tim: Think about what happens when acts of learning vulnerability are consistently punished. It pushes people underground and it pushes them into workarounds. So for example, if you're in a red zone and it's punish vulnerability and you make a mistake, what are you going to do? Many people will hide the mistake, bury the mistake, certainly not admit the mistake because it exposes them to retaliation, negative consequences, all kinds of things. But think about just learning. So if I can't have a fruitful discussion to ask questions, to give and receive feedback, to experiment with different ideas, then what am I going to do? I'm going to find a workaround. I've got to go try to talk to someone or consult some other source. So think about what that does to productivity and efficiency. Think about what it does to coordination and collaboration on the team. Think about what it does to alignment. Think about what it does to engagement. The first and second and third order unintended consequences. Wow. Once you start just trying to get your arms around those, it's incredible what happens because you set in motion. It's not just that someone engaged in an act of vulnerability and then someone punished that.

0:48:18.3 Tim: I wish we could confine it to that, but that's not where it ends. It sets in motion a train of consequences that keeps going. And if that is a recurring pattern on the team to punish acts of learning vulnerability, it doesn't take long before you have a very dysfunctional team, even a toxic team, and the team can't perform. That's where we go. So there's no isolation here. It keeps going. Everything's connected.

0:48:47.4 Junior: I appreciate that. Let's go to stage three, contributor safety. And if you want more of those learner safety behaviors, again, you can find that link in the show notes to the latter. Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to make a difference. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to offer a meaningful contribution, and you are given an appropriate level of autonomy, support, and guidance to make that contribution. Acts of vulnerability in stage three relate to making a meaningful contribution and reflect a willingness to be held accountable for your performance. So let me read a few of these. Accepting a challenging assignment, acknowledging mistakes, errors, or flaws in your performance. Asking for forgiveness, asking for resources, asking for more time. Giving note is something you know if it's beyond your capacity or competency. Communicating bad news, correcting another person's mistake, holding someone accountable for performance. So now we've moved into the performance zone, and we're talking about contribution, the actual job. And these acts of vulnerability can be just as risky, if not more in some sense, than some of the preceding stages. Because it's about your performance. There are some real downside risks if you are not performing or doing some of these things.

0:50:03.1 Junior: If they're punished the wrong way, it can be trouble. Asking for more time. If there's something that's high stakes, low margin for error, that deserves a little bit more time and reasonably could use the time, there's not something catastrophic that happens on the other end if you don't get it and you don't have it. Yeah, it's amazing. It's amazing. Talk about clinical environments. We've been talking, having that conversation recently with healthcare organizations. We've had the privilege of working with many of them. Contributor safety, you can't take advantage of people's skill. You can't take advantage of their time and effort and energy, certainly their discretionary effort if these types of behaviors are consistently punished.

0:50:49.7 Tim: Junior, I want to go back and I want to talk about basic human needs and I want to make the connection again because what we're talking about again is rewarding or punishing vulnerability. If we punish vulnerability in any of these stages, we are blocking, we are preventing another human being from satisfying their basic human needs. That's the connection that I just want to emphasize this again. If we go back to stage one, if we punish your vulnerability in stage one, we are preventing you from being included.

0:51:28.3 Tim: That's a basic human need for you. If we consistently punish your acts of learning vulnerability in stage two for learner safety, we are blocking your basic human need to be able to learn and grow and develop mastery. We're getting in the way of you satisfying that crucial human need that you have. Now here we come to stage three. If we punish your vulnerability in stage three contributor safety, we are blocking, we are preventing you from satisfying your basic human need to do what? To contribute and to achieve autonomy, an appropriate level of autonomy. Those are basic human needs to be able to make a meaningful contribution, to do work that matters, to be able to create and contribute value, and then an appropriate level of autonomy that would be associated with that. I just want to emphasize the connection. If we punish vulnerability, we are preventing people from satisfying their basic human needs. That's how profound this is. This is what we're talking about. Now the needs are in different categories that align with the stages. That's why when we go through the stages, we can think about it with much greater clarity. But that's how deep this is.

0:52:49.5 Tim: That's how profound this is.

0:52:52.1 Tim: When we're talking about punishing someone's vulnerability, we're talking about getting in the way of them satisfying their basic human needs. I can't say that enough times. Oh, it's powerful. It is very, very powerful.

0:53:06.4 Junior: And I don't know that we think about it that way. And if we do, we probably don't often enough. And so thinking about it that way, using that lens, I think is very, very powerful tool, very motivating tool for us to be conscious of our behavior and to motivate some change in the areas that need a little work. So let's move to stage four, challenger safety. Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. Again, the basic human need, as you mentioned. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there's a need or opportunity to improve. Acts of vulnerability in stage four relate to challenging the status quo and creating value in new and different ways through innovation. So here we talk about the innovation threshold and the model of the four stages of psychological safety. That's what this is all about, is breaking through that barrier, that threshold. And in many cases, it is a barrier that needs to be smashed through to get to the other side is very difficult to achieve stage four and stay there. It's not like you go there and you're there forever.

