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The Ladder of Vulnerability

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Tim and Junior explain The Ladder of Vulnerability. We all experience vulnerability at work differently, and you have a ladder of vulnerability that's unique to you. This episode, and the online resources available to accompany it, will make it easier for you to talk about vulnerability at work. With these tools, you can change the conversation around vulnerability by providing a more practical, data-driven approach.

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Episode Show Notes

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Tim and Junior explain The Ladder of Vulnerability. We all experience vulnerability at work differently, and you have a ladder of vulnerability that's unique to you. This episode, and the online resources available to accompany it, will make it easier for you to talk about vulnerability at work. With these tools, you can change the conversation around vulnerability by providing a more practical, data-driven approach.

Human interaction is a vulnerable activity. (02:25) If you’re interacting with other humans, you’re at risk of harm or loss. But the same exposure that brings the possibilities of rejection, ridicule, and embarrassment also brings the possibilities of connection and fulfillment.

Not all vulnerability is equal. (17:01) Tim and Junior explain The Ladder of Vulnerability self-assessment, where, applying an 11-point scale, LeaderFactor surveyed over 3000 people from over 800 organizations throughout the world to measure the relative risk associated with the 20 selected behaviors.

Leaders don't adequately understand vulnerability. (41:42) In order to encourage vulnerability in the workplace, leaders have to both model it and reward it with those they work with.

The LIVE Model (43:25). Tim and Junior discuss the four steps to rewarding vulnerability:

  1. Look
  2. Identify
  3. Validate
  4. Encourage

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Episode Transcript


0:00:02.4 Producer: Welcome back Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddy one of the producers of the podcast. In today's episode we're going to talk about The Ladder Of Vulnerability. Yes, vulnerability. But it's not what you might think. Vulnerability is the risk of harm or loss and we experience that risk every day in every human interaction. Some interactions just carry more risk than others. This episode and the online resources we have available to accompany it will absolutely make it easier for you to talk about vulnerability at work. With these tools you can change the conversation around vulnerability by providing a different more practical data-driven approach. As always links to this episode show notes can be found at Enjoy today's episode on The Ladder Of Vulnerability.


0:01:03.4 Junior: Welcome back everyone to Culture by Design. My name is Junior and I'm here with Dr. Tim Clark. And today we'll be discussing The Ladder Of Vulnerability. Tim how are you? 

0:01:11.8 Tim: I'm doing well I'm very excited about this episode. I'm really happy and excited to dig into this.

0:01:14.5 Junior: We got a lot of data today. Data that people have never seen so I'm excited about that. I wanted to start out with a question so everyone consider this question. Have you ever raised your hand to ask a question and then put it down abruptly? Why did you do that? Tim have you done that? 

0:01:32.3 Tim: [chuckle] Who has not done that? I wanna take a minute on this. We need to talk about this for a minute. I think every human being that has ever lived has done this. It's a universal experience. Isn't that interesting in and of itself? Every single person has done that. Your hands going up, you're excited, you're eager you want to ask a question and then perhaps midway through you pull your arm down, you pull your hand down and you don't ask the question. What happened? Well obviously you were doing some kind of analysis in your head and you thought, "Oh I better not do that." Isn't it fascinating that every single human has done that so somewhere in that analysis process they said, "I think I'm going to be worse off not better off if I ask that question."

0:02:25.2 Junior: Well it's interesting to observe as third party as well because we've probably all seen this happen where you literally see the hand on its way up and then you see it pulled back down and so you're watching that person do the analysis in real time and as that hand is going up they're saying, "Okay what's the risk what's the reward of continuing to put my hand up", and they decided somewhere in that trajectory that it was too vulnerable. It was too vulnerable so we put it down. Now if we've all experienced this then it supports our premise which is human interaction is a vulnerable activity. Period. If you're interacting with other humans you're at risk of harm or loss. But here's the irony, the same exposure that brings the possibilities of the rejection we're considering, the potential ridicule or maybe the embarrassment also brings the possibilities of connection fulfillment and the joys, the satisfaction of so much of what is the human experience. And you've said ultimately where there is no exposure there is no experience. I love that. And where there is no experience there is no reward so maybe tell us a little bit more about that Tim at the front end here, exposure and experience. What do you mean by that? 

0:03:47.1 Tim: Exposure means that you are going to be vulnerable you're subjecting yourself to the risk of human interaction which inherently is a vulnerable activity. Unless you do that there's no potential reward from that human interaction, but of course you're exposed to the risk of harm or loss in doing that. So you can't have your cake and eat it too. You've got to jump into vulnerable behavior if you want the potential reward that comes from human interaction. There's no human interaction that is neutral that doesn't carry potential reward or potential harm or loss. There's no such thing. It's all fraught with potential reward and potential harm. That's just the nature of human interaction.

