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A Gift of Vulnerability and Psychological Safety – Say What?

By Michael McKinney, CTB

When I heard our people were making a Christmas album, I was a bit nonplussed—my eyebrows furrowed, and a bah-humbug sigh escaped my pursed lips. You see, my first reaction or instinct about something is often not in line with my beliefs. I can be a little narrow and reactive—driven by the urgency of now, by productivity and efficiency.

It’s not a trait I treasure; however, I am lucky to be surrounded in my workplace by creative people whose love of fun can bring unexpected and long-ranging benefits to all of us who work at AM Transport.

Take the Christmas Album as an example—talk about a labor of love and creativity. Now you might be wondering, as I was, what in the heck are we doing producing a Christmas album—we’re here to generate revenue. It’s a pretty good question—one I’ve been pondering.

First of all, I’ll give you a little information about our Christmas Album Who Knows Christmas: These Guys! The album features 13 full-length Christmas favorites from Blue Christmas to Winter Wonderland with the additional full-office rendition of We Are the World. Out of 32 on staff, 22 participated in the making of the album. We had duets and trios. People gave up their after-work time to sing songs together. As I watched it coming together, as I saw first-hand the excitement and genuine cooperation that went into the making of the album, I began to realize that the music itself was a gift to AM Transport, a gift that would create long-lasting bonds.

Let’s talk about vulnerability. Brené Brown, whose ground-breaking research has resulted in the famous TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability as well as the best-selling books The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatlyasserts that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation and creativity.” Now that’s pretty interesting, as most of us think of vulnerability as a very dark emotion, something we want to avoid because society tends to equate vulnerability with weakness.

What if Brown is right, and vulnerability is essential to creativity and innovation? If that is true, then coming together as colleagues and creating a Christmas album might be the smartest thing the team at AM Transport could do. After all, can you be more vulnerable than you are when belting out Christmas songs in front of your colleagues and friends

I had the pleasure of watching the joy and exhilaration in the people who sang songs together and alone for the Christmas album, and I began to realize how lucky I am to spend my days with a group of people willing to initiate and participate in team-building activities that other companies might pay thousands of dollars for.

Vulnerability may well be at the heart of creativity and innovation, but I believe it is also an important component of what researcher Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety” in the workplace. In Charles Duhhig’s excellent book about cultivating productivity in business and life, Smarter, Faster, Better,Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks,” as well as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” It follows then, that what the participants in the Christmas album felt as fun, exciting, creative, and joyful also helped to cultivate in them a sense of psychological safety in their work groups.

Singing is hard work. Let’s be honest—singing in the shower is nothing like singing in front of colleagues and friends. There is a vulnerability inherent in the act of throwing our voices out into the world. Each time one of the AMT crooners did this amazing thing, he or she received not only acceptance but encouragement. This cannot help but grow confidence in the group as a whole, confidence that this team is a safe place.

And as if “psychological safety” were not enough of a benefit, I was pleased to see the singers stretching beyond their comfort zones, taking risks. I firmly believe that this will translate to their work in teams and to the cohesiveness of the workplace. In fact, I ended up loving the idea so much, that I too participated on the group rendition of We Are the World and enjoyed first-hand the camaraderie and fun that comes from trying something new and risky with a group of friends and colleagues.

I can’t wait to see what this creative group comes up with in the year to come. I plan to keep my furrowed brow to myself and jump right in.

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