Last night I watched “Free Solo”, a documentary about Alex Honnold, the first person to successfully free solo climb Yosemite’s El Capitan. The feat is unimaginable: hanging tetherless from tiny finger and toeholds thousands of feet about the valley floor. It looks terrifying to me, but I never expected him to be so open to admitting that aspects of this can be really scary to him too. Why not? Perhaps because we so rarely hear risk-takers admit to fear. Or perhaps it’s just easier to assume that these people don’t even feel fear. Honnold’s willingness to share his vulnerability and occasional fears creates an opening for connection. In many ways he may be different from the average person, but in sometimes being afraid, he is like the rest of us.
While we may have seemingly “fearless leaders” at work, tough challenges can bring out the fear in most of us. Rather than deny it, perhaps we should embrace it. Admitting fear or uncertainty may provide an opportunity for connection and trust-building.
Prevailing wisdom suggests trust is a prerequisite for team efficacy – a necessary ingredient which enables teams to tackle tough challenges. But what if we have it wrong? In fact, what if we have it backwards? What if trust can’t be adequately built without facing fear and tough challenges together? What if it is not something that enables us to take risks – but rather something that develops after facing these risks together? Author Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, argues exactly that. He says that weathering a crisis or challenge together is what builds trust. It is in being vulnerable and effective together – experiencing fear and uncertainty while successfully doing the hard things– that we build trust.
So what are we waiting for? We needn’t wait for teams to build trust before they tackle the tough stuff; rather, we need to forge ahead and trust that teams will build those relationships because they’ve tackled the tough stuff!