‘Be more vulnerable’ they say; we say, learn to ‘embrace your vulnerabilities’.
In conversation with Dr Tresna Hunt and Brett Oetgen, Directors at the Institute for Social Sustainability and course developers of the NZQA approved micro-credential ‘Organisational Agility’, delivered through Tech Futures Lab.
“Vulnerability”, says Brett, “it seems that these days, it’s just slid into common vernacular; ‘learn to be vulnerable’. We hear it a lot, but I think the missing piece is the context”. The context Brett speaks about is when vulnerability is a means to moving forward; the concept of transitioning away from the old and familiar, toward the new and unfamiliar.
Brett and Tresna believe that it’s “potentially irresponsible to suggest to people that they learn to simply become more vulnerable” within a context that doesn’t fully understand the function and complexity of being vulnerable in the first place. Vulnerability has a critical role to play in moving social systems through change, and the way we go about engaging with that vulnerability within those social systems, is crucial to navigating that change.
Instead we need to build trust in that feeling of being vulnerable, and see it as an emotional experience that’s part of a bigger transitional state; going from something familiar and maybe comfortable, at the very least known and definable, to something unknown, unfamiliar and potentially not as comfortable at first. When the people we are cooperating with understand this transition process, then vulnerability takes on a function where it ‘works’ to help move the required change through.
We need to learn to hold hands with vulnerability as it walks us from where we are now to where we want, or need, to be. And that is a process that unfolds over time rather than something someone just “decides to do” as a result of reading a book for example.
But how to do that? First, and very importantly, we need to understand the bigger picture.
Most of us will agree we’re in an era that is bringing unprecedented rates of change. And amongst all that change are very complex problems that we have to overcome in order to move forward as a species. This is big stuff, existential issues. But we’re ready for it. We kind of have to be. It's becoming about survival.
All throughout the anthropocene we humans have solved problems and navigated our way through change. We’ve banded together in tribes or villages or as nations to solve problems collaboratively and these acts of collaboration have required that we draw on our emotions and engage in acts of vulnerability. “In fact the whole essence of democracy is that we can overcome our tribal instincts in order to collaborate and evolve as a species. Just look at how politicians must justify their decisions and how vulnerable they have to be in order to meet the needs of the public,” Tresna explains.
This is where building trust in the feeling of vulnerability comes in.
Consider the rock climber who, in order to reach the summit, must move from where they are now to where they want to be. And each time they reach out to the next point on that rock face, they are vulnerable. They are open, their fragility is real, it's exposed. But then, accepting that vulnerability in the moment, they make it to the next point and briefly feel safe, relieved.
Now, this rock climber doesn’t just walk up to the rock face and start climbing and hoping to just find the best route to the top through intuition or luck. They will have spent hours analysing the rock face, from close up and from far away, from above and from below. They will have talked with other climbers about their experience, mapped out some of the best potential routes. They’ll bring safety equipment, a form of contact, sustenance and importantly, the expectation that they may not reach that summit on this attempt.
What the climber is doing is mapping out the landscape of problems and opportunities. They do this before they begin. There is no way that, once on that rock face, they could take a step back and have a think about how to approach the climb. They are already in it.
As this rock climber analogy illustrates, solving social problems and engaging in acts of vulnerability are tightly coupled in ways that most of us don’t fully understand. Never before in the history of our species have we needed to understand this relationship as we do today. Why? Because there are some insidious changes happening in the world that are messing with our ability to both solve complex problems, and therefore engage our vulnerability. These changes include a globally connected and unregulated marketplace of ideas that is causing a downgrade in our ability to solve problems while at the same time, driving up the amount of complex problems that we need to navigate.
This global digital marketplace, where we can draw ideas from, is a first - never before in history have we had so many voices and so much diversity in thinking available at our fingertips. Yet, this flood of information actually causes more complexity because we now need to sort through all these views, all these ideas to find ones that actually help to solve problems. Layer this up with the disruption of tech and social media and we’ve got an algorithmic storm that’s created echo chambers and confirmation bias. Our judgement has become clouded; we’re rewarded for seeking out information that affirms rather than challenges our views.
Coming back to the rocker climber analogy, the rock face has become too complex for us to map out, and when we don’t understand the landscape then fear will overwhelm us. When fear overwhelms us, we (understandably) avoid acts of vulnerability in favour of sticking with what’s familiar; the rock climber stays on the section of that rock face that feels comfortable and familiar.
This moment we’re in now is our chance to reach out and explore new rock faces, new landscapes for our world. But first, we need to find a way to take a step back to look at the complexities we’re faced with and recognise that vulnerability isn’t a buzzword. It's crucial that we learn to build trust in this emotional state, as it will help us move to where we need to be, personally, in the organisations we’re involved with and ultimately in our societies.
In partnership with The Institute for Social Sustainability, Tech Futures Lab offers a 14-week micro-credential in Organisational Agility - developing adaptive mindsets that can more easily identify high quality information and ideas and use them to solve today’s complex problems and challenges.