As a team leader, boss, or manager, one of your biggest fears can be showing weakness. Do you worry you’ll lose respect from your colleagues in times of turmoil? Maybe you think you’d come across as incapable? Or perhaps it’d destroy that steely professional persona you have cultivated so well?
Although appearing fragile and powerless are not strong positions to align yourself with, allowing your vulnerability to show in the workplace can yield positive results. And there’s good news for you:
Weakness and vulnerability are not the same thing.
American research professor Brené Brown is the biggest advocate for vulnerability. In both her book and TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, she dispels the myth that vulnerability is weakness and says that when we drop the armour that protects us from feeling vulnerable, we open ourselves to the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.
“We associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty,” writes Brown.“Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity and love.”
Here, we explore the new rules around vulnerability at work and how you can make it work for you, your team and organisation.
What does vulnerability at work mean?
Showing your vulnerabilities at work isn’t about getting overly emotional or dramatically admitting failure. It is an opportunity to build more meaningful connections with your team by carefully expressing how you authentically feel and think.
In your role as a leader, you’ll be used to naturally adopting a professional, perhaps even slightly detached manner when dealing with your co-workers. Even in a culture where being a bold, take-no-prisoners boss is expected, it is possible to exude confidence and be a strong, self-assured leader yet operate from a place of openness at the same time.
An opportunity for growth in the workplace, vulnerability shows you are human. On the contrary to displaying weakness, demonstrating vulnerability as a leader is a sign of courage. By doing so you will help your employees speak up when they need to and enables them to see you as someone who is not ashamed of real and truthful conversation – for better and for worse.
Rule 1: Make it clear you don’t have all the answers
A good boss should lead, guide and inspire, though it’s not your duty to always have all the answers. If you’re the kind of leader who always thinks it’s your way or the highway, you could risk alienating and infuriating your team – and needing to keep that suit of armour buttoned up tight.
According to Kimble’s 2019 Boss Barometer report 83% of employees wanted to provide more input to their manager, with 22% saying they felt they had superior abilities to their boss.
By demonstrating humility and that you don’t have all the answers all the time, you will showcase how much you value your team’s ideas and creativity while building their confidence and respect. And when they respect you, they will value and be inspired by your vulnerabilities and what you learnt from them.
Rule 2: Don’t let your emotions get the better of you
Showing your vulnerability is not a free pass for blurting all your feelings out irrespective of the consequences. Being vulnerable is not getting overly emotional at every opportunity positive or negative and reaching for a box of tissues.
The secret to expressing your vulnerabilities sensibly is about picking the right time and place to authentically express your feelings in a calm and measured manner. Research shows that this genuine vulnerability can generate constructive outcomes, like reduced tensions or reaffirmed goals.
Rule 3: Bring up the elephant in the room when no one else is doing so
When there’s a difficult or uncomfortable issue that every team member is tiptoeing around it can build an uncomfortable working atmosphere for all. It could be a client is a nightmare to deal with or that an investor is losing money.
By acknowledging and bringing up thorny issues, you will create a feel-flowing space where your team sees you as a leader who is unafraid to confront uncomfortable topics and will feel liberated themselves to discuss things previously considered off-topic.
Further, as a vulnerable leader who doesn’t know it all, you can ask for input and collaborate on ideas creating shared ownership of both the problem and the solution.
Rule 4: Don’t get personal under the guise of authenticity
Demonstrating vulnerability doesn’t mean pouring your heart out about every element of your personal life, be it getting dumped, a gambling addiction or that bizarre health issue that won’t quit.
One study revealed that when higher status disclosers reveal too much about themselves, it undermines their influence, conflict, and relationship quality. This was only true of senior status disclosers and not peers (or employees) who didn’t experience any of those negative outcomes.
So, in a nutshell: as a leader, oversharing will open the door to making your team feel uncomfortable at best or doubt your professional integrity at worst.
Rule 5: If you make a mistake, own it
One of the main characteristics of vulnerability is the willingness to speak up despite what the consequences may be. This takes courage and is an admirable trait. Perhaps nowhere more does this extend to than by admitting to mistakes if - and when - you make them.
If you’re used to being an assertive leader around criticism or failure, taking off that bullet proof vest when it comes to accountability will serve you and your team. Firstly, we are all human. Secondly, you will win points for being authentic and not passing the blame onto someone else. Thirdly, it helps you become aware of yourself and your own flaws so that you can learn from them.
The trick is to be concise and subtle; there’s no need to go into too much detail or offer up endless apologies.
Rule 6: Go the extra mile to strengthen human connections
Although there are times when remaining aloof and unbiased are the most appropriate courses of action, when the opportunity arises to show your emotional, caring side you should not hold back.
If a team member is hospitalised, consider sending them a thoughtful gift and calling them if they’re able to talk. When an employee has suffered a bereavement, think about offering a period of paid leave – as well as your sincere condolences. When the team has really nailed a target, showcase your gratitude with a reward you know they’ll love.
Not only you will not only remind your team you’re human too, but it will also strengthen the relationship with the team.
Rule 7: Read the room
Another helpful way you show empathy is by tuning into the feelings, anxieties, and expectations of your team. Are they on edge about up upcoming client presentation? Are they facing near burnout from a seemingly endless project? When their morale and energy is off kilter, be there to show that you hear and see them to instil a sense of unity.
Ask them questions to gauge how they are feeling. Then validate their feelings by verbally expressing that you understand and empathise with them. Showing your vulnerability is as much about being a good listener to other people’s issues as it is about revealing you own.
The benefits of showing vulnerability in the workplace:
It builds up employee trust
It boosts creativity and innovation
It can help you become more self-aware
It encourages honesty and truthfulness
It demonstrates accountability
It creates an atmosphere of openness
It helps employees feel more valued
It creates a culture of forgiveness
It builds stronger bonds between you and your team
It can reduce employee turnover
"I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential."
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts
Showing vulnerability at work does not mean blurting out whatever you feel to your team, it’s about picking the right moments to express your feelings in a way that generates positive outcomes
Take initiative when it comes to acknowledging and discussing uncomfortable topics to release team tension and create an open atmosphere where people feeling empowered to talk.
Show humility by making it clear that you do not have all the answers all the time to gain respect and trust.
Do not pour your heart out about personal issues in the workplace. Oversharing can undermine your influence.
If you make a mistake, be courageous and own it as it will help you overcome your own flaws and errors.
Go the extra mile to demonstrate empathy and appreciation when the opportunity arises.
Always tune into your team’s mood and listen to their concerns so you can show support and empathy when they need it.
If you are open to new opportunities, contact a recruitment agency like Trojan Recruitment Group and receive advice from the experts in labour-hire, permanent and contract staff.