The Stew BLOG

How Being Vulnerable Can Lead to Transformative Change

Kirsten Wysen, Project Manager, Public Health – Seattle & King County | 09/20/2017

In their book, An Everyone Culture, change leadership gurus Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan urge us to take a hard look at the reasons our behavior may be out of line with our stated aspirations. They encourage us to ask ourselves what unnamed fears are so strong that they block our ability to grow and cause us to behave in ways inconsistent with our values?

I recently had an opportunity to reflect on how my own fears affect my behavior, during a ReThink Health Ventures retreat last spring. I work as a project manager for Public Health – Seattle & King County, Washington, and we are one of six groups participating in Ventures, a project launched by ReThink Health to help give ambitious communities that extra push we need to accomplish the transformative change we’ve been seeking. During the retreat, we learned a bridge-building technique, new to many of us, in which we crafted our “Story of Self” to explain what brings us to this work. I shared with the other Ventures groups and the others on my team from King County what really motivates me in my work to prevent avoidable death and disease and to build healthy communities.  

Building Trust by Being Vulnerable

I told my story of coming from a long line of strong, independent women who have worked hard to raise their families. My great grandmother left her husband in the 1920s and created a new life, with her young son, as a school teacher in South Texas. My mother was active in the women’s movement in the 1960s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My daughter is likely to bring about the greatest social change of all of us when she completes her training in political science at University of California, Berkeley.

But my story is not complete without sharing the fact that I lost my mother to suicide when I was eight years old. While it was hard to see her suffer a debilitating depression in the 10 months before her death, my memories of her before this illness were wonderful, and she gave me a foundation of resilience to somehow sustain the loss. The small town we lived in became our “village,” supporting our family in visible and invisible ways over the next few years. I’ve been motivated throughout my career to find protective factors that might make such losses less likely for others. My interest in finding ways to prevent avoidable loss of life and health led me to the field of public health, a career—and work-life balance—that pays honor to my mother’s all-too-short life.  

Revealing this central fact of my life to my colleagues relieved me of the considerable effort it takes to hide it—such a habit that I almost don’t even notice anymore. I have long resisted being open with the “scariest” secret of my life, but in sharing it with my Ventures cohort, I was surprised to find strength in being vulnerable. As you may have guessed, in this safe space, I received warmth and support. My colleagues have since felt more comfortable to share their own pain with me, and we have found new bonds of trust and collegiality. I know I can reach out to them in a new and deeper way when I face a thorny health reform problem as we implement our Accountable Community of Health in Seattle, King County. I’ve been surprised to discover that being vulnerable is in itself an act of leadership that is important to building regional health transformation efforts with community partners from many sectors.

When Organizations Are Vulnerable

In being vulnerable with my colleagues, and seeing it reciprocated, I could sense the trust that was formed. A critical component of the Ventures project is building a network of trusted relationships, not only among those of us working closely with the Ventures coaches, but throughout the community. And just as an individual can be liberated by sharing vulnerabilities, organizations can also benefit from sharing their “dark secrets.” For example, organizations can be slow to admit what they do not know, often acting as if they have all the answers. But organizations actually have much to gain from bravely admitting uncertainty. Only then, by acknowledging what they do not know, will they welcome the valuable insights of community partners and residents.

After 17 years at Public Health-Seattle & King County, I’ve seen vulnerability lead to simple solutions with surprising results. I’m learning that vulnerability can mean being brave enough as individuals and organizations to let go of inauthentic claims of expertise, so that we can share our authentic expertise with those who know the context of a community better than we ever will. By sharing our doubts and being transparent about not having all the answers, we demonstrate that we are human and that we are eager to work together with community partners and frontline staff to imagine together new solutions to complex problems. I’ve worked on obesity prevention programs, for example, which we described in that way—“obesity prevention”—even though we had been told this term could be perceived as insulting or off-putting to some. When we asked our community partners how to improve results, one  suggested referring to the program as “having the right to fresh fruits and vegetables every day.” Though this described exactly the same healthy, affordable food access activities we had been leading for years, the positive and empowering framing resonated much more with the community and brought in more partners ready to get to work instead of spending time debating the name of the program.  

Another time, when we opened up about some of our challenges with our  grantmaking process and began to design a new one, community partners suggested that in our requests for proposals (RFPs) we ask specifically for four-page page proposals, rather than the typical 20 pages, and add an on-site interview to select finalists from among the highest-rated proposals. These changes in practice have led us to contract with more effective and better-connected community partners instead of those who can afford the best grantwriters. While developing this new RFP process required intensive and time-consuming back and forth between our team and potential grantees, this “go-slow-to-go-fast” approach has paid off many times over by helping us to develop deeper relationships right from the start. The approach–which we never would have come up with ourselves—has been so successful, it has since been adopted by other divisions of our department.

Listening to new voices and adopting thoughtful ideas from the community are actions that are consistent with our values. Yet without setting aside our fears and being open to saying “I trust you,” “we don’t know everything,” or “we are here to listen,” they would not have happened. The ReThink Health systems-thinking principles and storytelling methods have given our team new tools that encourage us to leave behind approaches that haven’t worked in the past. While some of these methods at first seemed counterintuitive to our needs for control and quick successes, we’ve learned acting from a place of vulnerability can be worth the risks and time.

For our team in King County—and I’m sure that our peers across the Ventures project feel the same—these are tools we will take with us long after Ventures comes to an end. When the political winds shift, as they always do, or when new partners come in with a different set of ideas, we will reflect deeply on our fears, determine whether these fears are blocking our personal or organizational growth, and work hard to open up and be vulnerable. If we don’t know the answers, we will say, “I don’t know.” And in this letting go, we will trust that being honest will bring us closer to each other, closer to our community partners, and closer to our goals.