Episode 13: How To Embrace Vulnerability At Work With Paul McGregor

Paul McGregor founder of Everymind at Work joins us for this month’s Let’s Talk Talent podcast and shares his story and mission to help leaders embrace vulnerability at work and improve the wellbeing for all your people. 

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Transcript of the how to be vulnerable at work with Paul McGregor episode:

Jo Taylor 

Hi, and welcome to the Let’s Talk Talent podcast. We’re going to be sharing, over a series of episodes, tips and techniques – bringing our friends and family to share their stories, their experience of working life today, because together we can create simply irresistible organisations. Happy listening!

Jo Taylor 

So hi, everybody, and welcome to Episode 13 of the Let’s Talk Talent podcast. I’m excited to be joined by Paul McGregor, founder of Every Mind at Work. Hi, Paul, how are you?

Paul McGregor 

I’m doing well, how are you?

Jo Taylor 

I’m really good. And I’m excited to talk to you because I think our businesses have a dual purpose. And they meet in that lovely sweet spot where we’re trying to unlock the potential in people: you from a mental health and wellbeing perspective and us from a developmental/performance perspective. And what I wanted to talk to you today about is the HR community that we both serve.

So we’re both members of HR Ninjas, and we contribute a lot to the HR community. And what’s worrying me at the moment is that over the last two years, HR has taken a bit of a battering. In some ways, they’ve been at the top table, and they’ve taken a huge amount of responsibility. But actually, they’re caring all the time for their community, but who’s caring for them? Do you agree? And what would you say you’ve been doing? Or the tips and tricks that you’ve put in place?

Paul McGregor 

Yeah, it’s really true. And we did a webinar this week on Wednesday about empathy in the workplace. And, yeah, we had – I think it was 350 – and a majority of them were HR professionals. And a lot of them could relate to what we were talking about, which was empathy burnout.

So typically, and again, this is us generalising, if you are an HR professional, a people professional, you are someone who has high levels of empathy. And when you have high levels of empathy, it allows you to be able to notice and understand when other people are struggling and lend that empathetic ear that we often need in the workplace or outside of the workplace, but at a cost. And that cost is exhaustion, it’s burnout, it’s taking those challenges home with you or into your personal life. And I think HR professionals are really, really struggling with that. And I think as well, as I’m sure we’re gonna discuss, I’m sure you know, HR does seem to get passed a lot of stuff.

You know, we focus on the mental health wellbeing space, but we tend to be dealing with a lot of HR professionals that have been tasked to mental health and wellbeing, with very little education around it – with very little, I guess, budget around it, and have just said, Hey, go and make our employees happy. And you’ve got to juggle every other plate that you’re already juggling. So yeah, there seems to be a lot of burnout across that industry at the moment, and a lot of empathy burnout as well.

So it’s a challenging time for HR professionals. But again, that’s kind of why we exist, right, to try and help them?

Jo Taylor 

I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not just… we talk about the superhero traits, from the curiosity, from strategic thinking, to being that business partner. But I think sometimes we underestimate the behaviours. As you said, empathy, caring, authenticity: how do we encourage HR to value that in themselves, and in a way develop that skill set, as well as encourage them to do that within their leadership? Because they wear a duel hat, don’t they?

A lot of the time, people listening to this podcast will not only be a manager, but they’ll also be an HR professional having to talk to a board or a CEO. How do we value, I suppose “the human skills” as Simon Sinek calls it, as much as the kind of CIPD, you know, all of the kind of qualification side?

Paul McGregor 

It’s definitely becoming more apparent in the workplace. One of the key words, I think you said there was “vulnerability”. And from my own personal experience, when I struggle to be vulnerable, it’s exhausting. And there’s a lot of imposter syndrome that I’m sure a lot of HR professionals can relate to. And also, there’s a real lack of confidence of “I don’t know how to manage this”. But I think as well, I don’t know how to ask for help. I don’t know how to ask someone for support if I am feeling overwhelmed, and all of those challenges that exist.

Vulnerability is definitely being more embraced. But I still think we’re a very, very long way away from it being completely embraced in the workplace. And I think a lot of people do shy away from that. As I say, I was definitely someone who was – didn’t want to share how I was feeling, kept it to myself, I felt very isolated and alone because of that. And that just tears away at you. Gradually, it does. It doesn’t always happen overnight, but gradually and gradually and gradually, it tears away at you.

