She shows emotion in front of live audiences and drops casual curses while discussing her research — but what makes Brené Brown so compelling to so many HR and talent professionals goes deeper than her cathartic and charismatic stage presence.
"Brené is inspiring a new generation of leaders to find their courage through the acceptance of their vulnerability," Derek Irvine, senior vice president of client strategy and consulting at Workhuman, told HR Dive via email. "Her research in human connections and emotions and their manifestation in the workplace is changing how we approach leadership."
At her keynote speech during Workhuman Live 2019, the crowd clapped and screamed like she was a British invasion band. But it's not just the enthusiasm she elicits from audiences that's earned her the title of HR Dive's Innovator of the Year for 2019. In a year marked by workers' calls for broader inclusion and the pressure to innovate as technology shifts rapidly, Brown's findings might just help lead HR to future solutions.
Even at a time when organizations encourage creative solutions to such problems, researchers have recently asserted that workers don't always have the support they need to take creative risks at work. Managers, for their part, continue to face a crisis of confidence made worse by the lack of training they receive. Brown's work reframes vulnerability as a necessary component to creative risk-taking and effective leadership. "Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change," she told the audience of her 2012 Ted Talk "Listening to shame."
Being vulnerable — by allowing ourselves to be fully seen at work — may help HR cope with continual expectations for growth and with increasing worker unrest over myriad issues. With so much in flux, HR leaders need to model resilience for workers at every level, Brown has said.
"We spend 20% of our energy fixing it and 80% helping pull people out of 'the shame s---storm,'" Brown said during her Workhuman keynote. And although HR can try to practice empathy "[p]eople have to be responsible for their own bounce," Brown continued.
Brown has devoted much of her career to researching shame. The feeling comes up a lot in professional environments, but bouncing back from it can be harder during conversations about a lack of diversity and racial injustice. Examining inequality — whether it manifests in pay practices, promotions or hiring — requires HR and other leaders to listen and be open to critique to make progress toward greater inclusion.
Discussions about race can leave people "paralyzed by shame," as Brown put it in her 2012 talk, but "empathy is the antidote to shame." HR departments can also focus on auditing their practices, leading education on diversity and inclusion and encouraging workers to form affinity groups to discuss how inequality affects them.
However, the burden of educating the workplace as a whole and rectifying inequities should not (and likely cannot) be put on the shoulders of those in marginalized groups, Brown said in her keynote. "[It] is not the job of the person targeted by discrimination to lead the conversation," she said.
Her fresh points of view on these perennial pain points can be a guide for talent pros. So, too, can taking inspiration from Brown's position as a researcher who never assumes she knows the whole story. By taking on a similar role and unpuzzling workplace problems, HR might also hope to lead (bravely) toward change.