Here’s a podcast from Northwestern called “The Insightful Leader,” with the transcript of this specific episode being here. The theme of the episode is teams sharing embarrassing or vulnerable stories with each other to build trust. I can personally relate to this in a few ways. I blogged once about going to my friend’s funeral. This was obviously not a happy occasion by any means, and at this country club afterwards, they allowed some people to speak. His brother asked me if I could go last because I had some funny stories about him and whatnot. That felt like a nice honor so I decided to accept and go last. Now, this is a tightrope of an emotional situation, because while some of the stories I have are funny, they are also not necessarily funeral-appropriate. So as these other speakers are going, I decided to just wing it and go all-in on some embarrassing and vulnerable stuff, because most people there want to think of good times and funny things at this moment. It worked and I got some praise. There were 100 or so people in that room and I knew 7 of them. As I was walking out, 80 of the other 93 came to say something to me. I built trust and rapport quickly by being embarrassing, even at a time where it felt a little weird to do so.
Same deal: last year on my birthday I wrote this thing about 38 life elements you realize by age 38. It was completely self-indulgent and narcissistic, and admittedly in hindsight I wrote it largely because I was bored at my day job at the time and listing 38 things takes a while. Anyway. In there I wrote about almost pissing my pants in an elevator, which is a true story (and has happened to me more times than I would care to admit). I cannot tell you how many random people have mentioned that to me since I wrote that post. It’s an embarrassing story, and do I necessarily want it in front of a hiring manager or someone? No. But in terms of quickly building a connection, sure, it has value.
So why can’t this stuff work at work?
Because of how we think about work
… which is all bundled up in concepts around “professionalism.” Work has a lot to do with perches and relevance and being seen as capable, strong, and competent. Very few people would want to tell a story about pissing themselves in a work meeting. Now, could you tell a story about something funny that happened on a conference call once? Sure. I actually heard a woman named Rachel having sex on a conference call years ago. Would I lead with that? Probably not, no. But there are other funny conference call stories that you could use as your “embarrassing” story.
Plus: icebreakers in general are hard for people, and this is inherently an icebreaker. A lot of people just want to get into meetings and say like “OK, away we go…” and do the normal meeting shit, even though we all know that doesn’t really work so well.
I tried to float this concept once, to a guy at NIKE
About meetings/events where managers talk about failure or embarrassment. He shot me down in 3.72 seconds; maybe even faster. His main argument was “Those guys would never want to do that. They feel they can’t be seen that way.”
And there’s basically the whole issue in a nutshell.
But it could be done, theoretically
In that Northwestern podcast, one leader talks about yelling at his teenage daughter while on a big conference call — and everyone heard! (OMG, Boomer!) Another leader talks about like, losing her dog off the leash during a call. So low-key, low-grade stuff could work. Again, maybe not pants-pissing content, but I think if people on work teams were more real with each other about the struggles and embarrassments and failures of any professional arc — because we all have them — then those teams would build trust and rapport faster.
What say you?