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Brené Brown: Shame, vulnerability, worthiness and courage

Brené Brown is a social work researcher, working at the Graduate College of Social Work, at the University of Houston. I am sure that is what her job description says, but she describes herself as a researcher-storyteller. And the subject of her research and stories is vulnerability and shame, and all that flow from these two, very human emotions.

Brené Brown

Brief Biography

Brené Brown grew up in Texas and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she took a Bachelor of Social Work degree. She later gained a Masters degree and then a PhD in Social Work, at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. In 2010, she spoke about her research at a TEDx event in Houston. That talk has since become one of the most viewed TED talks, with over 16 million views to date. You can see it, and her subsequent TED talk, at the bottom of this blog.

Brené Brown’s Work

Brown started out to study the connections between people, and quickly learned, through many formal interviews and focus groups, that when she asked about connection, people rapidly started to speak about disconnection and their fear of it. At the heart of her understanding of connection emerged shame – the fear of disconnection and of not being worthy of connection.

Brown characterises shame as a feeling that ‘I am not good enough’ and even of asking ourselves the question: ‘who do you think you are?’ Shame, she points out, is a reflection of our sense of self, which she compares with guilt, which is about our sense of what we have done. Her research shows that depression and poor social functioning – even mental illness – is linked to a sense of shame, but not to guilt. People who have a strong capacity for guilt can address their behaviours, whilst still holding onto their sense of self-worth, or worthiness.

Worthiness is fundamental to Brown’s thinking. The difference between people who have a strong feeling of love and belonging, and those who struggle to find love and belonging is that strong sense of worthiness. This arises from four things: courage, compassion, connection and, crucially, vulnerability.

It is when we own up to our own imperfections and vulnerability that we can find our authenticity and start to feel worthy. People who do this are ‘wholehearted people’.

Brown has articulated this powerfully in her second book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You are. Her subsequent book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, extends these ideas further.

Brené Brown’s relevance to Management

At the start of her 2012 TED talk (below), Brown tells how businesses who want her to speak at their events constantly ask her to speak about three topics: creativity, innovation, and change. She points out that:

‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of
creativity, innovation, and change.’

However, I think the strongest link from her work to management is in the way we manage and lead. Daring Greatly is about taking the risk of making yourself vulnerable – of admitting your fears, rather than hiding them behind the fake certainties of dogma and the false strengths of arrogance and blame.

Too much management and leadership is based on a need to be certain, a need to be right, and a need to be a hero. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable to new ideas, to mistakes, and to weakness opens up a raft of opportunities, not only for new ideas, but also for your colleagues and team members to shine. If you do nothing else, watch the first of these videos.

The Power of Vulnerability

Brené Brown’s 16 million+ views TEDx talk from 2010.

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Listening to Shame

Brené Brown’s subsequent TED talk in 2012 has had over 4 million views.

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