Unlock Your Team’s Full Potential With This One Simple Act

  • Written By 
  • Shalon Palmer

At Worship Online, I believe I have the best team in the world (I hope you’re reading this guys..and gal!). But as with any team or organization, we always have room for improvement.

One thing we’ve made it our goal to do this year is to better our culture. I think this is the most significant area we’ve struggled in the last couple of years. It’s not something you really think about in the beginning when you’re recording guitar tutorials in your makeshift bedroom studio. But now that we’ve got over 15 team members, it’s become painstakingly obvious how important this one thing is.

I’ve spent a lot of time researching the qualities of high impact teams as well as reflecting on my own experiences as a leader in church/worship teams and in companies. The more I focus on this, the more it’s becoming apparent that the things we think are important to building a “strong culture,” really aren’t that important. Things like team nights, rehearsals, getting coffee together, and even going over your team values, really aren’t the things that are going to make a drastic impact in increasing your team’s effectiveness and building a better culture.

You may already know this on some level or another, but I’ve also found that organizations don’t succeed because of any one person’s individual talent or skill. It takes everyone’s combined ability, which leads to greater intelligence not achievable by any one person. You know, the things that make you an actual team as opposed to a bunch of people running around relying only on your own individual skills and experiences.

Essentially, there are two things that any organization/team/group needs to be highly effective – trust and cooperation. These are the building blocks of a team that works as one. It doesn’t matter how many team nights you have, or how many times you drill in your team’s values and expectations. If you don’t have trust and cooperation, you’ll never get to where you want to go.

So this is where I found myself. Trust and cooperation…got it. But how do we create trust and cooperation? This question led me to discover the one simple act that unlocks the door of trust and cooperation, and has been doing it for years throughout history and the greatest organizations in the world.

This key is doing something that goes against our every instinct: sharing vulnerability.

To begin, let’s take a look at a couple of the most successful organizations in history and how they use vulnerability to achieve massive results.

Why Pixar Studios’ Employees Rip Into Each Other

I was recently reading about Pixar’s process for creating movies. If you know anything about Pixar, you know that they are arguably the most successful animated film studio in history, producing box office smash hits while even companies like Disney were failing at it.

Each movie they create goes through a series of developmental meetings they call BrainTrusts. These meetings bring the directors, producers, and studio veterans together to watch the latest version of a movie and offer their honest opinion. From a distance, you might see these meetings as a routine gathering. But up close, they are more like a painful medical procedure – dissecting the movie, people, and its flaws in great detail.

In short, these meetings are not fun. It’s where directors are told that their characters lack depth, storylines are confusing, and all their jokes fall flat. However, it’s also where movies begin to get better.

“The brain trust is the most important thing we do by far,” said Pixar president Ed Catmull. “It depends on completely candid feedback. All of our movies suck at first.  The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start to not suck.”

These meetings are only productive because of each team member’s willingness to be vulnerable with each other. When’s the last time you were able to openly accept feedback from others that essentially rips apart your creativity and hard work? It can be very tough, but according to Pixar, it’s the most important thing they do to get better.

It starts with vulnerability. It’s contagious, and it builds a culture of real trust with one another. We’ll talk more about how to get to that level of trust and cooperation, but first, let’s talk about another organization that uses vulnerability to accomplish massive goals, the Navy SEALs.

The Most Important Thing The Navy SEALs Do

The Navy SEALs, also follow a similar protocol in what they call an After-Action Review, or AAR. An AAR is a gathering that takes place immediately after each mission or training session.

As in BrainTrusts, team members name and analyze problems as well as face uncomfortable questions head-on. Where did we fail? What did each of us do, and why did we do it? What will we do differently next time?

These meetings can be raw, painful, and filled with uncertainty and emotion. But as the SEALs will attest,

“These meetings are probably the most crucial thing we do together, aside from the missions themselves. It’s where we figure out what really happened and how to get better.”

There are countless more examples I found of groups who seem to intentionally create awkward and painful interactions, that from a distance, can appear like the opposite of a smooth running organization. However, these interactions are what generate the highly cohesive, trusting behavior necessary for continuous cooperation. I’ll circle back to the SEALs and Pixar later.

What Is Vulnerability? And Getting To Know Strangers.

Imagine you and a stranger ask each other the following questions.

  1. What was the best gift you ever received, and why?
  2. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

At first glance, these two questions are similar in that they both ask you to disclose personal information. However, if you were the one doing this experiment, you would notice two differences. When you begin to answer the second question, your heart starts to race a little more, and you feel a little more uncomfortable.

Secondly, you and the stranger would begin to feel closer to each other – around 24 percent closer compared to the first question, according to experimenters who had strangers ask a similar series of questions.

They found that confessions, discomfort, and authenticity break down barriers between people and tip them into deeper connections. While the first question generated information, the second creates something more powerful: vulnerability.

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Leveraging Vulnerability For Ultimate Effectiveness

You may intuitively know that vulnerability sparks some level of connection between people, but you may not know how powerful it actually is. Especially in a group setting.

According to Dr. Jeff Polzer, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard,

“Vulnerability is not some ‘touchy-feely’ act. It’s simply sending a clear signal that you have weaknesses. And if that vulnerability becomes a model for others, that’s when you can set aside insecurities and get to work. You can start to trust each other and help each other. On the other hand, if you never have the vulnerable moment, people will try to cover up their weaknesses, and every little task becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.”