0:04:43.3 Junior: But one consideration that I'm thinking about as we're discussing this is that they're proportional so the exposure is proportional to the experience or to the potential experience so if there's very little to no exposure there's going to be little to no experience and I think that it's true at least in my experience that those relationships with which I'm most exposed I also have the most experience so really really interesting.

0:05:12.6 Tim: Yeah so that I think what you're saying Junior is the potential upside is proportionate to the risk that you're taking it's the risk-reward ratio that we often talk about in other areas of life, well that applies to human interaction perhaps more than in any other sphere.

0:05:30.0 Junior: Well and then based on that I probably revise my statement that exposure is not proportional to experience but exposure is proportional to potential experience 'cause there's downside risk here too. It's not just upside and I think that's very important. So this is what we're gonna be talking about today we're going to unpack vulnerability in a way that I almost guarantee you haven't heard before and we'll be sharing a few things that you certainly haven't heard before based on our newest research from our self-assessment tool called The Ladder Of Vulnerability. We will be sharing data and insights today that are brand new, that are practical, and in our minds very consequential. So listen up I think today is going to be a very interesting conversation. So Tim what do we mean in basic terms when we say that human interaction is a vulnerable activity let's go down this road a little ways.

0:06:22.7 Tim: Yeah I think what we mean is that if we're interacting as you said there's always that potential for harm or loss. There's no such thing as I just said earlier as a neutral human interaction. But that leads to a question, "Okay well if that's true if there's all this risk then why can't we just hedge against the potential downside all the time."

0:06:45.4 Junior: All the time.

0:06:53.6 Tim: All the time, let's live life and let's just hedge against that downside risk. Well, if we did that then we wouldn't be interacting with each other. So we would just be staying away from each other but we can't do that. We can't do that because we're human and we need each other we are socially and emotionally and biologically and spiritually driven to connect. We are relational creatures. We fulfill our deepest human needs as we're interacting as we're connecting as we spend time with each other as we share as we are being vulnerable and so we can't just... We can't live life trying to avoid that because then we miss all of the rewards and the fulfillment and that deep fulfillment that we talked about so we gotta jump in.

0:07:37.8 Junior: We do. So let's differentiate amongst the different types of risk that we might experience or encounter as we're dealing with other people because we can't just say, "Oh it's vulnerable or it's risky." Well what type of vulnerability are we talking about what type of risk? It could be social. It could be emotional. It could be physical. It could be monetary. It could be political. There are a host of categories that the risk, them might live. And so it's not just one-dimensional. When we're thinking about the risk of raising our hand maybe it's primarily a social risk maybe there are a whole bunch of people in that room that we don't wanna look stupid in front of. Maybe it's political. If I ask the wrong question or I make the wrong comment maybe that will hurt my upward mobility because of who's asking the question or who's in the room. Maybe because of that there will be monetary consequence. There are so many components to this. People often, and more often than we would like to admit they carry some physical risk in being vulnerable, so our behavior depends on how vulnerable we perceive the situation to be as well as the category of risk.

0:09:00.2 Tim: And Junior I wanna add a comment here because sometimes we are wrong in our perception of the risk that exists in a given situation as we engage in human interaction so sometimes we might put our hand down. We were going to ask a question but we put our hand down and in doing that we forego the opportunities and the rewards that come with that. Sometimes we're dead wrong and had we asked the question we would have learned something, we would have felt a sense of connection with those with whom we are interacting. We went without those rewards because we just didn't interact, our perception of risk was wrong. But it's also sometimes the case that our perception of risk is wrong and we jump into human interaction and we thought it was going to be fine we thought we were going to be rewarded for that vulnerable behavior and it turns out that we were punished and we're surprised, we're shocked by that. So we've had... Most of us have had enough experiences where the perception of risk was wrong and we miscalculated and we were punished and so that's why we get skittish that's why we are very careful in our threat detection analysis as we're interacting with others in a social situation because we're wrong on both sides sometimes.

0:10:31.5 Junior: I think that there's a leadership point to be made here which is that any time you have a group of people in front of you you don't know where they've come from. So they may be coming out of a toxic environment, maybe they're coming out of a really healthy environment and the way that they interact with you will be based on at least to some degree their past experience and so it's up to the leader to set the stage and be very intentional about communicating and creating a safe environment so that people have an accurate perception of the risk or lack of risk that exists when they're talking to them. Does that make sense? 

