“I Don’t Know” Is Not In Our Vocabulary… But It Should Be

 trust in the workplaceWe’re wrapping our series on manager vulnerability. I thought it would be fitting to interview a human resources expert on the topic – and I’m delighted to share a Q&A from someone who was previously interviewed on my blog. I hope you’ll enjoy the contributions from Christopher Demers, SPHR.

There are benefits to vulnerability; it breaks down walls and enhances relationships and even builds trust.  Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? 

I absolutely believe in vulnerability as a fundamental element in both personal and professional relationships. For a good illustration of this principle, consider Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” wherein he argues that trust is the foundation of all teams. By this, he means, ‘I believe your actions and words come from good intent.’

As my former partner used to say, “assume good intent.” Vulnerability means sharing what you feel without fearing what others might say. Of course, they won’t always agree, but as Don Miguel Ruiz tells us, “it’s not personal.” Vulnerability allows us to be true to ourselves and it requires less energy because we get to be who we are in the moment. It is extremely powerful.

Do HR professionals find value in vulnerability? And if so, how do they ensure that employees demonstrate vulnerability in the workplace today?

I don’t believe HR professionals value this as much as they should. Understanding the power of vulnerability in a professional environment requires deep thinking, a trait not often associated with staff support. In our rush to get the so-called ‘seat at the table,’ HR professionals have been known to mimic alpha behaviors they see in the workplace without realizing the impact of those actions (and thus, dismissing those who show vulnerability as “weak”).

HR professionals who have studied group behavior know that vulnerability is a key element to group creativity. They advocate collaboration and trust by rewarding those who take chances within the confines of the team.

Of the primary ways to demonstrate vulnerability, do you find one that managers struggle with regularly?

I have to say “I don’t know” is the least utilized. People in management roles hate to admit that, but the truth is, the volume of unknown and unknowable material is greater today than at any time in the past . It’s nearly impossible to know as much as we pretend.  Yet, people insist they do know.

Especially in a social media-savvy environment, managers and leaders try to manage their image as much as possible – and telling others that they’re unsure about something, is clearly not in alignment with this image.

What ways would you guide a manager who struggles with vulnerability or transparency in the workplace?

The first message in helping managers understand vulnerability is this: they’ll never get commitment without it. Compliance? Yes. Effort? Yes. But, commitment? No. Collaboration? No.

It’s critical to understand that vulnerability is the price for team commitment. Referencing leaders who have owned their vulnerability – such as Steve Jobs, Herb Kelliher and Abby Joseph Cohen – helps gain perspective on the power of vulnerability.

Christopher Demers, SPHR has been practicing human resource management for 25 years: one day he hopes to get it right. His career includes time with P&G, Dell, Apple and The Home Depot, and he currently consults and contracts primarily in Talent Management and Leadership Development. He is a Lifetime Senior Professional in Human Resources, holds an MBA and a Bachelor’s and has taught the HRCI Certification Preparation Course at the University of Texas at Austin for over ten years. His home includes dogs, cats, children and grandchildren and lots of laughter.

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