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humor vulnerability armor 550 px

As I move through life with my psychological safety-noticing glasses on, I’ve noticed a trend. These behaviors have probably been around forever, but I am looking at them with new eyes. What used to be funny is now a threat to psychological safety and the effectiveness of leaders and groups.

I first noticed in my leadership workshops that a few of the participants weren’t fully engaging in the activities. Instead of following instructions and practicing new skills, they were joking around. At first, I suspected that they were just being obnoxious. However, as I really looked at what they were doing, I realized that they were avoiding taking the risk of performing the skills incorrectly and looking silly.

In leadership workshops, we talk about the value of failure in learning. I have them sign their names with their dominant and nondominant hands to feel the difference. We are comfortable with our dominant hand, but signing with our nondominant hand is uncomfortable. We don’t do it all the time, and we aren’t good at it.

I warn participants that the uncomfortable feeling will come up as they practice new skills and that it’s OK. Actually, it’s required because if they don’t try anything new, they leave my workshop exactly as they walked in, and our time together has not been used well. Even with all that prep, some people in the group were not engaging and going all in.

Creating psychological safety so that people feel comfortable trying, and perhaps failing, is partially my responsibility as the group leader. I ensure that no one makes fun of anyone else. I call out any derogatory comments. I remind the group of the ground rules that they came up with and agreed to. I encourage and applaud them when they give something a shot. However, it’s still up to the participants to take that final leap to vulnerability, to show their true authentic selves, and to go all in on the exercises that we do to practice new skills. I was seeing a lot of joking around that was keeping them “safe.” They were using humor as armor to protect themselves

Instead of playing the role laid out in a conflict-resolution scenario, they were being funny – and they were funny! Hilarious at times, but the hilarity was keeping them and their fellow participants from experiencing the discomfort of trying and mastering new skills. Simply, they were refusing to be vulnerable.

Right after noticing the use of humor to avoid vulnerability in workshops, I noticed the behavior in a meeting that I attended. It was a weekly meeting where there was a great sense of camaraderie. The people knew and liked each other. However, when they got up to speak, they worked to get laughs from their friends. They got those laughs by making fun of each other and guests. One speaker actually got a laugh at the expense of a visiting high school student. No one else in the crowd looked fussed, and I was appalled.

By comparing my reaction to everyone else’s, I deduced that my sensitivity level around behaviors that damage psychological safety is much higher than most people’s. The comparison also let me know why psychological safety and high-performing teams are so rare; the damaging behavior didn’t register to most of the group. It was normal, acceptable behavior in their eyes. They didn’t see a thing wrong with the situation because it’s what they are used to.

It seems that the need for laughs came from a bit of insecurity when standing up in front of the group. The group’s norm included making fun of each other. The speakers must have felt vulnerable and were trying to hide it by picking on others to get a communal laugh that made them feel good and like they were part of the group. They felt the need to get armored up to ensure that they were not vulnerable.

Vulnerable. There is that word again. When you want research on vulnerability, you go to Brené Brown, a well-known author and YouTube star who talks about shame, vulnerability, and bravery. I thought that her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead was the place to start.

Brown opens the book with this quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “Citizenship in a Republic” speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

Brown shares her reaction when she first read the quote. She thought, “This is vulnerability. Everything I’ve learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”

There cannot be great victories or joy without great risk. We must put our hearts on our sleeves and fully engage in order to achieve the goals in life that matter to us. Of course, we also face the possibility of failure and maybe embarrassment, but those things aren’t fatal. They hurt for sure! However, the best of us have shoulders broad enough to carry that risk and set an example for the rest.

In Kathy’s Ideal World, we all risk failure – and great success. We go out in the arena and fully engage in life. We allow people to see what matters to us.

We also all cheer each other on from the stands through both. We create psychological safety for every person who we come in contact with by applauding their efforts and never, ever getting a laugh at their expense.

Psychological safety helps to create exceptional teams, and it requires vulnerability and bravery. Psychological safety in life requires the same, but it’s how we begin to lead exceptional lives.

Get out there, and go all in! Be vulnerable and willing to fail magnificently! I am cheering for you from the stands!

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.