There’s an amazing quote that I always reference in a lot of my talks, which is “when you struggle with your mental health, it’s tiring, but when you struggle with your mental health and you pretend that you are okay, it’s exhausting”. And I think that comes from whether you’re a senior leader in a business, a HR professional, someone who’s just started a new role, whatever it is, if we feel like we can’t be ourselves, if we feel like we can’t be open and honest, it is draining. And you carry a huge amount of weight on your shoulders for not being able to do that. So I think we’re slowly getting there; it’s going to take a huge amount of time.

But if HR professionals, or any leadership, or any business can start to slowly introduce and embrace vulnerability a bit more, I think we’ll start to see big, big changes across the board.

Jo Taylor 

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

You know, I remember the last year… last year, my husband died at the beginning of the year, and I embraced the fact of how I was feeling. And grief’s a weird thing – and I don’t think you ever really get over that – you have huge highs and huge lows. But by talking about it, and being more visibly vulnerable – so I blogged, I used our newsletter, I wasn’t afraid to talk about it with clients – I found that my relationships with people were much deeper than perhaps, as you said, I put on the Jo mask that everything’s okay.

But by saying I wasn’t okay, I found that I built relationships that were much more deeper and meaningful, and that sort of helped me grow the business. But I think when you’re working in an organisation, sometimes you can feel alone as a leader, whether you’re an HR professional or not. How do you encourage, in the work that you do, people to take that risk? Because it is a risk. You don’t know how it’s going to land, right, a lot of the time, so how do you encourage that in the work that you do?

Paul McGregor 

Firstly, thank you for sharing. As you say, your little vulnerability just then, I’m sure, is going to encourage one person listening to this to feel like they can be vulnerable. And that’s the power of vulnerability. For me, it’s about understanding why we’re afraid of vulnerability. So why do we struggle with it? You look at probably the two biggest fears that a lot of people have in their life, it’s the fear of death, and it’s the fear of rejection, right?

So if you take the fear of rejection, a lot of that rejection comes with shame, embarrassment, judgement. And that’s why we probably struggle to talk openly about how we’re feeling, because that’s what we feel. Stigma around vulnerability outside of the workplace is still apparent, but it’s slowly getting better. A lot of people feel like maybe they can talk to their family, to their friends. Again, I’m generalising here, but you put that in the workplace and there’s still a huge, huge stigma that surrounds it. And one of the challenges with vulnerability in the workplace is the link to performance. You know, if I tell you that I’m struggling to deal with this project, are you going to fire me, are you going to judge me on my performance, are you going to give me that promotion? So for a lot of us, we struggle to be open and honest in the workplace. And essentially, that’s what we focus on a lot as an organisation, because what we started to highlight was when it comes to mental health you can have all of the initiatives in the world. But unless you can make employees feel safe to use those initiatives, it’s a complete waste of money, and making them feel safe to use those initiatives comes back to their vulnerability – the stigma, reducing that stigma, and allowing people to feel safe to talk about mental health and access that support.

But I think with vulnerability – I talk about it a lot – because I was someone who didn’t talk about any of my experiences, and now I’m a little bit more of an open book. I would say that with vulnerability in the workplace, the biggest misconception around it is you have to be an open book. So what I mean by that is, if I feel like, “okay, I need to be vulnerable”, I’ve got to go and tell everyone in my team my life story and all of my insecurities. That isn’t vulnerability: if you feel like you can do that, and that is within your control, do it. But the example that I always use is I’m very open and honest about my experiences with my dad, very open and honest about some of the experiences that I’ve had. But I’m in control of that, and I’m willing to share that to my team. I’m not talking about the argument that I had with my wife last night, I’m not talking about the insecurities that I’ve got as a dad, I’m not talking about all of these other little bits and bobs. I’m sharing what I want to share. And a great example of that, that I had yesterday, a lady shared with me that there was someone senior in the business, it was a senior individual, and they were very corporate – very, very corporate – the shift to working from home because of the pandemic – at the beginning, they were still very corporate.

