Workplace Culture

Brené Brown at SHRM Conference: ‘Leaders Are Never Quiet About Hard Things’

By Mike Prokopeak

Jun. 26, 2019

There’s a leadership crisis at work and many leaders simply aren’t equipped to handle it.

The problem? Courage, or rather the lack of it. The good news is they can learn.

That was the message delivered by Brené Brown to kick off the second day of the 2019 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas.

“We need braver leaders,” said Brown, a best-selling author and professor at the University of Houston. “We need people who will build courageous cultures. Brave leaders will rehumanize work.”

The SHRM Conference brought together 20,000 HR professionals from June 23-26 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Brown joined entrepreneur Martha Stewart, business executive Vineet Nayar and TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie at the top of the speaker lineup for the HR industry’s largest annual conference.

A researcher by vocation, Brown has built a following through five best-selling books including her latest “Dare to Lead,” a TED Talk that’s been viewed more than 41 million times and her own Netflix special, “Call to Courage,” which premiered in April 2019.

At the SHRM conference, Brown highlighted the challenges facing organizations and spelled out broad steps HR organizations can take to help. At the heart of the leadership problem, Brown said, is that people need to have tough conversations. But many don’t know how and instead default to politeness and being nice to get along.

“We literally tap out because we don’t have the skillset,” Brown said.

The end result is organizations fail to improve productivity, drive innovation and boost individual and organizational success.

Barriers to Courage
There are several factors that hold leaders back, Brown told the audience. First and foremost, tough conversations are hard. But avoiding them only makes matters worse. For HR, that means equipping managers with skills to have challenging, productive conversations with their team members.

Many unproductive behaviors come from fears and insecurities that are often unspoken, Brown said. Leaders need to be able to probe the underlying reasons behind unproductive behaviors or else they end up “playing whack-a-mole,” dealing with one incident only to see it pop up again somewhere else.

Brown also said organizations need to embrace failure and help people avoid getting stuck in setbacks. That starts with teaching people how to bounce back, starting as early as onboarding.

One of the biggest barriers for leaders is action bias. Facing a challenge, many leaders go straight into problem-solving mode when they should instead step back and think, Brown said. The goal is to spend the time and energy to accurately identify problems. That means leaders need to embrace ambiguity and be comfortable not having the answer.

Tackling Bias and Discrimination
Leaders also need to embrace the mission of creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Bias, prejudice and the consequences of privilege at work are not going away. “Is it scary? Yes,” Brown said. Many leaders use their position as a shield, only dealing with issues when it affects them personally.

That’s short-sighted management. “If you can’t have those conversations, you will not be leading in the next five years,” Brown said.

Leaders and others in positions of power must recognize it’s their job, not that of people targeted by discrimination, to spark conversation about hot-button issues like bias. A leader’s role is “excavating the unsaid,” Brown said. “Brave leaders are never quiet about hard things.”

The good news is there are things leaders – and HR departments – can do to get better. “Courage is teachable, observable and measurable,” Brown said.

Embrace Vulnerability and Live Values
Vulnerability is the prerequisite of every meaningful experience in our lives, Brown said, and good leaders embrace the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure that comes along with it. Vulnerability is a source of strength, creating the psychological safety and trust that are key to high performing work teams.

One important caveat: Vulnerability is not oversharing. It merely means showing up to listen in tough situations without judgment.

It’s also imperative leaders live the values they talk about. That means turning abstract ideas like vulnerability and trust into specific work behaviors. “It’s better to not have values than to have values that are not operationalized into behaviors,” Brown said.

For example, trust can be broken down into seven observable and measurable behaviors:

  • Respecting boundaries and actively checking to see where they lie.
  • Being reliable and doing what you say you’ll do.
  • Practicing accountability by owning mistakes.
  • Holding information in confidence and not sharing what is not yours to share.
  • Acting with integrity by choosing what is right over what is easy or fast.
  • Being nonjudgmental in talking about how others feel.
  • Being generous in interpreting the intentions and actions of others.

Developing the kind of leaders who can thrive in today’s work environment is no easy task but the end results are worth it, Brown said.

More 2019 SHRM Conference Coverage:

Exclusive Video Interviews from the 2019 SHRM Conference

The State of #SHRM19 Speech: Wait Until Monday

Day 2 at #SHRM19: It’s All About the Underutilized Talent Pool

SHRM Releases Annual Benefits Survey

Mike Prokopeak is Workforce’s editor in chief.

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