Can Vulnerability Make Us Safer?

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Above: Fire in a fallen snag, West Stewart fire, Colorado 2016.

(Note: This blog entry was originally written for and published on October 25th over on the Wildland Fire Leadership Development blog. I’ve made a few minor edits for typos that I missed the first go-around.)

A coworker recently shared a podcast with me that sparked some interesting thoughts.  The podcast was titled “The New Norm,” and was an episode of the NPR “Invisibilia” series. (link to the written story here and the full podcast here)

As I listened to it, I was skeptical of how it might apply to wildland fire organizations and operations. After all, smiling Russians and teary-eyed oil rig workers aren’t normally associated with fire leadership. But then I heard something that stopped my thought process dead in its tracks: by going through an admittedly rough and unpopular process, the group of oil workers reduced their accident rate by 85%.  All of the “fluff” aside, that’s remarkable, and sparked my interest.

To summarize the podcast, it’s a mini-case study of how a group of oil workers on the Gulf Coast faced the challenge of developing, constructing, and operating a new, larger oil platform using some extremely unconventional methods. Not only did they become better workers, but they became better individuals outside of work as well. How they did it is best understood by listening to the podcast, but it involved a lot of vulnerability, some new ways of thinking, and a lot of uncomfortable, unpleasant group sessions.

I found a few things that I could relate to, especially with respect to how we operate in wildland fire. First was that there were some cultural similarities – firefighters tend to be rough and gruff, or at least more so than most people.  We tend to be self-protective in that we usually prefer to hide vulnerability, fearing the perception of weakness, or incompetence. I’ve seen and done it myself.  I’ve often seen it manifested as a reluctance to ask questions, or ask for input from coworkers, or expressed as the “shut up and dig” mentality from leaders and followers alike. As it’s pointed out in the podcast, asking for input or advice can actually result in safer, more productive workplaces. Sometimes having a crewmember ask an honest question can bring an “ah-ha” moment to something an experienced leader (or follower) missed… As strange as it seems, being “vulnerable” with our coworkers can lead to a lot of positives, including better team cohesion, better communication, and better self-improvement.

But here’s the catch – being vulnerable sucks. You take a very real risk in a lot of ways. None of the men in the segment said they enjoyed the process.  None of them said it was easy. A few said they didn’t even do it. Yet those that went through it said it made them better people. That’s part of being a leader, of choosing the difficult right over the easy wrong… Sometimes it’s really challenging. Sometimes you need to “embrace the suck” and go through a tough, uncomfortable process to emerge out on the other side a better person. The same goes for organizations… Sometimes it’s a really not-fun experience, and sometimes what you’re going through doesn’t directly appear to be related to the mission of your organization. The oil rig workers in this story undoubtedly asked themselves “why are we doing this” more than a few times.

This is what I took away from the podcast – every culture has norms, behaviors that are accepted as “right” and “normal.”  Sometimes these norms get in the way of organizational and personal growth. In the podcast example, the “tough guy” norm was getting in the way of safely developing and operating larger and more complex drilling projects. In fire, I see many cultural norms that could potentially be getting in the way of improving how we do business, especially as the business we do has slowly but surely changed over time.

What norms would you be willing to challenge if it made you a better leader, better supervisor, better follower, or simply a better person?  Would you be willing to show vulnerability in front of your squad, your crew, your FMO? Give it some thought… The answer, and the reasons for it, might surprise you…

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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