Have you ever walked into a new job, role, or project team and felt entirely out of place? Uncertain? Uneasy? Green? Did you get a strange feeling in your gut when you realized, “I’m not the expert in this domain—in fact, I have no idea what I’m doing.” Thanks to Drexel University’s co-op program, we (Meghan in research and Erin in design) joined Intuitive Company this past April. Like all newbies, we became well acquainted with that sensation in our gut—a feeling we now know as vulnerability.
Being vulnerable often has negative connotations; it’s sometimes implied that a vulnerable person is weak, wimpy or exposed, but we don’t see it that way. And we’re not alone in our thinking. Articles on FastCompany and inc.com say vulnerability is a key characteristic of effective leaders and professionals. Other sources, like sociologist Brené Brown, say vulnerability is powerful. Believe it or not, vulnerability is the reason for our success at IC. We like to think of it as our “secret sauce.” As part of IC’s monthly Inspire Series, we decided to share our secret sauce with the company.
To introduce the concept of vulnerability, we invited our co-workers to participate in an “extreme snowball fight.” We asked everyone to write a little-known fact about themselves on a blank sheet of paper, crumble it up, and wait patiently. Next, we divided the group into two teams and asked them to line up on opposite sides of the room. Loud chatter, laughter, and chaos ensued as we commanded them to launch their “snowballs” at the enemy. To end the exercise, we had each person pick up the nearest snowball, read the fact, and search for the original owner. A few brave souls read their facts out loud for the group.
It’s no secret: vulnerability can open the door for judgment, criticism, and feelings of isolation. So why would we ask our co-workers to take that risk? Why have a snowball fight? Why ask them to embrace vulnerability? As it turns out, vulnerability is also a necessary catalyst for connection and professional growth. By embracing vulnerability, we invite others to see our strengths and weaknesses. We let them in on our secrets. We show our humanity. Quite simply, vulnerability is the key to connecting with others. If we defy vulnerability, we cannot experience the sense of belonging, friendship, and trust that evolves from authenticity. Furthermore, our willingness to connect with others can have a direct impact on our professional growth. If we make a concerted effort to connect with our co-workers and reveal our uncertainties, they will often fill in the gaps. But if we hide, we may miss out on the opportunity to acquire new information and skills that could help us boost our careers.
From conversations about our research and past work experiences, we developed a list of four key actions that helped us embrace vulnerability:
1. Launch yourself:
Jump right into that new project that you’re not sure if you can tackle. You may not be the expert, but don’t let that hold you back. Jump in wholeheartedly, and just do it!
2. Embrace mistakes:
Sometimes it feels as if we’re programmed to strive for immediate perfection. Avoid this unnecessary pressure and accept that it’s a part of who you are. Accept your weaknesses and identify areas of improvement.
3. Relinquish control:
Not only should you be embracing these areas of improvement as an individual, but you should also avoid wasting too much time struggling on your own and overthinking your mistakes. Invite others to help you work through your struggles.
4. Be authentic:
Last, but certainly not least, you must be true to your personality and represent yourself as you really are. Allow the good and the bad to shine through.
If you’re still not sure where to begin, start by taking initiative! Ask questions, have an honest conversation, and learn as much as you can from your co-workers. When we first started at IC, the thought of even talking to each other was frightening. But when we took the plunge and had an open conversation about our past experiences, strengths, insecurities, and goals, we formed a relationship built on trust. We started exchanging ideas and information about design, research, and strategy. We were more productive as a unit because we could rely on each other to fill in the gaps with our unique skills and knowledge.
As co-ops, it’s expected for us to act like newbies, ask questions, and generally, be vulnerable. However, regardless of your position or level of experience, we challenge you to embrace vulnerability. Launch yourself into a new venture, and trust that your colleagues will lend a helping hand along the way. Make connections and grow together. Act like a co-op.