0:11:12.2 Tim: It does yeah.

0:11:14.7 Junior: Because people are coming from all sorts of scenarios which is another point that every social situation carries a different degree of risk so it's not that the risk is the same for you all the time the risk goes up and down depending on where you are and who you're with? 

0:11:31.9 Tim: Well Junior I think that that helps explain why we sometimes miscalculate in our risk management and our threat detection because we don't know where people are coming from we can't see and so we miscalculate on one side or the other we make assumptions about what's going to happen. And sometimes we're wrong.

0:11:54.2 Junior: So our behavior as I said before depends on how vulnerable we perceive the situation to be so if we think that it's highly vulnerable whether it is or isn't, if we think it is and we don't see any convincing upside we're going to withdraw. We're going to retreat, we're going to act out of self-preservation. If we perceive that it's not vulnerable or that the upside is high enough we engage we give discretionary effort we show a truer version of ourselves and there's a qualifier here that I think is important. If it's not vulnerable or the upside is high enough. I think those are the two things that we're considering it's not just risk. It's reward as well. So it could be that it's very risky but there's tremendous upside and so we're gonna go ahead and move forward. It could be that it's very vulnerable but the upside is not high in which case we're absolutely not going to jump in. So here's another point the vulnerability exists anywhere there are humans and there are humans at work so let's make the connection professionally. It may seem like an obvious point but if there are humans then there's vulnerability and humans are at work, so how is vulnerability expressed in a professional setting? 

0:13:25.1 Junior: It could be a lot of the same behaviors asking a question, pointing out an error, asking for more resource, challenging an assumption. So think of some of these acts of vulnerability in a professional setting relative to a personal setting, the risk profile changes as well as the potential upside, and so the political element, the monetary element, those types of risks and rewards play a more central role in the risk profile in a professional setting than they do in a personal setting. And so I think as a leader it's important for us to consider the risk profile of the environment in which we're operating and understand that people are going to interact differently based on that risk profile over which we have some control. And so if we take a moment put ourselves in people's shoes look at the landscape and say, "Okay this seems, this probably seems really risky to people" or "this seems pretty straight forward", I think that that will help inform our leadership behavior.

0:14:23.0 Tim: Well Junior just think about a team and think about the fact that a team has a leader and the leader has positional power the leader has authority, there's asymmetry in the relationships to begin with. And so what that asymmetry comes an asymmetry in risk, but often leaders as you say they're not appreciating that as much as they should they're not... This is where empathy becomes an applied discipline to be able to understand, put yourself in the shoes of another person when there is an asymmetrical relationship based on power and influence, well that is enormously important in helping us interact effectively and creating the conditions where people are more likely to engage in vulnerable behavior. They have to get to the point where it's predictable to them that they will be rewarded for that behavior not punished because the asymmetry is already there.

0:15:32.2 Junior: Well it's something that we have to work against as leaders and we talked about this at least an episode or two back about your positional power working against your objective. And the higher the difference the more difference there is in the positional power in the hierarchy the more work you're going to have to do to neutralize that difference. So to take a very active role and I think that that empathy point is really interesting to me. I've had to think about this more and more in my own journey because at the very beginning your relationships are bottom up or side to side and so you don't have to work against that positional power in your own case but as you progress often you do. You need to pay more attention to that. You can't just assume that people will think, "Well it's safe here." Or you also can't project your own perception of risk on to the other people in the interaction and you can't say, "Well it's not risky for me so it shouldn't be risky for you." That's absolutely not the way that it works. People bring their experience and obviously we're all in different situations and so that risk profile will be different. So as you say empathy as an applied discipline I really like that idea is very very useful especially when it comes to vulnerability as we're talking about.

0:17:01.5 Junior: So let's get into the research. Now the premise of this research is that not all vulnerability is equal. So how do we know this how did we test this hypothesis. So at LeaderFactor we conducted a study where we identified 150 vulnerable behaviors. Things like asking a question or admitting a mistake. We took that list of 150 which was pretty comprehensive. We narrowed that down to the 20 most common and then we applied an 11-point scale, surveyed over 3000 people from over 800 organizations throughout the world. So it was global data set, to measure the relative risk associated with the 20 behaviors that we selected. Tim any other points you wanna make about that list of 20 or that list of 150? 

