ATD Blog

Use Simulations to Learn From Vulnerability

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

It is a business imperative for learning and development teams to incorporate vulnerability in the programs they deliver. Doing so yields greater clarity around team culture, an improved ability to learn quickly, and an increased trust in the organization—all of which contribute to a better bottom line for the business.

What does vulnerability mean in the context of the workplace? Social science researcher Brene Brown defines it as, “the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” These moments crop up far more frequently than expected. Brown’s research shows it is often during everyday moments, like those listed below, that we are most vulnerable:

  • intimacy between spouses
  • raising your voice in a meeting
  • extending condolences to an acquaintance having a hard time.

Brown says the desire to feel safe from vulnerability is “so primal” that many of us will engage in group think and suppress what we believe just to avoid feeling uncomfortable. To prevent this natural tendency from undermining your team’s ability to resist mission drift, you must relentlessly build your organization’s comfort with vulnerability.

Helping adults become comfortable with vulnerability is arduous because it’s a skill that doesn’t fit neatly into a framework to be memorized and used on command. Becoming comfortable with vulnerability takes practice with ambiguous, challenging experiences. Luckily, L&D teams are uniquely positioned to engage their learners in improving their comfort with vulnerability.

One way to do this is to use simulations in your programming. Simulations strike a balance between focused execution of hard skills and softer, uncomfortable moments of vulnerability. They allow participants to practice making mistakes, speaking up in groups, and disagreeing within teams. This practice in a safe environment pays off when your learners return to their daily tasks and are better prepared to handle vulnerability when the stakes are higher.

Simulations increase participant comfort with vulnerability by allowing participants to practice reflecting on cultural norms and connecting values with executed strategy.


The risk-taking inherent to competitive simulations builds familiarity with vulnerability and leaves participants better prepared to handle those inevitable moments they will face on the job.

Simulations are dynamic. A good simulation offers moments when the collective understanding is greater than the individual, but that collective understanding can be accessed only through direct communication that requires members of a team to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

According to Jake Herway of Gallup, “Experiences of vulnerability can create belonging or expose misalignment between employee and corporate identities.” You’re best able to identify the reality of your team’s culture in moments of intensity and action. Practicing these moments of intensity in a simulated environment has invaluable impact when learners bring these lessons back to their jobs.


Along with incorporating well-developed simulations into your L&D strategy, it is also important that your mindset as an L&D team shifts. In past uncomfortable moments, you may have avoided emotional conversations, which can close off important opportunities for learning and discovery. It’s important to leave space for vulnerable emotions to surface and facilitate safe reflection to maximize your learners’ experience. Additionally, understand that as an L&D leader you will be undergoing your own journey of embracing vulnerability as you help your learners develop their comfort with discomfort.

Simulations are no magic bullet. When thoughtfully constructed and intentionally deployed, however, they fold the most difficult elements of learning vulnerability into a more practical application and action-based experience that learners enjoy.

Whether or not you start incorporating simulations into your L&D strategy today, remember these key principles to leverage moments of vulnerability in your training. Rather than shy away from the moments that make your participants squirm, lean into that discomfort and create a space in which to safely speak. Your culture will grow in a positive way, and your team’s skills will grow along with it.

About the Author

Fred Tally-Foos is a personal and professional development enthusiast. He is a market developer at Abilitie where he helps clients find the right simulation solution for their business and leadership development needs. Based out of Austin, Texas, Fred loves to work with clients across the globe and see their learners flourish in Abilitie's tech-enabled, competitive simulations.

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I would love to be pointed in the direction of how to create impactful simulations. I know that there are companies and services that can be purchased but until I have the financial resources for that, I'd like to try my hand at creating something to use in house.
Hi Carrie! I totally understand the difficulty there - I'd be happy to take a 30-minute call with you to discuss how you can build out some solutions in-house as well as to share what resources exist to help. I'm reachable at [email protected] if you'd like to connect.
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Amazing stuff. These get easier with peopleHum, a next-gen people software. So, what are you waiting for? Try it out today!
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Thank you for this great article, Fred. I'm a big fan of Brene Brown's work but have been challenged by how to incorporate the concepts into my L & D work. Your article helped me begin to see how to put those pieces together. Thanks very much!
Thank you so much for the kind comment, Kate! I really do think safes spaces for vulnerability are all about that ultimately basic concept: try, try again. Would love to hear how it turns out in your organization.
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