Radical vulnerability

How radical vulnerability in teams can lead to building better, more compassionate products.

Vulnerability is often cited as the DNA of a solid relationship.

Whilst studying highly efficient groups like Navy SEALS and teams at Google, Daniel Coyle cited “I screwed up” as being the most powerful thing a leader can say. In her search for what made people feel like they belonged, prolific writer and researcher Brené Brown found vulnerability was the secret sauce.

Radical vulnerability is about leaning into difficult subjects with honesty and openness in order to form deeper connections free from fear or shame. It is not a one-off disclosure, but a consistent, intentional effort in all our interactions.

How radical vulnerability in teams can lead to building better, more compassionate products.

It makes it easier to have awkward conversations.

When talking about healing from collective trauma, Thomas Hübl talks about two approaches to comfort someone:

  1. Gently reassure them that there’s nothing to worry about.

  2. Ask them to talk through how they feel and why.

Both approaches want the same outcome: to comfort someone. The difference is that the first creates distance, whereas the second creates closeness and trust.

Vulnerability is not just limited to personal disclosure. It is also about resisting the urge to guard our personal comfort when someone tells us something uncomfortable. It means taking a step back and allowing ourselves to sit in that moment and invite the other person to talk through their feelings, then offer a way to problem solve together if the situation calls for it.

This practice is consistent with how therapists create spaces where their patients can speak openly on difficult topics. When a therapist listens openly, without judgement, and actively, it allows patients in a heightened state of anxiety to co-regulate their emotions and feel calmer.

This approach can extend beyond our teams, and also become a way of deeply engaging with the lived experiences of customers to influence product decisions through co-design.

Generous listening is a request to our best selves and creates emotional safety through affirming people’s experiences […] When we’re stuck checking facts and therefore doubting the accuracy of people’s stories, we tend to hide from empathy and from examining our role in the situation (and changing what needs to change).

Mindsets for Co-design

It helps us be more inclusive of marginalised voices.

Anyone who has suffered some form of discrimination because of their gender, sexuality, race, disability, or income is on the frontline of what it means to be vulnerable. They may feel they have to be careful around others, and disclosing their experiences can be a risky and calculated decision.

At Touco, we were frequently told we stood out as a women-led team in finance and tech, but looking at wellness and health we were pretty typical. If anything, compared to the for-good and social enterprise landscape we were actually fairly homogenous.

This trend makes a lot of sense. There are whole industries where a lot of innovation is coming out of feeling excluded, personal stories of hardship, or taboo. These are spaces where vulnerability can often be the norm and therefore can feel like a safe space for otherwise marginalised people to have open conversations and impact.

When we make space for vulnerability, we invite and attract people whose experiences differ from ours to speak up and share their whole selves. It helps us to build inclusivity into our culture and, by extension, our products.

It improves our resilience and ability to get feedback.

When we make products and services, we are often told we need to develop a sense of empathy for our customers. However, empathy has become a problematic shorthand for assuming we intuitively understand how people think, behave, and feel. Saying we have empathy has become another way of building walls so we don’t have to be vulnerable with the people we make things for.

If Navy SEALS found strength in admitting fault, I’d wager answering “I don’t know” is a close second. When we let go of our fear of seeming stupid or lacking in telepathic empathy and instead claim to not understand something or someone, it opens us up to new opportunities and discovery. It engages our curiosity as we drop defensive attitudes we deploy to preserve our own feelings.

A true leader can say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” or “I need help.”
[…] one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned—that I don’t have to pretend to know everything.

Simon Sinek

It can be hard to be vulnerable about the things we make, and not fall prey to perfectionism and fear of failure. However, admitting to our mistakes is the first step in learning from them, and when we approach failure with a radically vulnerable mindset it allows us to see the potential for growth in everything. It makes it easier to share unpolished works, especially with customers and users, and open up conversations about what we hope to learn.

This all said, being radically vulnerable has not come easily to me.

As someone with ADHD, I am neurologically wired to find vulnerability difficult. However, I am finding the more vulnerable I am with others, the easier it becomes. By being open about my story and inviting feedback, I have found new opportunities and others to connect with driven by a similar purpose. It has allowed me to find a viable route to help others.

If you are on a journey of radical vulnerability I would love to hear where it has taken you (the good and bad) and any tips, tricks, or insights you might have ✨