0:54:10.8 Junior: This is something that's dynamic as each of the stages are because these acts of vulnerability are happening daily and they're being rewarded and they're being punished. And that ratio is changing ever so slightly every day. And it's very, very dynamic. So let's talk about some of those behaviors. We have very bluntly challenging the status quo, then disagreeing with a boss, disrupting the status quo in the presence of those who built and maintain it. I love that. Oh, wow. Exploring an idea without an answer. Love that one. Failing in an attempt to apply a new idea, making an unpopular decision, launching a minimum viable product that you know is not perfect, offering an opinion based on gut instinct that may not be clearly supported by data, offering an opinion when you lack experience or deep expertise, offering criticism of the way things are currently done, offering what if we did, didn't ideas, saying no to an idea that has merit but may not be the best idea. So for those of you who are concerned with innovation, think about the way that you respond to each of these behaviors. That will give you a very good idea of how likely it is that innovation is happening at a high level inside your team.

0:55:21.3 Tim: And the second question is, can you innovate without doing these behaviors? Absolutely not. I've never seen a team do it.

0:55:28.3 Junior: I've never seen a team do it. And I've never seen a team do it predictably or consistently. And that's something that I think is worth just double clicking on is there have been instances where we see innovation and a lot of this type of safety isn't present, but it's very sporadic. It's very sporadic and it requires a tremendous degree of resilience and the ability, as you sometimes say, to muscle through the fear that most people are not willing to do. This is too risky and it makes sense. So if you want some semblance of predictability and consistency around the innovation, albeit incremental even, it's important that you're rewarding consistently all of these types of behaviors that lie in the realm of challenger safety.

0:56:19.0 Tim: That's right. Well, to your point, Junior, we're talking about what's the goal? The goal is we're trying to create an incubator of innovation. We're not trying to do innovation on an ad hoc basis, on a haphazard basis, on a one-off basis. That's not the goal. We're trying to develop sustainable, innovative capacity on the team or in the organization. And so if that's what we're trying to do, then we have to create the conditions that are conducive to that behavior. That means that challenging behavior and dissent and that creative abrasion and that constructive dissent and that tolerance for candor, that's all rewarded behavior. If that's one-off behavior, if that's unusual behavior, then we cannot create that incubator of innovation that you're talking about. But let's go back to your original question that you asked for all listeners. What is your response to think about yourself? Do some self-reflection. What is your response typically to these acts of vulnerability when others engage in them? What are you doing? What's your response pattern? Are you able to handle these acts of vulnerability? Or is your insecurity getting in the way? Is your ego getting in the way?

0:57:35.0 Tim: Is your pride of authorship getting in the way? So this is a diagnostic question for the individual. How do you respond to these acts of vulnerability when they're committed by others on your team?

0:57:49.0 Junior: One of the things that's striking to me about this list is that sometimes acknowledging or rewarding these acts of vulnerability may fly against your style. I want to talk about style for a second because in innovation, and maybe it's because I often look through the lens of strategy based on my role and interests and training, and I see this one offering an opinion based on gut instinct that may not be clearly supported by data. There are many, many leaders that would consider themselves to be data driven, right? Teams that are data driven, and that if you don't have the data, don't even bother bringing it up because we don't make decisions based on intuition or logic or gut instinct. We base decisions on the data. What if somebody has a good idea that it hasn't been borne out by the data yet? Do you want that idea?

0:58:42.2 Tim: That data is not there yet. They're ahead of the data.

0:58:44.4 Junior: Yeah. Do you want that idea or not because if you stress the data too much, and insert, you know, replace data with whatever, but if you emphasize that too much, you may be putting the blinders on your team to what might lie at the periphery that's early or it's just enough out there that we don't have enough to really give a really well constructed argument. You want that data as a leader. You want those ideas and they may not go anywhere, but you want them.

0:59:18.8 Tim: Yeah, it's a great point, Junior, because normally we want from our people, we want data and we want a logic tree. If you bring a point of view, if you bring a suggestion, if you bring a proposed course of action, bring me data, bring me a logic tree so that I can understand how you got from data to conclusion and why you're making this recommendation. Which is reasonable. That's totally reasonable. But when it comes to innovation, how much data do we have in the future? We have zero. We don't have any. And so we have to extrapolate. We have to make assumptions. We have to create hypotheses. That's how innovation happens. And so we have to be very, very careful about what is admissible and what is not admissible in terms of ideas and what behavior we're willing to reward. This is very, very important when it comes to stage four, challenger safety and acts of vulnerability. It's very important.