0:17:57.6 Tim: Yes so this is the methodology that we went through to create this instrument so just think about all of the different acts of vulnerability that are out there. Some are very common that you likely engage in every day. That's what we wanted to identify those most common acts of vulnerability and then take out the ones that are more unusual, rare. For example look at the difference between asking a question which of course made the cut. That's a very common everyday act of vulnerability versus say something like speaking with an accent. Now that's an act of vulnerability as well but it didn't make the cut as one of the 20 most common so we had to narrow that down so that we could create an instrument that represented the vast majority of common acts of vulnerability and have a manageable scope for the instrument so that it wouldn't take too long to complete the instrument so that's part of what you have to do to make it a workable instrument. So we narrowed down to 20 and these 20 are the most common everyday acts of vulnerability.

0:19:22.0 Junior: So here's the language that we used in the assessment. Using a scale from zero to 10, where zero means no personal risk and 10 means extremely high personal risk, please rate the level of personal risk you feel at work when you engage in each of the following activities. And then we listed the 20, the respondents would plot on the scale, and then they would submit. We collected a whole bunch of demographic data as well, and we're in the process of gathering even more, and we're really excited about the research that will be coming out in the future relative to the demographics, it's fascinating. Never before seen, I think safe to say. So the results reveal a fascinating empirical pattern in the way that people experience vulnerability at work, so humans perceive vulnerability differently based on their lived experience, but there are patterns, irrelevant of their lived experience. So if in order to refute our hypothesis, what would we have needed to see? We would have needed to see equal distribution across the 20 most common.

0:20:36.3 Junior: That is not what we saw. We saw a ladder. And so what we want to do today is share some of the findings from the ladder, and then talk about practical ways that we can address some of the results of our findings and implement in a really practical way, some improvements.

0:21:00.8 Tim: And Junior, before you go into the findings, I just wanna say this, so what is this study attempting to do? It's attempting to systematically measure vulnerability. And so these findings that we're going to share now are really path-breaking. Its path breaking empirical research, we've never seen a study done like this where we're able to systematically measure these different acts of vulnerability and then look at the distribution and test this hypothesis about the fact that different acts of vulnerability are not created equal in terms of the risk profile that they present to the human family. That's what we're talking about.

0:21:48.3 Junior: So the research that we're going through, the materials that we're putting together will be detailed in the future, we're going to give just a tidbit today. So we wanna share the findings that we think are particularly interesting, which are the top three most vulnerable behaviors as perceived arguably by the human race, we think that the sample is pretty representative of the human race, and then we would invite you to think deeply about why the results might be the way they are. Okay. The most vulnerable behaviors. Number one, what do you think it might be? Think for yourselves, think to yourselves for a moment, what do you think it might be? Number one is giving an incorrect answer. Giving an incorrect answer is number one. Of the 20 behaviors respondents rated giving an incorrect answer as the single most vulnerable behavior. And it was more than double the risk of some of the lower behaviors, like connecting with your team. More than double the risk. Connecting with other people. Why is this the number one... I can't overstate how important this is and how interesting it is to me personally giving an incorrect answer.

0:23:10.3 Tim: Well, Junior, we need to qualify this too, because the way that we asked the question in the research was that we specified that it was at work, so it's in a work environment. So people are saying that the most vulnerable behavior that they engage in, in a work setting is giving an incorrect answer. So it begs the question, we need to think about why does that feel so vulnerable to people, what are the implications or potential unintended consequences of giving an incorrect answer, this is what people are worried about. It reflects on your reputation, it reflects on your credibility, it influences perhaps your opportunities for advancement, for progress, for upward mobility, it touches all of these things that people care deeply about.

0:24:10.8 Junior: It's fascinating to me because, my mind immediately goes to, why is this true? Why is this true? Why is it that this is a shared pattern across everyone we surveyed? There has to be something... Well, the past produced this, the experience of these people produced this result, so what was it about their experience from the time they were born to the time they took the survey that resulted in this answer. Think of how deep that socialization is about giving a correct answer. So the inverse of this is also true, that giving a correct answer would be the most important, and that's what we would need to hedge against the downside risk, so how much emphasis has society placed on giving the correct answer? Tons, if you think about traditional formal education, that's the whole goal, that's the whole goal, it shouldn't be, but that's the stated objective in so many courses, in so many programs, is we want the correct answer, that's what we're here for, and if you don't give the correct answer, you're wrong, that's a reflection of your intellect, it's a reflection of all of these things, your study habits, your work ethic, and we say all of those things must not be up to par if you've give an incorrect answer.

