Letting go: the power of vulnerability
Losing control. For most managers it sounds like a nightmare. Whoever is at the helm wants to be able to determine the exact course of the ship. Wants to radiate power to the crew. But what if control is an illusion, and the greatest power lies precisely in showing vulnerability?
André Moquette has held a weighty, specialist position within a large transport company for more than three decades. Over the years he learned that the ratio he always relied upon sometimes falls short. That cooperation, creativity and job satisfaction only really flourish when you also have an eye for our unconscious motives, and when you are willing to let go of the idea of control.
A few years ago, the transport company started the transformation from task-oriented to result-oriented organization with the help of People Change. However, change is notoriously difficult, especially for highly educated professionals. André proved to be of great value. His personal voyage of discovery made him the perfect ambassador of the people-oriented change approach of People Change.
André: “It is pointless to tell someone that it is okay to be insecure. You have to demonstrate it: by showing vulnerability you get vulnerability back”.
Life can take surprising turns. Two years ago André Moquette came to a realisation that he would never have believed in his younger years: “If at the age of eighteen I had known what I know now I would have done something completely different. I would have started working with people back then”.
André was born in 1962. Both his parents came from a military family, and his father himself was military too. “At a young age I was taught how important it is to perform. Our upbringing was very rational, there was little room for feelings – a feeling was not a valid argument to come to a decision”.
Completely in line with this upbringing André chose for a technical profession. When he first came into contact with psychology there, he wanted nothing to do with it. “I had to go through a number of tests that were taken by psychologists. In my eyes these people had an understanding of something that you can’t understand at all. It wasn’t science, it was something dark and elusive”.
In the years that followed, however, that darkness and elusiveness kept recurring. “I worked as a safety instructor. For that I had to delve into human errors: what makes that human behaviour break down at a certain moment, and how can you prevent this? It was also the time when terrorism was increasingly seen as a security risk. I wanted to know what motivates people to commit such an act.
In both cases, purely rational explanations turned out to be inadequate. “They were always wrong, did not give a satisfactory answer. It was only when I took the human side that I began to understand. I saw that the prevention of mistakes largely depends on the creation of a culture in which people dare to admit their mistakes. And terrorism also has a strong psychological and cultural component. By facing it I could finally fathom it”.
From a purely technical point of view André immersed himself in human behaviour and the key role the unconscious plays in it. However, his professional interest gradually changed into personal fascination. “I became more and more interested in the way people work together. How leaders are also ordinary people, with their own limitations. How power structures deteriorate cooperation by definition because criticism is not allowed in the decision-making process”.
It may be clear that nothing remained of the initial aversion to psychology in the end. “I am now happily married to a psychologist”, says André laughing.
Demonstration in vulnerability
When the company André works for started a transformation program a few years ago, his passion for human collaboration was further fueled. “From my secondary role as an employee, I had already tried to fight against destructive power structures. But if you don’t know how to do that, you will fail. Now I got a new chance. I grabbed it with both hands, with enormous help from People Change. I have worked a lot with Petra Groot and learned how to convey the ideas to others. That has accelerated my development enormously.
Where André used to fight against something, he now learned to formulate his own vision, so that he could commit himself to something.
“My vision is that we all have our strengths and weaknesses. And that the only way we can complement and help each other in this is by being completely open about it. That requires trust and a totally equal form of communication. It is often said: ‘my colleagues do not have to be my friends’. I believe that it is good to see these people as your friends – or at least to be as open and honest with them as with friends. Because real friends tell each other the truth, because they trust that that friendship won’t break down in the end’.
Telling someone the truth is often associated with confronting someone with their behavior. At least as important, however, is telling the truth about yourself – about your own weaknesses and uncertainties. “We are so used to hiding our vulnerability. Especially if we want to come across as a strong leader. While everyone has their vulnerabilities. We have to accept our vulnerability as something normal, as something human we can be open about.
That sounds easier said than done. “Absolutely”, André agrees. “You can tell people who have been taught their whole life to conceal their weaknesses that they may be vulnerable, but that is pointless. The only way to get people to do that is by demonstrating it. By showing your own vulnerability you eventually get vulnerability back”.
This principle was also at the basis of the way People Change supported the transformation.
“The initial program was focused on management. The goal was a culture change in which the hierarchy was broken down and servant-leadership was introduced. People Change started with its own bottom-up approach in addition to that program. Because it’s great that managers become servant-leaders, but how do you make sure their teams go along with that? It doesn’t work to simply say: ‘We now have new leadership. You may not have experienced it yet, but it really is. So, take ownership from now on”.
Here as well: actions say more than words. “The people on the work floor had to be demonstrated that it is okay to make mistakes, and admit those mistakes. If hedging yourself has become second nature, you don’t just get it out. You have to train people in it. And that is exactly what the People Change program does.
The delusion of total control
However, the biggest challenge was not attracting the people on the shop floor, but the highly trained specialists. In other words: André’s colleagues. “The People Change program was not only aimed at the shop floor, but at everyone who was open to personal development. Initially, however, there was little enthusiasm for this in my department,” he says.
