Doing a Google search for “being vulnerable in business” brings up countless articles and blog posts, mostly emphasizing the same thing: brand authenticity, the importance of transparency when mistakes are made, and openness to criticism. If these practices are applied, the articles seem to suggest, you too can be part of the trend of being “flawsome.”
In thinking about this subject and preparing to write this post, I looked at a lot of self-aware ad campaigns, clever customer service responses and branding strategies. The examples I came across were all celebrated for being both vulnerable and daring, but there still seemed to be something disingenuous about them. There’s a discernible incongruity between a company embracing itself as something inherently comprised of imperfect people versus a branding strategy that’s aimed at humanizing a company as a separate entity, as if it itself were a person with shared vulnerabilities. The latter seems to be what’s trending. I can see us all trying really hard to be vulnerable in our business practices, but I think we’re doing it wrong.
Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection that “In our technology-crazed world, we’ve confused being communicative with feeling connected.” Replace “technology” with “flawsome” and read it again. Being vulnerable in business isn’t done by creating a collective communicative corporate persona. Queue “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” clip. That’s not vulnerability. That’s a company still striving for perfection, in a really weird way.
A few years ago, here at [meta]marketer, we had a proof-of-concept engagement with a startup company, trying to see if we could modify the services we offer to larger companies and create something agile enough for them to run with. After three months of aggressive testing, we didn’t come up with anything that would serve as a big boost. When we walked in for our final meeting, we felt pretty defeated. After all, we value our relationships and don’t want to waste anybody’s time. We handed the startup CEO our data and told him that we hadn’t come up with anything. He paused, looked up with a smile and said “Good. Now I know what not to spend our money on.” The failure we were preparing to report actually wasn’t; it helped him focus-in and crystalize what his marketing efforts should be.
Looking back, we could have been the ones framing that discussion: presenting our findings in a way that communicated what wasn’t working, which was actually a good thing to know. Fortunately, the CEO trusted us enough to know our integrity and that we were doing our best work. He had the right mindset toward embracing imperfection and vulnerability and taught us by example how to walk in it more freely as a company: relationships come first.
Being vulnerable in business is done by creating an architecture of belonging and starts with recognizing that we’re all people who are doing the best we can and that we’re not perfect — whether we’re the customer, or service provider. It’s a simple change in perception, but difficult to quantify. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Analytics are people. The data you collect represents genuine interests of real people.
- Relevance is a form of respect. This is done through empathy.
- Relationships matter. Cultivate happiness.
- Speak truth to power, but confront with compassion.
- Have an attitude and willingness to get the job done.
- Empathy leads to understanding, understanding leads to insight.
- Learning is more important than success; learning leads to success.
Vulnerability is more caught than taught. It’s practiced mindfully and holistically, wrestled with and embraced day-to-day, individually and in every interaction. It can get messy and feel like failure sometimes, but you learn and you grow and that’s when you know you’re doing it right.
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