0:25:45.0 Junior: So you can see without too much trouble, how we got here, and it informs, I think, of a lot of what our behavior should be moving forward, and that's something that we'll talk a little bit more about. But let's move on. Number two, what do you think number two was? Number two was making a mistake. The second highest risk behavior, making a mistake, perhaps not surprisingly, both giving an incorrect answer and making a mistake are behaviors that reflect directly and negatively on the performance of the individual, and especially in a work setting. This isn't surprising. What do you think about this one Tim? 

0:26:24.5 Tim: These first two, these first two most vulnerable behaviors are siblings, think about how closely related they are, connected they are, similar they are. Giving an incorrect answer is a form of making a mistake, but making a mistake, there are all kinds of ways that we can make a mistake that are not the same thing as giving an incorrect answer.

0:26:46.1 Tim: So they're very much related, and I think that the risk profile is similar for each one, the potential adverse negative unintended consequences are similar. It's still reflecting on you personally, it's limiting the rewards and the opportunities that may come to you, and by the way, people are not assigning high risk to these two behaviors for nothing. Not only is there heavy, heavy socialization behind these behaviors, but there's also lived experience behind these behaviors. People have been living life, they've been working in a professional setting, and they have had experiences where they have given an incorrect answer or they have made a mistake, and it didn't go well, and they had to bear the consequences of that, and it was costly to them, so it's not just the perception of risk, it's the experience of the actual consequences associated with these behaviors that keep them at the top of the list in terms of risk, so I think we have to acknowledge that.

0:28:05.6 Junior: So we said that giving an incorrect answer and making a mistake reflect directly and negatively on a person's performance. Now, reputation and opportunities for growth and advancement are directly tied to performance, so we can see why in a work setting, these two would make it so that people hesitate to engage in them. They try to not make mistakes and they try to not give incorrect answers, is an important consideration. So let's go to number three. This is a little bit different. Expressing your emotions. So expressing your emotions ranks as the third highest risk behavior of the 20. Why? Tim, open this one up for us, why do you think that expressing your emotions ranks as the third of the 20? 

0:28:58.3 Tim: This is a different category of vulnerable behavior, so here's what we know from research, research shows that showing rather than suppressing emotions at work leads to greater mental health and well-being, provided the expression of emotion is regulated and it's non-destructive. So we know how important it is to be able to be your authentic, genuine, true self. And to present yourself that way. Otherwise, when we're not doing that, and we've all not done that, when it's expensive to be your authentic self, and we know that we engage in masking and we armor and we modulate and we co-switch. We do things like that. So we understand the benefits, but we also have had some experiences where it's been painful. Now let's think about what punishing behavior looks like when you express your emotions. Often its subtle Junior, it's about being ignored, it's about being rebuffed, it's about not being validated. It's those kinds of things where you put yourself out there, you're expressing emotions, you're in this state of high vulnerability, so the punishment can be, as I said, it can be simply being ignored, you're not overtly necessarily, or blatantly being punished, but people are just not, they're not accepting you, they're not including you, you're not feeling that sense of connection and belonging, because people are not responding to your emotional cues, they're not responding to your bid for connection.

0:31:02.7 Tim: And it can be extremely painful. Now, let's take it a step further. We have an entire body of research in neuroscience that is studying this, and the empirical research is all coming to the same conclusion, and that is that when you are rebuffed or punished for on an emotional level, that you neurologically, you process that the same way that you process physical pain. So think about that. So this is an extremely painful experience when you are socially rejected, social rejection, is tantamount to physical pain. That's how... That's how important this is. That's how significant this is in a person's life when they are punished for expressing their emotions.

0:31:58.1 Junior: Well, think about scenarios, experiences that you've had where you or someone that you observed expressed their emotions and were ignored or rebuffed. As Tim said, I remember a situation, someone came in to the office and they said, "Man, I'm not really feeling it today." I think were the words they used, and the manager said, "Well, you better figure out a way to feel it today, 'cause today is an important day." So why would that person be feeling the way that they're feeling? We don't know. We're not sure it could be, "Hey, you know what, I didn't get quite as much sleep as I wanted", or something small. It could be that something more serious happened, it could be that they're dealing with a really significant issue, and how are they going to feel when that's the response. "Well, you better figure it out."

0:32:54.4 Junior: Right, that's gonna hurt. Do you think that they're gonna express their emotions again next time? Probably not. And so you can see how we develop institutional patterns where, "Oh, here we don't talk about that", right? "That's not something that's discussed here, that is not something that we put on the table." And so people can start to recoil based on those patterns, and then if you're an observer in that situation, what do you think you're gonna do? You're not the one being punished directly, but you're observing the punishment of somebody else, well, you're not gonna venture either, and so you're gonna start to keep to yourself. So I wanna spend a moment and talk about the consequences of these things.

