Coaching a professional basketball team is not different from managing a team of corporate employees. You have stars, utility players and bench warmers, all of whom thrive when their coach tailors his approach to their unique talents, weaknesses and contributions to the team. Bare Knuckle People Management speaks directly to managers who have been frustrated by the notion that all employees need to be treated equally and with kids’ gloves.

—Mike D’Antoni, Head Coach of the New York Knicks

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Walking the Vulnerability Tightrope

I am sitting here like a total geek reflecting on vulnerability – yes, that terribly anxiety-provoking state of being exposed to emotional injury.

Specifically, I’m reflecting on those peculiar sorts who bring vulnerability on themselves by putting themselves “out there” and thereby expose themselves to their own emotional injury.

You know who I’m talking about, right? You see these vulnerability hounds every day –

·         The kid with the untrained voice who volunteers to sing a solo at his school’s town meeting; or

·         the frontline employee who asks the company CEO a question on a public conference call; or

·         the B-list wedding guest who offers an impromptu toast; or

·         the manager who reveals his insecurities to his personnel; or

·         the boy who asks out his “it” girl or the lover who says “I love you” first; or

·         the retail salesperson who relentlessly attempts to win over and engage the stand-offish customer.

Why the hell would anyone expose themselves like this? To what end? What’s the reward for them on the other side of taking these risks of emotional exposure?

Well, I’ve been taking careful note of those times when I bring vulnerability on myself. I’m getting to know these moments well – they’re the ones when I feel compelled to say or do something, and before I do, in my mind I replay myself saying it or doing it over and over. I feel almost paralyzed by anxiety. And at some point I make a determination – say or do or don’t say or do. And if I finally say or do, I almost always feel…awesome.

And here are some conclusions I’ve drawn about my own experience:

When I put myself at emotional risk, I gain…

·         Power. I am emboldened by the courage I summons to step up and put myself out there.

·         Relief. I’ve put the ball in another’s court. I’ve given of myself, and now it’s incumbent on another to respond. The pressure to deliver is off of me.

·         Self-Satisfaction. I can walk away from these moments knowing that I’ve taken my shot. If it goes well, the sky is the limit. If it goes poorly, I’ll need to dust myself off, pull myself back together, and regain the courage to do it again.

·         Potential for Success. But the biggest reason the I go back to the proverbial vulnerability well appears to be the potential embedded in my vulnerable-making actions. Praise from peers. Job promotion. A new relationship. A sale.

As with most things I write, my reflections and conclusions are personal and anecdotal and maybe, as with so many self-reflections, just applicable to me. But I urge you to take a close look the next time you bring vulnerability onto yourself and put yourself out there. Take careful note of how you feel before, during, and after you do. And then see if you, like me, can figure out why in the world you just risked emotional injury to yourself. You might find it’s because the rewards outweigh the risks.

About Sean O’Neil

Sean O’Neil is a workplace and team dynamics expert. He is also Principal and CEO of Bare Knuckle People Management (, a sales and management training firm with clients that include the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, News Corporation, First Data, ADP, Royal Bank of Scotland, and the Oakland Raiders. Sean and John Kulisek co-authored Bare Knuckle People Management: Creating Success with the Team You Have – Winners, Losers, Misfits and All, which was published in May 2011. Sean has contributed to or been featured in, among others, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Selling Power Magazine,, HR Morning Magazine, Leadership Excellence Magazine, Training Magazine, the Dallas Morning News, the Sports Business Journal, and Incentive Magazine. Sean appears regularly on radio and television programs, including Fox Business Network and Imus in the Morning, mostly about workplace communications and management issues. Sean is a nationally-recognized speaker on everything concerning people and the way they interact with each other. He can also frequently be seen pacing the sidelines of a youth team he’s coaching.


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