Incito Leadership and Executive Coaching


We need to talk about the big smelly fish


Mention shame and vulnerability and people instantly want to change the subject. Talk about it in the workplace? Not a chance. But, it’s exactly what we need to be talking about. We need to talk about it to create engagement and resilience, develop our people, and take real learning from setbacks and failures. By avoiding these two topics, we are limiting human potential and bottom line results in business. I had an awakening recently when diving deeper into the work of two thought leaders and it was a collision of thoughts that changed everything for how I look at my work as a leadership coach. I want to start with the first thought leader, Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher from the University of Houston Texas who conducted over 15000 interviews with men and women over 10 years.

She says vulnerability is not weakness. It is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It is the courage to show up and be seen when there are no guarantees. It is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity. There can be zero innovation without vulnerability. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There's nothing more vulnerable than that.

Then there is shame. No one wants to talk about it and we have a visceral reaction to shame. Shame is intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. It needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgment. The less you talk about it. The more you got it. It’s that big smelly fish in the room no one dares to acknowledge.

Shame sounds like. “Never good enough.” And “Who do you think you are?” Not smart enough, perfect enough, talented enough, educated enough, or powerful enough. Who do you think you are to challenge that decision? Who do you think you are to share your idea?

Now if you express empathy, shame can’t survive because I have be believe I’m alone. Once I share it, I’m not alone. Dousing shame with empathy creates an environment hostile to shame. Shame cannot survive being spoken because empathy is the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we're in struggle: me too. We have to talk about it.

Shame leads to limiting beliefs and reactive responses. It leads to controlling, protecting and complying. In a nutshell, it keeps you playing safe, comfortable and small. Just what you want in business right? Maybe not. So, if small and safe isn’t what you want… Vulnerability leads you from controlling to achieving and systems awareness. It’s the path to move from protecting to integrity and authenticity. And from complying to relating and self-awareness.

Not only have I been deeply impacted by the work of Brené Brown, but also by the work of Bob Anderson, the Founder of the Leadership Circle and author of Mastering Leadership. Bob did a little (ok, a lot) research over 20 years and found there’s a strong connection between business results and some interesting factors. He found that when leadership effectiveness goes up, business results go up too.

He found that when leaders became more proactive and focused on creating, their effectiveness went up. Those behaviours included self-awareness, achieving, relating, authenticity and systems awareness. And, when leaders focus on the opposite, the reactive behaviours of controlling, protecting and complying, business results struggled. And, he found the development path from reactive to creative was developed through vulnerability.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that when vulnerability & resilience go up, creative and proactive behaviours go up, effectiveness goes up and results go up. Vulnerability is the path to results. The only way to increase resilience in vulnerability is to talk about our struggles and hardest stories.

I want to leave this thought with you to consider: If you’re not daring to talk about shame and vulnerability, you’re not daring to maximize business results.