0:33:41.3 Junior: So what does this mean for an organization, what does this mean for you as a leader? Giving an incorrect answer, making a mistake and expressing your emotions. So let's say that giving an incorrect answer is consistently punished, that active vulnerability is punished inside your organization, then what's most likely going to happen? You're gonna get a whole bunch of correct answers, but let's think about that because, is that a good thing? You might say, Well, that's a good thing. At face value, I'm getting all of the answers that I get, like 98% of them are correct. Well, guess what, people are gonna give answers to obviously correct questions, that's what they're going to answer. Two plus two. Sure, I'll give you that answer. You give me something a little bit more complicated. Something that might have another level of discretion, something that might require some creativity, uh-huh, not gonna do it. Okay, making a mistake, what happens if we consistently punish that act? Well, we're not gonna see any more mistakes. Does that mean the number of mistakes goes down? No, it probably means that the number of mistakes actually goes up, they just get hidden. Right. How damaging could that be to an organization, right Tim.

0:35:03.1 Tim: Think about in a work setting, how much we stress things like operational excellence on the operating side, on the execution side of the line. Think about how much we value and emphasize innovation and creativity on the innovation side of the line. Now, put those into a setting where these acts of vulnerability are consistently punished rather than rewarded, what are you getting... You're getting people who are retreating withdrawing, who are managing personal risk, who are in a mode of self-preservation and loss avoidance. So just think about the consequences that you get from that kind of environment. There are two kinds of inquiry in organizations and Junior, we've talked about this before, there's explanatory inquiry and there's exploratory inquiry. Explanatory inquiry is concerned about cause and effect relationships related to current performance and past performance. Why are we performing the way we're performing. What are the cause and effect relationships? 

0:36:22.6 Tim: If we don't get a good outcome, what's happening? So let's go back and let's do some explanatory inquiry to understand why we're performing the way that we're performing, so let's look at the variables involved and the cause and effect relationships, or on the other side, we're doing exploratory inquiry and we're thinking about, well, what could we do, what should we do? What if we tried this? What if we tried that? In either case, whether you're doing explanatory inquiry or exploratory inquiry, if you are punishing behaviors such as giving an incorrect answer or making a mistake, who's going to jump in to this, who's gonna jump into the fray eagerly really lean into it and try to figure things out with energy and enthusiasm, with the recognition that we're probably going to get a lot of things wrong as we ideate and we iterate in these processes.

0:37:28.0 Tim: People are gonna self-select out, they're not gonna jump into these processes and help the organization move forward. The organization is a great brain, it's a great brain, we all work together, and the neuroplasticity of that great brain is based on the way that we interact with each other, so if we're punishing these acts of vulnerability, the overall neuroplasticity of the team of the organization is going to be compromised, it's going to be very poor. So how can we be this high-performing team or a high-performing organization if we're punishing each other's vulnerability, especially on these three top acts of vulnerability that we're talking about here Junior. Think about how compromised we become.

0:38:24.0 Junior: One of the points that's interesting to me is how, obviously this ties into organizational performance, organizational effectiveness. You talked about operations, someone might look at the category of vulnerability or psychological safety and say, "Forget it, I have an organization to run I have a business to run." But look how much these affect the institutional effectiveness, giving an incorrect answer or making a mistake, so we're also not so ignorant as to think that, "Oh yeah, well, let's just invite all of the mistakes, we want everyone to make a ton of mistakes that will be great for business." we understand that that it's highly contextual, and there are situations in which we cannot tolerate a mistake.

0:39:14.0 Junior: We must get it right, there is low margin for error and the stakes are really high, so we make room for that, but it's very important, even in those situations, that we're intentional about the way that we handle a mistake when it comes down the pipe. Now, number three, let's talk about for a second what happens in organization where expressing your emotions is consistently punished. Here's the way that I'm thinking about this, at the very beginning, we said that here there is no exposure, there is no experience. Sharing, emotion is exposure. So if there's no sharing of emotion, no exposure, there is no experience, so what does an organization look like where there's no true experience, do you think you're going to have connection, do you think you're going to have inclusion, do you think that that's a place that people would want to work and find renewal and find satisfaction and connection to be able to relate to other people. No, the only interaction that's happening in that organization is going to be very, very surface.