On their sessions – very corporate. Then all of a sudden, one of their children came bursting into the room one day, and they said: “we saw him as a dad”. And then after more sessions and more sessions, you kept seeing this senior leader as a dad, and he was saying, “Ah it’s so hard being a dad and I’ve got this going on, I’ve got that going on”. And she said that’s all it took; just him to show that he was a little bit more human, obviously, he didn’t talk about all the past experiences, the past trauma, none of that stuff. He just showed that he was a little bit more human, and that allowed his team to feel more comfortable and trusting to share more with him and have those more open conversations.

So I think as you say, a lot of people are very scared of vulnerability and  you highlighted it perfectly – Brené Brown says it’s emotional exposure, risk and uncertainty – right? So the definition’s scary in itself, but actually vulnerability is can you just be 1% more human today in the workplace? And if you can, you’ll slowly start to pull down those walls and start to see that more and more people are willing to be vulnerable when you are as well. So yeah, it’s a topic I love talking about because it’s such a powerful thing when you can embrace vulnerability.

Jo Taylor 

We did an away day as a team at the end of the year, and we were doing this quiz about celebrating successes. And one of the questions that one of the team came up with, or one of the stats was, “how many times has Dylan, my dog – and those of you that have heard him, seen him – on many a webinar interrupting me, or trying to lick my face or sit behind me?” When the pandemic started, I would have been so embarrassed about that. And now I just make it part of “no, it’s just Dylan being Dylan”. And there’s something quite nice about that, because you relax. And as you say, you see the human rather than the job title or the position that we hold. And so do you think that the green shoots are coming to the fore now?

With all the stuff that’s happened with COVID, we’re not out of the woods, but we’re in a better place; people are returning to work. Are you optimistic that we can hold on to some of that vulnerability, that authenticity, that realness, or do you think we’ll slowly shift back into that corporate persona?

Paul McGregor 

I think it’s a balance, right? I feel like we have definitely accelerated awareness around mental health. And for certain we’ve accelerated remote working, right? I’ve talked to – and I’m sure you have – so many individuals that were like, “I was pushing for this and pushing for this and the business didn’t want to know. And then all of a sudden, they’re forced to do it. And now they’re embracing it a little bit more”. But I think it does depend on the individual. You know, again, you’re talking about mental health, it is very individual. And some people prefer to take that corporate stance at work, but they may be at home – they’ve got that outlet where they can talk to people around them.

It is very individual, but I would hope that it definitely has accelerated awareness. I mean, even from last year, it was ridiculous the amount of – I guess you could say – I did, I think, it was 260 talks last year. And, also because of the virtual situation that allows me to 260 talks. You’re not doing that in person, because you do one talk a day, because you’ve got travel time and everything else. But yeah, there definitely seems to be more awareness around it. But as with anything, I still feel like it’s going to take a huge amount of time. I do the work in the mental health space, with the belief that when I’m a great granddad, maybe, I’ll sit there and say, “Oh, they’re actually talking about mental health now a little bit more”, because I still feel like there’s a lot that we need to do. And even though some people say, “Well, we’re talking about mental health loads, it’s on the TV, the prince is talking about it. And you know, is everyone’s talking about mental health”.

That doesn’t replace the fact that if you think about the word ‘mental’, so many of us associate the word mental with crazy, mad, loony, whatever, right? So that’s how we’ve been educated on it, which takes a huge amount of time, and a huge amount of change and new ways of looking at mental health from the new generations to be able to get away from that association.

So yeah, it’s definitely accelerated it, which is amazing to see. But I still think we’re a long way off everyone embracing it in the same way that a lot of us do.

Jo Taylor 

Because the danger is, a bit like diversity and inclusion was a couple of years ago, that in some ways, it can be seen as a bit of a fad at the moment, because as you said, the prince is talking about it, or, you know it’s that celebrity culture, which always really worries me.

How do you keep it and how does HR own this space, and make it feel relevant, but also, as you say, purposeful, and that ultimately changes the culture?

