You blush. Confused and discombobulated. Embarrassed. You’re found out. But you know the rule in business: Don’t let anyone know what you don’t know. Keep up a good front. Don’t trap yourself and have to admit ignorance. Never, never open up and admit to personal vulnerability on any business subject.
For nearly all of us, vulnerability is a very helpless feeling. Our guard is down and we believe we’re open to emotional attack and censure. Why is that? Surprisingly, the answer is that we’ve learned that’s the way we should respond when our ignorance and missteps are found out. We didn’t come by it naturally. You won’t experience embarrassment from a three-year-old. We think that way, so that’s the way our gut responds. It’s NOT that our gut responds and then we think that way. Since feelings are most prevalent in vulnerable situations, we search for ways to deal with those horrible, unnerving feelings.
Quite a few years ago, before I became familiar with Martin Seligman’s orientation to learned helplessness and optimism, I wondered whether there wasn’t a non-psychological way of looking at embarrassment and vulnerability. I was unconvinced that therapy had anything to offer. At the time, I’d been studying work from the Chicago Center for Decision Research and was especially intrigued by the studies on “framing.” I’d had some success applying the process to business problems and wondered whether it could also be applied to personal, behavioral problems. Framing, I suspected, offered a different way of looking at feelings of vulnerability.
Business people intuitively know something about frames. They refer to them when they talk about “thinking outside the box,” “not being on the same page,” or “it’s all in how you look at it.” Frames simplify and guide our understanding of a complex reality. We experience frames when we meet people who just seem to immediately “click” with us. We’re also dealing with frames when we try to talk with others who just don’t seem to “get it” no matter how much we try to explain. A frame is a mental lens or window that both focuses and limits what we perceive. Frames that are similar to a client's make it very easy to talk with that person. Different frames make it nearly impossible. Indeed, buried within every decision is a frame that circumscribes the way we think about that decision. A new frame can move us beyond a debilitating perspective that only frustrates, providing us with more useful ways of thinking and deciding about important matters in both business and personal life.
Frames Determine and Limit Problem Resolution
The way we frame an issue determines the solution. Frames work like that. Our attachment to them is both emotional and cognitive. Furthermore, they’re usually out of our awareness until we dig into our thinking and look at them. Good framing is both an art and a science. In both personal life and business, you’ll find that understanding, using, and replacing frames will give you a distinct advantage. And, as Russo and Schoemaker comment, if you can’t, you may wake up one morning to find yourself framed.
The key issue in my experience of vulnerability was the recognition that if I viewed the experience as solely an emotional experience, the only possible out for me was psychological. But the research on therapy, I knew, was not very encouraging. Half the time, counseling doesn’t work. So out the window went that approach. Thus, I wondered whether the insights on framing couldn’t be applied to emotionally laden experiences such as vulnerability. But how?
What Causes the Sense of Embarrassment and Vulnerability?
That brought me to the place where I began to analyze the causes of my feelings of vulnerability, wondering whether they wouldn’t respond to reframing. My undergrad background was in history, a background that caused me to first focus on my thinking about my thinking rather than on the experience of vulnerability itself.
In attempting to reframe vulnerability — or any issue — I ask a number of questions:
I played with the problem of vulnerability and framing for quite a few months, trying to understand how vulnerability affects us and answer those questions. What stuck in my craw was the key rule that business people “never let someone know what you don’t know.” My gray matter eventually moved from that point to one specific conclusion: Inevitably, vulnerability is an announcement that there’s something I don’t know — and may need to learn.
- What are the most important objectives to aim for?
- What are the yardsticks, reference points, and boundaries inherent in my old frame? How might someone else approach these measures?
- What biases might my old frame entail?
- How can I bring in other perspectives?
- What do I know about vulnerability and its typical resolution?
And that was the new frame. Vulnerability in business is not about the emotions of fear, embarrassment, humiliation, or even disappointment. It is fundamentally about a lack of knowledge and that’s the problem that needs to be resolved — not my emotions. That insight took me out of trying to resolve my emotions to developing my knowledge of business processes, managerial relations, and just plain old street smarts. In short, I moved from being controlled by fearful emotions to controlling the experience and making it a learning opportunity.
I’ve concluded that vulnerability (and embarrassment) is certainly nothing over which I need to get my shorts all tied in a knot. It’s merely an announcement of the need to learn something. Nothing more. So when I start feeling a blush creep up my neck, the question readily comes, sometimes out loud: “What is it that I don’t know?” Or, “Obviously, you guys are enjoying this. What’s so funny, and what am I blundering about?” I have completely and pragmatically reframed the issue as a matter of my business and relational knowledge that needs to grow.
BTW: If you believe I’m being too hard on the emotions, you might pick up Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism. That’s exactly what he recommends.
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.