0:40:26.3 Junior: We talked about how the proportional, the relationship between those two things. And if it's very risky, okay, we're not gonna express our emotions here, but the consequence of that is that we're also not going to have inclusion, we're also not going to have connection, and so we're going to have a cordial professional working relationship, but I'm not gonna get to know you very much past that. So what happens when we have a really difficult problem to solve, what happens when we need to really red line for a second and support each other, figure out an issue that's plaguing the organization, a market opportunity. What happens when we need the discretional effort of our people, are we're going to get it? No. And that's really where this hits the fan, is you can't expect the organization to be adaptable, you can't expect it to innovate if these things are being consistently punished and that's where the rubber meets the road, where a business leader might look at this and say, Well, it sounds really soft.

0:41:34.1 Junior: Yeah, but look one order of consequence down the road two orders of consequence down the road, look at the ripple effect it's not sustainable.

0:41:42.6 Tim: I think it's unbelievably short-sighted when leaders don't recognize the unintended consequences of shutting down this kind of behavior, the overall success of the organization to execute well and to innovate well comes back to its ability to nurture intellectual friction. That's the raw material that we need both to execute and to innovate, this is how we solve difficult problems, this is how we create breakthroughs, this is how we innovate. If we don't have that, as you say, Junior, the environment starts to break down, it becomes stale, it becomes sterile, it becomes stagnant. And then what happens, people disengage and then ultimately they leave and you have a retention problem, your attrition is so high, so the train of consequences here is something that we understand now more than ever before, because the research is showing us this. So it's amazing to me how the emotional and the intellectual are connected in an organization. And yet, Junior even today, despite these liabilities that we're talking about, for example, hiding emotions at work in many organizations remains a firmly entrenched norm. Isn't that interesting? 

0:43:25.5 Junior: Yeah, it is. It shows just how risk risky it is, how pervasive this behavior is, so... Yeah, let's talk about that for a second, because relative to what we've found in the Ladder Of Vulnerability, we've also seen over the last many years that leaders do not adequately understand vulnerability in two ways, one, how to model it, and two, how to reward it, and because of this, we have organizations that punish those acts of vulnerability and they under-perform, so that's the bottom line. So how do we fix this? How do we solve this? We need to reward vulnerability, and leaders need to model vulnerability as well. So we've come up with a very practical tool called the Live Model, I think we mentioned the Live Model in an episode, maybe a dozen back, and live is an acronym, look, identify, validate, encourage. We go through those four steps as they relate to acts of vulnerability. So let's run through the situation that I described where the person walks into the office, they sit down and they say, Man, I'm just not feeling it today. Okay, as a leader, I'm looking around, I'm monitoring the behavior of my people, if I'm not looking, I miss that comment potentially, right.

0:44:54.9 Junior: Now, two, identify, I see that behavior, it's an act of vulnerability, even if it's subtle, and I identify it as an act of vulnerability, and a light goes off in my brain, a little alarm bell a little ding that says, Hey, right there, that was an act of vulnerability there it was. Now three, validate. Now, I said that the leader responded, well, you better figure it out, you better figure out how to feel it today. Okay, well, that was an example of punishing vulnerability, how might we validate after we identify. Here are a couple of things that I really like as go-tos, one that's really easy for me is, tell me more.

0:45:39.2 Junior: That one works really well for me, tell me more. I'm just not feeling it today. Tell me more. Well, you know this and this and this. And then another one, another really effective tool in this situation is mirroring the last few words, oh, this thing happened with my partner and also my apartment. Your apartment? Oh yeah, you know, my apartment, like this thing happened and my landlord and all of this stuff, and you just go down a few more layers, you're just asking, doing a little bit of inquiry, and then at the end, "wow, if I were in your situation, I probably wouldn't be feeling it either." Right. Okay, "I'm relating. We're on the same level and I'm pushing down that hierarchy. I'm a human just like you. If I experience something like that, I might feel the same way", right? And then encourage, "Hey, I appreciate you telling me that today, maybe there are some things that we can do this afternoon, make the load a little bit lighter, maybe you could take off 30 minutes early to take care of that thing." Great, you come away from that experience, and how do you think the person is gonna feel like they've been looked at, they've been validated, like they've been encouraged, and they'll probably be more likely to do that in the future, and then when you need their discretionary effort, it will more likely be there. Right. So it comes all the way back to business impact.