Paul McGregor 

Stories. You know, one of my favourite things to do is go into a business – or virtually go into a business – and talk to their senior leaders. Because I rock up and they’re like, “what’s this guy going to talk to me about mental health for?” And automatically, you’re judging people, we all do it, right? And then within the first 10–15 minutes, I talk very openly about, as you know, losing my dad to suicide when I was 18, completely out of the blue, completely to our surprise.

He wasn’t someone who we ever believed was dealing with a mental illness until the day that it was obvious, right? And I speak openly about that, then talk openly about my struggles to deal with that and not be able to talk about it as a man and not be able to discuss it. And then realising, you know what, everyone’s got mental health. This doesn’t just impact me and my dad and other people that have potentially got into really dark places. It affects all of us because as a dad now myself and as someone who runs a business, or whatever, everyone has day-to-day pressures, right? Everyone has day-to-day pressures.

So what I like to do is educate them on that. We’re not talking about mental illness here, because the reality of it is, is when we say mental health, all of us, or certainly the majority of us will default to mental illness. So when we talk about mental health, we believe it’s mental illness. And then when we think of mental illness, what do we think about? Straitjackets? Padded cells? I don’t want to go there, right? So that was the challenge that I had. It was like, I can’t talk about my dad, because that’s mental illness. That’s the stuff that no one wants to talk about. So that was the real problem of engagement. You know, when I started to do talks in this space of, “oh, we don’t want to talk about mental health, because they naturally default into mental illness”.

But actually, if we can get people to understand that mental health is so broad, we all have it, we all deal with day-to-day pressures. It’s not those always life-changing experiences, the trauma, the mental illness, that some of us experience, it is the day-to-day challenges and pressures that we all have. Once we can start to see it in that way, then we can start to understand it better, then we can start to take more action. So that’s so important, being able to educate people on it. Because if you think of mental health as physical health, physical health has so many different layers underneath it. One minute, someone’s going to Weight Watchers, the next minute someone’s doing CrossFit, the next minute someone’s vegan: they’re all the layers underneath it. Whereas with mental health, we haven’t discovered all of those layers underneath yet. We’re starting to, but there are still so many layers underneath it.

So I think we’ve got a long, long, long, long, long, long, long way to go. But yeah, I think it starts with just been able to understand that this is human. And as you highlighted at the beginning, we’ve all dealt with challenges in our life, we can’t avoid that. It’s going to happen. But let’s talk a little bit more openly about it.

Jo Taylor 

One of the things that I’ve been noodling in my mind, and listening to you talk, has been that a lot of the time people who come to us for training or development have been talking about building up resilience. I think we’re looking at it in the wrong way. I think it’s like… it’s like this secret code. And if you’re not resilient, you’re not part of the club, and you’re not tough. And in a mental health capacity, you’re not mentally tough to deal with setbacks. And in a way, it’s become a bit of a rod to beat HR up with, and also leaders.

I’d be interested to hear your view on what you’re hearing, but also, do you agree, do you disagree? Because I just have this worry that we’re saying that people have got to be really tough. And we’ve sort of a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And actually, we’re not; we’re doing the complete opposite. We’re making people feel worse about themselves, than better, ultimately,

Paul McGregor 

It’s a really good question. I think there’s a couple of ways of looking at this.

The first way is that, from an employer point of view/HR point of view, we have to empower employees to be able to manage their own mental health, right? So I think when you’re looking at resilience, that’s where it’s good, because, as an employee, we can only do so much. But actually, we want to empower and educate, and I guess, train employees on some tools or ways of them approaching the challenges that they experience, the pressure that they experience, and to essentially become more resilient. So I think there’s a benefit there. The other benefit to the word resilience is it’s a lot softer than “mental health”. So I see resilience as: let’s talk about mental health.

But actually, resilience is a much softer word, so it might attract more engagement.

Now, what you’re alluding to, and I really, really do agree actually, is – and I’m probably gonna go really, really deep here – when we’re talking about resilience, and we’re talking about those tools, we’re still missing a really big part of mental health, which is the shame that so many of us carry, and the stigma that so many of us are impacted by, and the emotions that we aren’t taught how to deal with them. And we don’t like dealing with them, essentially. So what I mean by that, the best way to explain that is in a lot of resilience stuff there’s probably a lot of talks about tools and “do this, and do that”. If you don’t feel this way, then do this, right? And that’s a very simplistic way of looking at mental health.

