While vulnerability is essential for building authentic and meaningful relationships with your team, we need to prepare for its set of risks. Being genuine and honest about your flaws inevitably leaves you open to perils that we have been taught to fear since we were kids– losing others’ approval, being mocked or disrespected. Being vulnerable is not something that comes naturally in our society and it takes a lot of effort to overcome our conditioning. In a culture which comes up with a new superhero every other day, it is truly intimidating to show that you are merely human.
As Brene Brown, the researcher and public speaker who put vulnerability in the spotlight of leadership conversation, puts it:
“The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”Brené Brown
(listen to her Daring Hearts podcast here. It is truly inspiring)
And while we cannot completely control the outcome, there are some actions we can take to help our teams and ourselves cope with the discomfort our first attempts at vulnerability as leaders may bring about.
Vulnerability can be frightening
When I published my first post The Art of Sayin “I’m Sorry” – The Beginning colleague and dear friend came back to me with a follow-up question: “How to prepare or prevent people from being nasty about an apology?”. My first thought was that I had never experienced such reactions. While I often feel apprehension before I have to admit to a mistake and apologize, especially to large groups of people, I have always felt good afterward. Initially, I attributed this to the fact that people tend to be nice to me and to forgive me a lot of stuff – I give out a bit of a teddy-bear vibe, which discourages people from hurting me (one of the few nice side effects of social awkwardness and having a baby face).
However, I decided to dig a little deeper and look at the last few situations where I had shown real vulnerability (after all, I am not all that special. If so many people find vulnerability risky, I cannot be the only one immune to its risks). This scrutiny revealed that in most of those situations, I had received reactions I had not expected or enjoyed much. But the fact that I have been practicing vulnerability in my work life for so long had allowed me to implement some of the tips I will share below intuitively and take any adverse reactions in stride.
What are the risks
We are not used to either showing or witnessing vulnerability, especially in a corporate environment. We need to remember that this is true not just for us as leaders but also for our team members. More likely than not, you are one of their first leaders that are brave enough to show their authentic self with all its shortcomings and insecurities. We need to be sensitive to this when we experience one or more of the unfavorable reactions mentioned below.
I have experienced this most with employees that I have not hired myself but have “inherited” from other leaders. Every time I interview a candidate, I make sure to clearly demonstrate that I don’t take myself very seriously and I am quite open about my deficiencies, so they come prepared for our future work together. But I have many colleagues who had known me only from afar before joining my team. For some of them, the first time they hear me say, “I’m sorry, I messed up” or “I really suck at this, can you help me” is a somewhat disconcerting experience. I have experienced anything from uncomfortable titter to 30-second silence to a frantic “no, no, no, you are not that bad; you are doing pretty good.”
This situation has to be handled with sensitivity and care. I have usually managed to get through to them by providing space and employing some of the behaviors I will describe later in the post. But sometimes, I have not been successful in supporting them to accept this new concept of leadership and it has built a wall between us or lead to more adverse reactions
If we cannot overcome the initial shock reaction, our employees may start experiencing cognitive dissonance. This is a feeling of discomfort that arises when a person experiences conflicting ideas, beliefs and values.
While harmful leadership practices most often cause this discomfort, we have to remember once again that vulnerability in leaders often goes contrary to what our team members have been taught that a leader should be. So they are put in a situation in which you, someone who is their manager and whom they hopefully respect, displays behavior that goes against the image of a leader they had built up.
This could be very stressful for them and lead to various undesirable behaviors such as hostility, withdrawal, silent obstruction and others.
You can read more about the effects of cognitive dissonance in the workplace in this article by Paul Marks.
Talking about your mistakes and discussing your failures sometimes may provoke pity in your team members.
This is a tricky one. While pity is benevolent as an emotion, it does contain an element of condescension. And while I am used to and generally don’t mind people feeling superior to me (and actually sometimes find it useful in relationships with stakeholders and peers) in an employee-manager relationship, this may be unproductive in the long run. The emotion that promotes equality in the exchange is empathy, but just as vulnerability, it often does not come out naturally and needs to be trained.
What you can do for the team
Educate and provide context
Just as we read articles and watch webinars to learn how to show vulnerability and why it is vital for our relationships with our team, most likely, our colleagues also need some education on this topic. Talk to them about the importance and benefits of vulnerability in your team meetings. In your 1-to-1s, explain what showing vulnerability has brought you as a leader and professional and why you have adopted it. Address any uneasiness you notice. A simple “I see that me talking about my flaws makes you feel uncomfortable, would you like to discuss it” can go a long way in combatting shock and cognitive dissonance.
Walk the walk
Vulnerability has a lot more aspects in addition to admitting to your failures and owning up to your mistakes, but since this whole post was born from a discussion about apologies, let’s make something clear. Apologies are only as good as the changed behavior that follows them. No matter how sincerely you admit that you messed up, if you continue making the same mistake, your words will eventually lose their meaning.
Vulnerability is hard and it is not always easy to maintain it constantly. But you cannot afford to be authentic and open about your experiences, challenges and imperfections one moment and become defensive and aloof the second. If opening yourself completely feels difficult, it is better to start small with something close to your comfort zone.
Benefits of vulnerability
I know I made it sound a bit scary. But vulnerability is great, really. It is one of the shortest and, I believe, the only sustainable road to building good teamwork foundations such as:
I don’t know about your jobs, but mine is quite fast-paced and stressful. For the past four years, I have been part of two major HR transformations. Different companies, but the same story – constant change in process, systems and operating model, consistently working simultaneously in production and project mode and lots and lots of work. My team members and I regularly feel overwhelmed, and don’t always know what is coming next and are very, very tired.
Through all this, it really helps all of us to know that we are all in this together. My team feels more supported when they know that at times I struggle as much as they do, have similar doubts they have, but I keep going and continuously work to find solutions for our collective challenges.
That’s the big one. There is no team without trust. A leader is not a leader if her team does not trust her.
In his 2017 Harvard Business Review article, Paul J Zack presents the results of his research on the neuroscience of trust. The returns on trust he outlines are genuinely astounding – people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.
And one of the key management behaviors he has found to promote building trust is, as we can expect, vulnerability. According to him, and shall we immodestly say, our own observations, showing vulnerability increases a leader’s credibility and promotes cooperation.
What you can do for yourself
In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a couple of tips for self-care as a vulnerable leader.
Manage your own expectations
Baring yourself in front of your team and showing your true feelings, fears and regrets is a sensitive personal experience. If you are like me, you have rehearsed the situation hundreds of times in advance and you understandably expect acceptance and empathy from the other side. So it is ever more disappointing when you are met with hostility or indifference.
So keep reminding yourself that people are different. They will not always react the way you would or the way you expect. And that is ok. Learning to bring vulnerability in our work life is a process that takes time. In addition, as a leader, you know that you cannot reach every employee with the same approach. If vulnerability does not work with someone, you will find another way to connect with them.
Disengage from the reaction
I have heard this advice multiple times during my training as a clinical psychologist and again recently during my guided meditation practice. We need to learn how to put some distance between ourselves and other people’s reactions and opinions of us and the emotions that they arouse in us.
This does not mean you should cut off your emotions, but you should not let them overtake you. You should not identify with the reactions of others, be it positive or negative. Just keep reminding yourself that your vulnerability is the best thing you can do for your team and yourself as a leader.