Often mistaken for weakness or fragility, vulnerability in the workplace is the root of authentic leadership and meaningful connection. It is the ability to express and expose, in words and behavior, who we really are and what we genuinely think and feel. While unmasking can be hard in all parts of our lives, it is particularly onerous in our professional lives where expectations to keep a friendly but cool professional distance with our colleagues, and project confidence and infallibility (particularly to those we report to), are deeply entrenched.
Summary by Lisa Schmidt for The World of Work Project
Vulnerability In The Workplace
In recent years, emotional intelligence, empathy, inclusiveness and vulnerability have joined the long-established attributes of teamwork, communication and problem-solving in lists of essential leadership skills. Of these, vulnerability has catapulted to the top spot, in large measure due to the writings and TEDtalks of American author and researcher Brené Brown, who defines vulnerability as “basically uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
Benefits and Risks of Vulnerability in Work
Often mistaken for weakness or fragility, vulnerability is the root of authentic and meaningful connection. It is the ability to reveal, in words and behavior, who we really are and what we genuinely think and feel. While unmasking can be hard in all parts of our lives, it is particularly onerous in our professional lives where expectations to keep a friendly but cool professional distance with our colleagues, and project confidence and infallibility (particularly to those we report to), are deeply entrenched.
The literature offers little doubt on the benefits of bringing our so-called full selves to work, with key outcomes including better quality output and more fulfilled workers. In fact, being able to reveal the breadth of our human experience (whether struggling as a single parent, having a mental health issue or experiencing overwhelm in a new role, for example) has been tied to enhanced feelings of self-worth, increased creativity and innovation, and deeper relationships, all of which benefit us both professionally and personally.
Yet there are risks to exposing our emotions at work: rejection of our ideas, criticism about how we perform, and ostracization for not fitting in are all possible consequences. Adding to this are fears of being labeled, reprimanded or fired, which can greatly impact the degree of willingness any of us have to show our feelings or even offer an unconventional view. And what might be considered appropriate sharing in one group can be viewed as TMI (aka “too much information”) in another, predisposing us to judgment and gossip.
The Role of Culture
Further, when expanding beyond who we are as workers to who we are as people, additional cultural elements deserve consideration. Those in minority ethnic groups within a dominant culture, for instance, have valid reasons to withhold their voices from the conversation: sharing a divergent perspective might enhance a racial stereotype; or alternately, one could be perceived as “acting white” by agreeing with a prevailing view. Immigrants and people who practice non-Christian religions in traditionally “Western” countries, among others, may feel they can’t be their full selves anywhere, let alone in the workplace, particularly if their religious or cultural traditions are expressed in behavior, appearance or clothing considered threatening by some members of the majority population. When one lives with the sense that being different from “the norm” is unwelcome, being vulnerable at work comes with far greater risks, and more reasons to mask feelings and thoughts.
Showing Vulnerability and the role of Culture
Not surprisingly, words such as courage, daring and fearlessness ride shotgun with vulnerability in the workplace, the idea being an element of heroism exists in being vulnerable, regardless of context or circumstances. Leaders particularly are called to model the way, both revealing more of their hidden selves, and creating environments that make it possible for others to do the same.
What’s often missed in this discourse is the organizational culture necessary for vulnerability to take root in the teams and organizations we work with and in.
Countless CEOs and senior executives lament the dearth of creativity to drive needed innovation, yet fail to link the shaming, blaming or silencing cultures they lead with how professionally risky it is for employees to chance being ridiculed, ignored or cut from the team.
Being genuinely vulnerable in the workplace then requires two things: a willingness to be open at the individual level, and a collective culture that welcomes and recognizes genuine openness. It also requires a belief that it is beneficial to the individual, the team and the broader organization, and a commitment to persist even when it is uncomfortable, which it often is.
Intentions and Moderation
Finally, if an individual shares their thoughts and feelings with others, it must also be in service to the group’s objectives. To carelessly offer one’s unfiltered thoughts and views is not vulnerability, it is reckless and potentially offensive. Again, leaders who believe being vulnerable is about letting it all hang out and oversharing as a tactic to build team cohesion may instead create a climate of malaise. As in all things, moderation and good judgment are key.
The World of Work Project View
Much has been written about psychologically safe workplaces in which disrespect, bullying and discrimination are swiftly dealt with to protect workers from injustices and emotional abuse. Beyond egregious behavior, there is work to do in creating the kind of safety in which embers of new ideas and approaches are kindled into breakthroughs, and real conversations about real problems encouraged.
This is the work of leaders at all levels, but particularly at the top. Professing the values of courage and creativity (which require vulnerability in the workplace) on the one hand, but acting as judges and gatekeepers on the other, is a recipe for low trust and disengagement. Being more open, willing to learn and not have all the answers, notably for those in top leadership roles, has huge payoffs. By role-modeling the behavior they seek to inspire in the team, leaders give workers the green light to try new things by making it safe to be authentically and imperfectly human.
Executives would also be wise to recognize the amount of energy and productivity lost to employee attempts to fit in, as those required to do the work invest more in self-protection and withholding their flawed humanity from other another, and less in advancing towards shared goals. This social effort drains individual resources, depleting workers, and leaving many with less to invest where it is most needed: into the work, in the relationships and in the creativity necessary for progress.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: little is to be gained by being all-talk-and-no-action in nurturing more open, sharing team cultures. When both hearts and minds are needed to solve problems big and small, senior leaders should take the perspective that what is better – for clients, stakeholders, employees, the business and perhaps even the planet – is more likely to come from revealing (as appropriate), rather than concealing. And that the most powerful thing they can do is create and model the conditions and psychological safety for powerful work to emerge.
In the words of author Todd Henry: “The measure of your greatness as a leader is the brilliant work you release others to do.”
About the Author
LISA SCHMIDT, M.Ed. ACPC, is a seasoned speaker and organizational development consultant. She helps executives and organizations speak truth and act with courage in developing compelling and powerful strategies, along with the roadmaps to get there. She’s passionate about the importance of showing vulnerability in the workplace.
More than a coach and facilitator, Lisa is a thinking partner who leverages her experience with iconic organizations such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Hospital for Sick Children and Atomic Energy of Canada – and internationally with the Mastercard Foundation – to shift organizations from a focus on results and success, to one of impact, legacy and significance.
A former speechwriter credited with writing “the Million Dollar speech” for a hospital fundraising campaign, and the recipient of Canadian Council literary funding, she understands how language is critical to leadership, and helps leaders hone their ability to inspire and build their legacy.
To contact or read more about her, visit www.lisaschmidt.ca.