Increase empathy, self-awareness, and team effectiveness when you change the conversation around vulnerability at work. Create a shared language and get actionable insight through your ladder of vulnerability.
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The Ladder of Vulnerability is a self-assessment meant to change how we view and talk about vulnerability at work. What’s vulnerable for you might be no big deal for someone else, and what’s easy for you may be debilitatingly difficult for them. Using The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™, we’ve identified increasing levels of personal exposure and risk associated with each stage. As team members climb that ladder, they need those acts of vulnerability to be rewarded to feel psychologically safe.
Human interaction is inherently vulnerable experience. We step out of vulnerability to feel protected, and into it to feel connected. This self-assessment will help you feel more connected to your team, so if you’re human, The Ladder of Vulnerability is for you.
We’d recommend reading the guide and taking the self-assessment. Once you get your results, invite your team to do the same. Compare your ladders and start the conversation around vulnerability in your workplace.
Our team set out to measure vulnerability at work by developing a comprehensive list of acts of vulnerability. We identified over 150 specific behaviors, including things like asking a question, pointing out a mistake, setting a boundary, apologizing, communicating bad news, saying no, admitting an error, or speaking with an accent. We then narrowed the list to 20 of the most common forms to account for the majority of vulnerable behaviors in the workplace. Applying an 11-point scale, we surveyed 2,025 individuals from 834 organizations located throughout the world to measure the relative level of risk associated with each of the 20 behaviors, by asking this question: “Using a scale from 0-to-10 where 0 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.” The results reveal a fascinating empirical pattern in the way people experience vulnerability at work.
The way team members perceive different vulnerable behaviors depends largely on whether those behaviors have been consistently rewarded or punished. Ultimately, rewarded vulnerability becomes the central mechanism for creating psychological safety and the key to a healthy and high performing culture.Variation at the respondent level is significant as reflected in an overall average score of 4.1 and a standard deviation of 2.6. This high level of data dispersion shows that people both perceive and experience vulnerability differently. Yet the mean scores reveal an overall hierarchy of interpersonal risk in professional life, with average scores ranging from 5.6, at the high end, to 2.7 at the low end. Here are the mean scores, listed highest to lowest, for the 20 acts of vulnerability:
Have you ever raised your hand to ask a question and then put it down abruptly? Why did you do that? You did that because your last-second risk/reward calculation put you on the punished side of vulnerability.
Human interaction is a vulnerable activity. 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, and the joys and satisfactions of the human experience.
Take human connection. You can’t experience deep belonging if you can’t be your authentic self. If you’re in a toxic culture or dehumanizing environment, you have to make a choice: muscle through the fear and be your authentic self, or modulate your behavior to reduce your risk. Whether you muscle or modulate depends largely on whether your vulnerable behavior was rewarded or punished in the past.
As a rule, humans step into vulnerability to feel connected and step out of it to feel protected.
In the workplace, vulnerability is not only necessary for inclusion; it’s central to learning, contribution, and innovation. Ultimately, an organization’s entire value-creating process is built on it. Vulnerability may be a universal condition, but how, when, and to what degree we feel vulnerable is deeply personal. The perception of risk varies based on factors such as personality, lived experience, acquired socialization, work environment, norms, job role, colleagues, and your direct supervisor.
Our vulnerabilities are shaped by past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, fears, and even our goals. They affect how we behave and perform, how we think and feel, and how we interact with others. We can’t entirely avoid the parts of life that make us feel vulnerable, but we sure do want to avoid discomfort and fear.There are some acts of vulnerability that feel more vulnerable to us than others. We call this The Ladder of Vulnerability, and you have a ladder that’s unique to you. That means that what’s vulnerable for you might be no big deal for someone else. The opposite is also true: What you expect to be easy for a member of your team may be debilitatingly difficult for them.
As individuals engage in acts of vulnerability in each of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™, they are often climbing a ladder of vulnerability. In other words, they feel an increasing level of personal exposure and risk associated with each stage. There are exceptions, but an act of vulnerability associated with Stage 4: Challenger Safety usually involves more risk than one associated with Stage 1: Inclusion Safety.
The purpose of this classification is to provide both a diagnostic and development tool for individuals and teams. If you can identify acts of vulnerability when they happen, as well as the response patterns that either reward or punish those acts of vulnerability, you will have a clearer understanding of the current state of psychological safety that exists on your team, and you will be better able to improve it.
It’s natural to want to avoid vulnerable situations, especially if our most vulnerable moments are consistently mocked, penalized, or shamed. As a form of protection, we live our lives in a constant state of threat detection. Our heads are on a swivel, eyes peeled for moments when we could be hurt.
Those negative interactions, which we call acts of punished vulnerability, bring out a natural fear response. It makes sense that in environments where we think we could get hurt we hide and try to fly under the radar. Essentially, we’re in survival mode. We even edit and modify our authentic selves to become someone that can’t be punished for who we are.
What happens when our acts of vulnerability are rewarded instead of punished? Those positive interactions draw out a performance response in us and we move towards innovation. Why? Because we’re finally allowed to thrive.
Some common instances of rewarded vulnerability include:
Some common instances of punished vulnerability include:
What are the benefits of understanding how you and others experience vulnerability at work?
First, most people have never systematically measured their vulnerability. Doing so gives you a deeper level of self-awareness about your own performance and level of engagement. In some cases, your internal barriers get in the way more than the external environment causes you to retreat. Understanding the relative risk you assign to different vulnerable behaviors can prompt you to reflect on why, and what you can do to remove your fears and inhibitions. The better you understand your current approach to vulnerability, the better you will be able to engage in effective prosocial behaviors.
Second, understanding the ladder of vulnerability sensitizes you to the vulnerability of others. You become more skilled at monitoring group dynamics and identifying vulnerable acts real time and then rewarding those behaviors to create higher levels of psychological safety. For example, I’ve watched a leader who listens carefully for even the most subtle signs of disagreement. He makes it a point to reward those early signals of dissent to further encourage the behavior.
Third, if you have a cultural problem on your team, the ladder of vulnerability can be a diagnostic tool to help you understand why the team is struggling and what to do about it. A helpful exercise is to examine how well your team rewards each of the 20 acts of vulnerability in the ladder. You can rate each one, using the same 11-point scale, resulting in an overall profile of cultural health. If your team consistently punishes specific behaviors, discuss ways to reverse that pattern.
Almost every cultural pathology is traceable to patterns of punished vulnerability and a lack of psychological safety. For example, if your team is quiet and nice but lacks the tolerance for candor required to innovate, you know people fear speaking up because there’s been retaliation in the past. If, on the other hand, team members routinely challenge the way things are done, that’s evidence of a reward pattern that will continue to build on itself.
Our vulnerabilities are shaped by past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, fears, and even our goals. They affect how we behave and perform, how we think and feel, and how we interact with others. We can’t entirely avoid the parts of life that make us feel vulnerable, but we sure do want to avoid discomfort and fear.