Why was that? André has a clear idea about it: “People who have been specially trained, in result-oriented areas, have learned to suppress their uncertainties. They often operate in an environment where a mistake can have enormous consequences. Think, for example, of surgeons, pilots or military personnel – but it can apply to anyone with a heavy responsibility. You can’t control every situation 100%, so these specialists undoubtedly experience moments when, as a normal healthy person, you should be anxious.
“A unique characteristic of these kinds of professionals is that they are able to suppress these feelings of fear,” André explains, “just to keep acting rationally. You convince yourself and your environment that you are not insecure, that you have everything under control. That is wonderful for certain situations. But actually it is just a mechanism of suppression”.
The problem is that this mechanism is usually not limited to those crisis situations: “You are also going to apply it in everyday life – in relationships, family situations and at work. If you have the ability to give yourself the illusion of control, then that’s a very nice place to stay. Then crisis becomes something pleasant. This can even go so far as to look for a crisis situation or – one step further – try to make a crisis situation in your head of a normal situation, so that you can continue to treat it this way.
This is reflected in one’s attitude towards oneself and others. “You become directive towards yourself and then towards those around you. You do not talk with people but tell them what to do. If you are adept at this, you also radiate a certain power and authority, which prevents people from standing up for themselves”.
Breaking down the wall
All in all, it is far from surprising that it is precisely this group of professionals that is struggling to change. What they have been taught is the exact opposite of what the People Change program is trying to teach them. “It is the opposite of vulnerability. At all costs, keep that wall of emotion closed and tell yourself that you are in control. That’s a delusion, and forms a barrier in seeking your own happiness.”
In breaking down this barrier, People Change was helped by André, who, through his own life path, was able to play a pioneering role for his colleagues. “I have also fallen prey to that mechanism of oppression, but I have never wanted to resign myself to it. Through my own journey from a rational and result-driven starter to someone who is fascinated by the human psyche, I know both worlds. This enables me to help others well.
Has the mechanism of oppression with André completely disappeared? “No, certainly not”, he answers resolutely. “But I am aware of it. And that is an important step.”
Consciousness therefore plays a central role in the approach to People Change. Awareness of yourself, but also of the change you ask others to make.
“Our reflex is to think that others have to change in order to improve cooperation. Then we will have a better world. But where are you in this story? First of all, we all have a different image of what that better world would look like, so you won’t get any further with that. Even more important is that you have no control over the other person, but only over yourself. And when you realize how difficult it is to change yourself, you also become aware of how difficult it is what you ask of the other person”.
This makes the realization of how difficult it is to change itself a crucial part of the change.
“That is indeed the core,” says André. “Because that inhibits condemnation, of yourself and of others. If something goes wrong, you can try to do something about it from this awareness without laying the blame somewhere. You can also help others to change. Not by convincing them of your idea of what the world should look like, but by coaching them. By empowering them. By talking about your insecurities. By showing vulnerability yourself.
To support his pioneering role, André did the Practitioner course at People Change. “By letting employees follow this course, as a company, you learn to drive change yourself. I learned to start a transformation team of five to eight people. Through team sessions, individual conversations and GROW-cases, you jointly tap into this vulnerability. The People Change Scan is a wonderful way to gain insight into yourself and to develop a common language. The model lowers the threshold: you can talk about one another’s behavior and character without getting too close”.
The final outcome of the program is obvious to André. “It makes people happy – at work but also at home. That alone is so valuable, even for a company. Enabling individuals to grow personally, that’s what makes your organisation grow. And whether it’s managers or people on the shop floor, that doesn’t matter. Anyone who is open to it and willing to undergo the inconveniences associated with personal growth comes out better and contributes to a better organization”.
“In concrete terms, it ensures, among other things, higher productivity, lower absenteeism and better cooperation,” he explains. “In our company, there was previously an enormous gap between the production staff and the office. These were two separate worlds that often saw each other as a problem. The people in the transformation program are now making a lot more contact, and that affects the rest of the departments.
Moreover, by working on the transformation capacity of people, you work on the transformation capacity of the organization at the same time. “You cultivate human creativity. It is essential to survive as a company in our ever faster changing world. Of course, the current corona crisis is the ultimate example of this. We now see how radical change can be called upon from one day to the next. We have no control at all. Constant change means that you will have to incorporate the ability to change as a prerequisite for your organization.
To benefit from the program, as a company you don’t even have to be convinced of the intrinsic value of personal growth. “Even if you go for high quarterly results, it still pays off,” André emphasises. “Not everyone is open to the program and that’s fine. Many don’t even know exactly what we are doing. That’s not necessary to see that it works. Someone from the HR department said the other day: ‘We still don’t fully understand the transformation program, but what we do see is that everyone involved in it has a certain twinkle in their eyes, and that’s worth gold'”.
And that’s exactly the idea behind the program. “It’s fine if only a small group participates first. If it works, the rest will start to notice it. We are now also making the link between the program and employee satisfaction, and now it is hard to deny the connection. Change always starts small, but I am gradually convinced that it is already such a strong peat fire that it can no longer be extinguished”.
And André himself continues to change as well. “I think my life so far has been one big internship in learning to let go. Letting go of resistance, of judgment, of the illusion of control. So that I can fully accept myself, and through myself the rest of the world. For me that is the ultimate letting go. I really am not there yet, but keep working passionately on it”.