0:47:09.2 Tim: And so much of a Junior comes back to a person being willing to not only acknowledge what you're going through, but to emotionally be willing to share the burden a little bit, so a pipe underneath my sink broke in the kitchen and we had a flood last night. So that's what happened. You're not gonna solve that for me, you're not gonna fix that, you're not going to do anything that will materially and physically fix that problem or help me in that situation, but you know what you can do is you can help just carry the emotional load for just a minute, by going through those steps. You identify the vulnerable behavior that I'm engaging in, you validate me, and what I've been going through, isn't it amazing what that does in terms of lifting another person's burden, sharing that burden a little bit. And it doesn't cost you anything. It's not zero sum, it's not a finite resource for you to do that for another person and then to encourage them, that's what this is all about, that's what rewarding vulnerability looks like.

0:48:29.7 Junior: And it probably goes without saying, but this tool is applicable outside the workplace, this tool is applicable anywhere there are humans, right? And so we would encourage you to use this Live Model to think about it, think about those with whom you interact the most, and how you might use these steps of looking, identifying, validating and encouraging. And for those of you who want just a simple place to start, the next time someone shares something with you in that category that you think is an act of vulnerability, say "Tell me more", and try to lift that emotional burden just for a second, as Tim mentioned. So there are a couple of things that we invite you to do at the end of this episode, the Ladder Of Vulnerability self-assessment is free. We would invite you to take that so that you can see your own ladder, you can see those 20 acts of vulnerability rank ordered for you, that's what's super neat about the Ladder Of Vulnerability is that almost every ladder is unique, it's a unique order, unique combination that is consequence of your experience, your socialization in the way that you see the world.

0:49:42.5 Junior: In the future, we will be putting the average ladder side by side, it may already be there by the time that you take your ladder, which will be really interesting to see how you compare against other individuals, so know that that is forthcoming. And two, we have a downloadable resource for you that shows that more comprehensive list of acts of vulnerability that you can take a look at is the Ladder Of Vulnerability that is linked in the show notes. There will be links both to take the ladder and to download the PDF. Both of those are free. So go ahead and do that. And please share that. It's one of the most powerful things that we have done as a team. And it's one of the paid offerings that we offer is to have everyone in a team take the Ladder Of Vulnerability, share their ladders with each other this all done inside the app, and then create an action plan based on the ladders of your team that will show you the most frequently chosen behaviors, the most vulnerable for your team, a really cool thing to do, and another neat thing that I've done on a personal level is I've invited those that I spend the most time with to take the ladder and seeing a single person's ladder allows you to better support them in the acts that are most vulnerable for them, and that's taken some of my relationships to an entirely new level. So, Tim, any final thoughts as we conclude today.

0:51:10.1 Tim: Well, yeah, there are some summary thoughts that we could make. Number one, avoiding vulnerability is a self-protective instinct in everyone in all adaptable creatures. But here's the irony, it's stifles engagement and smothers innovation in humans. If we're too self-protective, then we're not engaging and we're not innovating, and so then that begins to work against us. So we need to keep that in mind. Number two, as individuals, we assign different levels of risk to different vulnerable behaviors, as we've been talking about this whole time, and we engage in threat detection before we commit those behaviors, and that makes sense because we wanna be rewarded, not punished, but we need to remember that as Junior said, the level of vulnerability that we have related to each of those behaviors is different, your ladder is gonna be different than my ladder. And then I think the last thing, if a teams strives to reward rather than punish vulnerability, that mechanism alone nurtures psychological safety, and it unleashes a fuller expression of the individual and a richer creative output from the team. So think about the consequences of that. If you can nurture psychological safety to where that team is consistently rewarding vulnerability, it takes you to a completely different level of performance and the experience is completely different at an individual level.

0:52:51.0 Junior: Awesome, well, Tim, I've really appreciated the conversation today, I've learned a lot, I had one or two light bulb moments that I'm going to write down, and hopefully everyone listening had one or two of those as well, some things that you can take away and put into practice today. So once again, take the Ladder Of Vulnerability, there will be a link in the show notes, download the PDF if you would like to. And thank you, thank you, thank you for your time, your attention. We appreciate your listenership, we're very grateful for the work that you do in the world, and we as an organization here at Leader Factor are here to support you. You can always reach out to us to learn more. We appreciate your likes, reviews and your shares. If you liked today's episode, please leave us a like, a review and share it with those you think might find it valuable. Take care everyone. We will see you next episode. Bye Bye.

0:53:52.1 Producer: Hey, Culture By Design listeners, this is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at, and if you found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share it with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about Leader Factor and what we do, then please visit us at Lastly if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture By Design podcast or even request a topic from Tim and Junior then reach out to us at or find and tag us on LinkedIn. Thanks again for listening and making culture something you do by design not by default.


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Episode Transcript

What’s a Rich Text element?

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

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How to customize formatting for each rich text

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