‘The courage to be imperfect’: Are organizations ready for the next level of inclusion?

Vulnerability is traditionally associated with weakness

‘The courage to be imperfect’: Are organizations ready for the next level of inclusion?

If you search for a traditional dictionary definition of vulnerability, you will see the word is associated with weakness. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines vulnerable as “susceptible of receiving wounds, open to attack or injury”.

But you can’t talk about vulnerability these days without acknowledging the work of Brené Brown. Her iconic 2010 TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability”, popularized the idea that being vulnerable is actually a sign of strength.

This idea applies as much to organizations as it does individuals. Today, we see more and more organizations taking steps towards being vulnerable as a way of building positive brand equity with their customers and their employees.

Organizational vulnerability and brands

When brands are praised for showing vulnerability, it is often due to their parent organization taking a public stand on a particular issue, making a statement about their values.

This is not necessarily a new thing, but there is a growing perception that more and more organizations have started doing this because their stakeholders expect it.

The push toward organizations seeing themselves as part of the broader public discourse is in part because advertising mediums have changed, moving from traditional methods to social media platforms – where an organization’s brand value can change in a matter of minutes.

But there is also a widely-held belief that generation Z and millennial consumers and employees demand that the companies they buy from and work for align with their values in a way that previous generations did not. Companies need to craft an online presence, almost as a “friend” to the consumer - and the labour market - that will make target audiences believe that the brand “fits” with their lifestyle and cares about the same causes that they do.

We have been living through seminal moments in recent years: the #MeToo movement; the inequities laid bare by the pandemic; the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement – all of these have led to organizations speaking out in a way they would not have done in the past. Some of these efforts, backed up by action, have been more successful than others. Some have backfired, drawing attention to the ways in which an organization’s unethical market practices, poor treatment of employees, or lack of diversity in their leadership render their words meaningless.

Is it really showing vulnerability to speak out on these issues? Yes, to a degree, because it undoubtedly lays an organization’s brand open to criticism. However, when Brené Brown talks about vulnerability, she calls it “the courage to be imperfect”. For me, the next courageous step beyond an organization taking a stance on social issues, is being a ”vulnerable organization” by admitting its imperfection. I am not necessarily talking about apologizing – the reputation saving work that has to happen when a serious error has occurred, but rather the act of reaching out and saying “We haven’t been able to do this on our own. We are not always the experts. We need help”.

Vulnerability and immigrant inclusion

Over the years we have had no shortage of employers stepping up to advocate publicly for the importance of hiring newcomers into roles commensurate with their qualifications and experience.

Now, we are moving to vulnerability 2.0 – the Brené Brown version. There is now an appetite not only to make statements about key issues, but to acknowledge that there is room, within an organization, for improvement. Over 400 companies have signed the BlackNorth Initiative pledge, for example. These signatories are publicly acknowledging systemic barriers and that they can act differently and do better. 

More and more, we are seeing organizations willing to step up to identify the systemic barriers that may be preventing advancement. To get to this point in an organization’s inclusion journey is a real achievement. Being vulnerable by saying “this organization is not perfect” is a powerful first step towards making genuine change.

Vulnerability and inclusive leadership

TRIEC recently released a report that touches on the role vulnerability plays in inclusive leadership. In the report, we talk about executives leading by example: one of the ways they can do this is by showing vulnerability and being more open about their own identities and experiences. This, in turn, then cascades down to the rest of the organization.

If leaders are willing to be vulnerable as individuals, they must also be willing to be vulnerable on behalf of their organizations. Executives as a collective are the ultimate guardians of the organizational brand. You cannot have organizational vulnerability without executive vulnerability - the brands of the two are inextricably linked. Often, when an organization speaks out and/or acknowledges its own imperfections, these statements come from the top. The drive to show organizational vulnerability, then, must start at the highest level.

We are living in rapidly evolving times, and the organizations that are able to adapt and respond are the ones that will thrive in the long run. Those who want their brands as good corporate citizens to stay ahead of the curve should be asking themselves how the power of vulnerability plays a role. If an organization is able to be vulnerable in the authentic way Brown intended, they will reap the benefits from both their customers and their employees.

By Adwoa K. Buahene - CEO of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).

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