Being vulnerable is less about you and more about those around you. Polzer says

“You can actually see the moment when people start to relax and trust. The group picks up the idea and says ‘Okay, this is the mode we’re going to be in,’ and starts behaving according to the norm that it’s okay to admit weaknesses and help each other.”

I can recall countless times while leading a team where simply asking “Anybody have any ideas,” sparked a conversation that resulted in finding the perfect solution or creating something great. This simple statement may not seem like much, but it’s much more powerful than you may realize. Let’s dig into why that simple statement is so effective.

Why Vulnerability Is Magic

As the leader, you’re the source of power and authority that others look to for assurance and direction. Merely asking “anybody have any ideas,” opens a whole new dynamic to the group.

You’ve essentially said “I don’t know everything. I need you.” And just like that, now it’s no longer the leader and the followers serving two separate functions, but a unified group working together as one. No longer are all of the skills and experiences of the team being dampened by insecurity. You can see how vulnerability dramatically increases a groups willingness to cooperate.

Too often leaders try to pretend that they have it all together and know everything. And too often do those organizations fail or create minimal results. That’s why I always try to hire people that are smarter than me or have a particular skill set that I don’t. Then I get out of their way and let them solve problems.

That’s why my most important job as the leader is to facilitate trust and cooperation so that the best people to solve problems can and are willing to solve them. I see too many leaders get in the way of their own organization’s progress by being too high and mighty to show some vulnerability and admit that they need their team’s help.

The Truth About Leaping Into The Unknown

You may be thinking “yea, I get it, but it’s much easier to build trust and then be vulnerable?” Which actually is quite a logical way to think about it, and the way that most people have done it for years. I mean, you stand on solid ground (trust) and then leap into the unknown (vulnerability).

However, science shows us that we’ve got it backward. Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust, it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown with others causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.

Every moment your brain is scanning your environment and running a calculation on whether or not you can trust those around you. The bottom line is that you can fast track this road to trust and cooperation by showing vulnerability. It’s been proven by science, psychology, and the highest achieving organizations in the world time and time again.

How Great Leaders Express Vulnerability

Be on the lookout for how great leaders express vulnerability. The more I started becoming aware of this, the more I would see it. I noticed a baseball coach starting a season-opening speech with “I was so nervous about talking to you today.” You could physically see the reaction from the team as they smiled sympathetically and relaxed their posture.

You can even see this from seemingly invulnerable leaders like Apple’s founder Steve Jobs. He was known for beginning conversations with the phrase “Here’s a dopey idea.” (And as Apple senior vice president Jonathon Ive recalls, “Sometimes they were. Sometimes they were truly dreadful.”)

Another great way to build trust is to simply admit that you were wrong (just ask my girlfriend), made a mistake, or are struggling in a specific area. No one ever said being vulnerable was easy, but remember, this is less about you and more about the receiver. There is much more at stake than your personal feelings.

Each instance of vulnerability is slightly different, but the signal being sent is always the same. You have a role here. I need you.

I realize it’s not natural to be vulnerable. It can sometimes be challenging. But don’t avoid it, it’s your best friend. I believe that you can measure a teams level of effectiveness by evaluating the team’s willingness to be vulnerable with each other.

Vulnerability leads to trust, and trust leads to communication and being able to take more risks. I challenge you to start flexing your vulnerability muscle. Watch as your team becomes more open and trusting of each other. Even if you don’t lead a team, try this with those around you and watch as you get the same results.

By now, you may be able to see why I started with the stories of Pixar and the Navy SEALs above. Cooperation does not descend out of the blue. It’s a circle of people engaged in the risky, occasionally painful, ultimately rewarding process of being vulnerable together.

Keys To Achieving Greatness

1. Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often.

No moment carries more weight than the moment the leader signals vulnerability. As Dr. Polzer said above,

“The group picks up the idea and says ‘Okay, this is the mode we’re going to be in,’ and starts behaving according to the norm that it’s okay to admit weaknesses and help each other.”

Lazlo Block, former head of people analytics at Google recommends that leaders ask their team three questions:

  1. What is one thing that I do that you would like me to continue to do?
  2. What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more?
  3. What can I do to make you more effective?

Each of these questions signals vulnerability from the leader and makes it safe for team members to do the same.

2. Listen!

Despite popular belief, listening is an active form of communication, not a passive one. When people start talking, interact in ways that make them feel safe and supported. Be an active responder absorbing what the other person is saying and adding energy to help the conversation gain altitude.

3. Implement your own BrainTrusts or AARs.

Honest feedback is crucial to getting better as a team. Ask questions like what were our intended results, what were our actual results, what caused those results, what will we do the same next time, and what will we do differently?

In my experience, there is no way that common struggles like musicians not showing up prepared can survive when you’ve adequately implemented these practices and are continually drawing attention to where you can improve. You’ll know you’ve created an effective team when your team members start candidly sharing feedback with the group.

One Last Thing!

Finally, as my last example, did you happen to notice how I started this blog? Take a second to reread the first and second paragraphs. You’ll see that I opened with being vulnerable and honest about our struggles. My hope was to build trust and nudge you into being more open to reading what I have to say. Did it work? Let me know below in the comments.

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