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How vulnerability propels team performance

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First, before this week’s article, I’d like to share something I’ve been hard at work on for the last several months. 

I’ve packaged some of my best ideas - and the evidence behind them - into a 5-day educational email course. The course is designed to take you from 0 to 1 on your path to peak performance. You’ll find real tools you can deploy today to help yourself think, feel, and perform better, reach your goals, and progress toward what matters most to you. 

If you want to get the free course, visit highperformanceplaybook.alexauerbach.com.

Now, for today’s newsletter.

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Last week, I witnessed something powerful.

I facilitated leadership training for a large electrical construction company in June. When we scoped out the work, the people in charge wanted to make sure the foremen - the leaders in the field - could coach, communicate, and bridge generational differences. The content was designed to be more of a workshop than a presentation, with interactive components nearly every 15 minutes. 

For the first few I did, I felt as though we teetered on the edge of a deeper breakthrough and discussion, but didn’t quite get there. The groups were engaged but playing it safe. I couldn’t get them past the day-to-day operational challenges they faced as leaders.

This was true until, literally, the very last minute of the last presentation.

Before I wrapped up my last talk, I asked if anyone had questions. 

[Trigger Warning: Suicide]

One member who had been part of a group that seemed to take the training lightly and had been reluctant to engage in the material spoke up about a challenge he still dealt with today.

He told the story of a young man who was part of his team. This young man delivered quality work, every day, for several years, he said. He was ready to help this young man move up, until one day he showed up a little later than usual. Not thinking anything of it, the foreman simply asked the young man to be on time the next day.

Except, there was no next day.

The young man took his own life that evening after finding out his partner was leaving him.

As the foreman recounted the story, tears welled in his eyes.

He talked about wishing he had slowed down enough to ask the young employee if everything was okay. About noticing something was off but being afraid to do anything about it. About how their workplace valued high output and high demand, and how that seemed to conflict, at times, with the real human element of the job.

What was supposed to be the final 5 minutes of my talk turned into an hour-long discussion of the real issues of leadership. The group which had been largely superficial for the first two hours started to share honestly about the challenges they faced.

They talked about giving tough feedback, and how that impacted employee morale. 

They talked about not knowing what to say when someone shared something deeply personal.

They talked about feeling guilty for being so stressed that they never stopped to check on their teammates.

They talked about the difficulty balancing authentic care for their team with not wanting to be perceived as “soft.”

What made this moment so powerful was that one person’s willingness to be vulnerable was the catalyst for an entire group connecting and moving to the next level of performance. One person pushing themselves showed everyone else how to do the same.

In this case, performance was about doing the deep work in training. Talking about real issues or weaknesses and how to address them. But I think the lesson is true in nearly any situation.

When you’re trying to build a high-performing team - whether it’s a team of foremen or a group of NBA players - how connected and real the team can be with each other is a function of how open the group and vulnerable is willing to be. It starts with one person taking the risk, pushing themselves in a way that others don’t expect and that they may not even expect of themselves.

If one person can go there, everyone else is forced to reckon with whether or not they want to be in the thick of it and support their teammate or be a passive observer.

When someone is willing to be honest and open, it creates an opportunity for others to do the same. Both ingredients are critical for teams working to identify and address shortcomings so they can rise to the top. If you can’t be honest about what isn’t working, you’re doomed to repeat it. 

Every locker room needs someone to lead that charge. 

In my experience, taking this step involves two critical factors. The first is not being afraid to be honest. In most workplaces, people are afraid to call it like they see it - pro sports included. The discomfort that comes with directly confronting a limitation is treated like something to avoid instead of what it really is. When you’re honest, you’re doing the team a favor. You’re helping them get better instead of pretending weaknesses don’t exist. 

The second is having the personal presence to tolerate your own discomfort in sharing if you’re the leader. The first person to take the step has the biggest leap into the unknown. 

If you can get past these two things, you have a way to elevate the performance of an entire team through honest dialogue, deep discussion, and real reflection. The end result is a team that’s not afraid to do the real work in service of being their best when it matters most. 

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