The Value of Vulnerability for Advisors

Recently, while walking home from school, one of my kids got sucker-punched by the stomach flu. It wasn’t great timing. No one wants to be sick in public, but it’s even worse when everyone watches you do something embarrassing. In an effort to comfort him, I told him about times when similar things had happened to me. It didn’t make his stomach feel any better or completely remove his mortification, but he smiled and thanked me.

Whenever someone is in a place where they feel exposed – whether it’s from getting sick in front of others, forgetting to do a task for a client, or making an unwise financial decision – we can either sit in judgement of that moment or we can step into the vulnerability and say “me too.” It’s a little easier for me to have that kind of compassion for my child who isn’t feeling well than for the coworker who blows a deadline. It’s for sure not the norm for advisors to talk with their clients about mistakes they’ve made when it comes to their personal finances. Why is that?

We tend to get caught up in the “what will other people think of me?” trap that tells us not to go easy on our employee for fear that they’ll not understand how important their mistake was, or to grow the facade that we have always been a financial guru . But these kinds of self-protecting behaviors keep us from experiencing relationships that have real depth, which increases employee and client retention.

The people we serve and work with need to know we’ve been where they are, especially when something goes wrong. You don’t have to turn into your grandfather and start telling stories every time something happens, and you don’t have to have had the same exact experience. You just need to see the thread of similarity in their face-down moment so you can mitigate your reaction and find compassion as quickly as possible.

Once you share an “I’ve been there too” moment with a person who’s done something regrettable, you’re all set to move onto the next step: helping them move from this moment to make it right.

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Making it right involves a few steps. Here are the ones I recommend taking:

  • Own what went wrong. Clearly identify the problem and its root cause. It might take a little bit of effort to track down exactly what happened and even more time to figure out why it occurred. Did an employee miss a deadline because they had too many other things on their plate or because they weren’t focused at all? Did your client loan a large sum to a relative out of guilt, or are they thinking clearly about treating it like a gift? Putting words to the actions and motivations allows everyone involved to understand the details.
  • State the positive action you will take going forward. This isn’t just an “I won’t do it again” idea. Instead, it sounds like: “In the future, I will speak up when I know that my workload is beyond my capacity.” Or, “In the future, I will consider whether giving my relative money is helping or hurting them.”
  • Ask for forgiveness. This is obviously really difficult. We don’t typically do this part as a society because it feels so awkward. You’ll have to apply some wisdom to each situation to decide if you want to walk through this part or not, but it’s certainly something you can put into practice when you mess something up in the office or at home. Hearing another adult say the words, “Will you please forgive me?” can be alarming, but every time I’ve used those words, the person on the other side has answered with “of course.” In my opinion, nothing builds trust and respect quite like it.
  • How do you tend to handle face-down moments with your team or your clients? I’d love to hear strategies you employ to create greater degrees of vulnerability and trust among your team and clients.