1:00:12.8 Junior: And it's funny because you say those in the same breath. You want the analysis, you want the logic, you want the sharp thinking. But if you're too dependent and too rigid in your structure of evaluation, you could miss some really key points. So we need to stay open to that. Open enough that people will come with those ideas, even if they're half baked.

1:00:35.2 Tim: One other thing that I'll mention is that innovation almost by definition means that something has not passed the test of obviousness yet. Because if it had, everybody would be able to see it and everyone would be doing it. And so an innovation means that you're seeing beyond what most people can see. You're making a connection or a synthesis that people haven't made yet. It has not passed the test of obviousness. That's why it's an innovation. And if you do it, then it may hold the promise of competitive advantage. That's the nature of the terrain. That's the landscape when it comes to innovation.

1:01:18.5 Junior: And it may not, but we want to hear about it anyway. That's right. So we've covered a lot of ground so far today, Tim. We've talked about the umbrella of vulnerability that's kind of surrounded and covered this conversation. We've talked about red zones and blue zones. I would highly encourage people to use that language. Red zone, punished vulnerability. Blue zone, rewarded vulnerability. And we've talked about those acts of vulnerability being categorized across the four stages. Inclusion, all of those behaviors related to feeling a sense of belonging. Learner, being able to ask questions. All of those acts of vulnerability associated with the learning process. And then contribution and then challenging the status quo. And so what do we do from here? What are the action items? There are a couple of things that I want to point out as we move into the tail end of this conversation. The first one, and this is kind of overarching, is to pay attention to the norms surrounding vulnerability and all of the social collectives of which you're a part. At the team level in your organization, perhaps most importantly, if you're here for inclusion and innovation and a high performing culture in your team, do that.

1:02:32.3 Junior: Pay attention to the norms that surround vulnerability. Don't go in with any agenda at the beginning. Just observe. And one of the things we like to recommend to leaders is to create their own master list of acts of vulnerability. Just jot them down, write them down, document them, and then observe your team as it engages in those acts and pay attention to whether they're being rewarded or punished. Pay attention the next time someone asks a probing question in a meeting, pay attention to what happens. Even if you're not the one that's answering the question or asking the question, it may be even better if you're not. Pay attention to what's happening after that question is answered. And then observe, okay, longitudinally, let's say I've got a week or two of data, and I've got a lot of acts of vulnerability that I've written down that I've observed, that I've observed being engaged in and responded to. What's the pattern? Am I seeing red zone patterns where vulnerability is consistently punished? Or am I seeing blue zone patterns where vulnerability is consistently rewarded? That's one of the most important, powerful diagnostic exercises that a leader could do regarding culture.

1:03:37.9 Junior: Regarding it, I mean, just generally anything that you could do, any activity that you could engage in, that would be on the short list of high leverage, most impactful. So in conclusion, we've talked about the workplace being a vulnerable place. And it takes-We can't change that part. We can't change that part.

1:03:57.8 Junior: That is a law. It's a law in organizations. It's a law in human interaction. We cannot remove the vulnerability associated with human interaction. Can't do it. That vulnerability is important. Regardless of where you're coming from and what your perspective is, what your job is today, if you're concerned about humanity and you feel a moral force that's pushing you, vulnerability matters. And if you're concerned about team performance and you feel a competitive force that's pushing you, vulnerability matters. Those are shared goals across teams and organizations. They are goals that we share here and they're important things to pay attention to. Okay everyone, thank you so much for being with us today for this episode of Culture by Design. We appreciate your attention, your listenership. It's our goal to put out quality content that's useful for you as you engage with your teams and organizations. We hope that we've been able to do that today and with the Culture by Design podcast. If you liked today's episode, please leave us a review. Share this with someone that you think would find it valuable. With that, Tim, anything else before we sign off for today?

1:05:10.3 Tim: Well maybe just one thing and that is that hopefully this discussion will help you in your quest to increase both social and self-awareness and become sensitized at a higher level to be able to identify acts of vulnerability real time and then to be able to do everything that you can to make sure that those acts of vulnerability are rewarded rather than punished.

1:05:31.9 Junior: Fantastic. With that everyone, we will see you next time. Have a wonderful day. Thanks so much. Bye bye.

1:05:45.2 Producer: Hey Culture by Design listeners, you made it to the end of today's episode. Thank you again for listening and for making culture something that you do by design and not by default. If you've enjoyed today's episode, please be so kind to leave us a review. It helps us reach a wider audience and accomplish our mission of influencing the world for good at scale. Today's episode show notes and other relevant resources related to today's topic can be found at forward slash resources. And with that, we'll see you next episode.

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