It does work, but only to some extent. And the greatest example of that is my dad. Because my dad was someone who was an engineer by trade. He was a qualified physiotherapist. When I was 12 years old, my dad went to college and studied psychology and got a psychology degree. My dad read self help books, he meditated with a CD ROM back in 2007, before meditation was cool. He ran every day, if not twice a day. My dad was someone who tried Reiki and yoga and all of that stuff. So when you’re looking at my dad as that example, he’s doing all of those tools. He’s doing all of that stuff to stay resilient. Now, I’m only going off what I’ve learned through dealing with my dad’s suicide for the last 12 years. And through my own education and experience of my own struggles of depression.

The shame that my dad carried for all of that was probably more powerful than any of that stuff. So him feeling like he can’t talk about it, him feeling like people are going to judge him, him, not being able to express his emotions. The fact that I never saw my dad cry until his breakdown, right? All of that stuff, I think, is far more powerful than any of those tools. Now, like I say they, both play a massive part in it because I talk about the tools a lot. The tools are great for me now: I make sure I go for my run in the morning, I go to the gym, I do all of that stuff… meditation. But what I’ve really addressed is the shame part of it and the vulnerability like I was talking about at the beginning.

So if people are talking about resilience without talking about shame and vulnerability, I think that’s where they’re missing the point. For me to feel resilient, I had to first be comfortable to be vulnerable, and deal with a lot of the shame stuff, which is a lot deeper than a lot of corporates probably want to touch. I think that’s really important when you’re talking about resilience, for sure.

Jo Taylor 

Thank you. And thank you so much for sharing your story, it’s really helpful.

So Paul, if people are listening to this podcast, and they’ve been given a load of money, or that it’s part of their people agenda, and they really want to make a difference to people’s lives, you know… your business is around “every mind matters”? Where would someone start, ultimately?

Paul McGregor 

I think you’ve got to start with – and this is a really cheesy saying, but I say it a lot – you’ve got to start with the ‘why’ not the ‘what’.

So again, when I started to do talks about 6/7 years ago, when I felt comfortable to start sharing, and that then translated into talks in the workplace, what I started to see was a lot of organisations focused on the what and not the why. So what I mean by that is: “what do you have for your employees’ mental health?” Well, we have an employee assistance programme… we’ve just trained 20 Mental Health First Aiders… on Mental Health Awareness Week, we had these people come in and do a talk. And then you would say, “Okay but why are you doing those?” And that’s where they struggle. “Because we should or, you know, because we should be doing this”. So what we try and do as a business is start with the ‘why’. And what that means is, what’s your strategy? All of that stuff is great if it’s surrounded by a strategy which brings it all together, which creates engagement. And so essentially, I would say start there. And sometimes, as I’m sure you know, and I probably shouldn’t say this because it’ll put us out of business, is sometimes the simple, free stuff is important.

Like if we as a business can work with you – or I’m sure you at the same time – and a session that we deliver, or training or whatever, can encourage one senior member or one employee to say: “You know what, this is my personal experience?” – now we’ve started to chip away at that stigma. So again, little things like that are hugely important.

So yeah, no matter how much money you have, I think you have to start with a strategy. Because what I’ve seen in my experience is there’s a lot of organisations that waste a lot of money. And they get very low engagement on those mental health initiatives. No one turns up and no one uses the app, or no one uses the programme or whatever it is. But when you start to focus on ‘why’, and you start to chip away the stigma first, and encourage those conversations, the rest starts to have a much bigger impact as well.

Jo Taylor 

I totally agree. It’s never about the money. I always talk about it in learning and development, with the quote from Kevin Costner’s film the Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come.” They won’t come. You have to give them the why. And I totally believe – and we’re very aligned in that – in that I think we have to be there to support the community.

That’s why we do a lot of free initiatives, because actually, it’s our part of playing in that legacy that is changing the world of work. And that’s what we’re both trying to do in different ways. So it’s really exciting to be partnering with you and talking to you, and getting to know what you do better. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your journey with our community and look forward to talking again soon.

Paul McGregor 

I appreciate it, vice versa. Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.

Jo Taylor 

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