Have you ever worked with leaders or bosses who feel some weird need to appear bulletproof? They know everything, with no hint of needing to learn. Their confidence seems unflappable and impervious to the challenges they encounter. This kind of boss is terrible to work for. And I think the days are gone of society quietly accepting stoic, aloof, unapproachable bosses. Today’s workforce wants a company leader who maturely expresses their humanity while getting the job done. One way this can be done well is by embracing vulnerability in leadership. In fact, this new trend in workplace culture can have impressive effects.
Before I get into the benefits, let’s take a moment to define what it means to exercise vulnerability in the workplace. Professional vulnerability is not the same as personal vulnerability. What I do not mean is venting all of your home life issues or deeply personal challenges with your coworkers. I also do not mean inappropriately sharing upper-level management issues with lower-level employees that can’t do anything to help. Emotional health, character, maturity, and contextually appropriate topics all come into play when defining how to be professionally vulnerable. The two guiding questions to ask yourself before attempting to be professionally vulnerable are:
- Is this information mine to share (aka about me, not someone else)?
- Does this revelation help in the context of work?
If the answers are yes, you’re likely in possession of a professionally vulnerable topic that could greatly benefit your team, if you’re brave enough to share it.
I’m a big believer in the idea that leaders go first. I’m not going to ask anything of my team that I’m unwilling to do myself. Whether it’s cleaning toilets or working late to meet a deadline, if I want them to do it, then I’ve either already done it or will do it right alongside them. To that end, if I’m hoping for vulnerability among my colleagues, I’m going to need to model that first. When I create safe and inclusive environments with my honesty, willingness to be open, or admittance to failure, it invites my team to do the same. This kind of culture will never happen accidentally. Company culture is made by leaders who intentionally go first, speak vision, and invite others in.
But why go there at all? Because fear is the enemy of creativity. Do you want the very best ideas and problem-solving from your team? Would your company be more successful if your employees gave their best to every project or customer encounter? Of course, the answer is yes. What might not be as obvious is how vulnerability, from the top down, can get you there. When your team feels safe enough to openly brainstorm, throw out crazy ideas, risk, collaborate - all things that require vulnerability - then you’ll get the best work out of them. Not only that, they’ll be happier at work, which increases productivity, effectiveness, and retention.
Another benefit of leading with vulnerability is the way it empowers your people to rise to the occasion. If you are the hero who does everything right and never needs help, you will create distance between you and your team. They may even begin to feel aimless in their purpose at work. We all like to be needed, but isn’t the point of multiple positions in a company that those people are, in fact, necessary to make the whole thing run? Expressing vulnerability in terms of not being an expert on everything, needing help, or even getting something wrong, invites your employees into working as a team. A true team functions as a unit, making each part better in the process. When everyone is valued for what they bring and encouraged to fill in the gaps where others lack, then everyone can develop and improve.
Another byproduct of vulnerability is connection. Apologizing, the admittance of bias, owning mistakes - more examples of vulnerability - all demonstrate impressive emotional intelligence. No matter what industry you work in, emotional intelligence is a vital leadership skill if humans are involved. When you lead with vulnerability, you open the door to connection with your team. This kind of relational capital is exactly what you need to create a successful workplace. Connection breeds trust, safety, understanding, belief, buy-in, flexibility. Can you imagine the incredible team dynamic? Rooted in connection, a team can assume the best in one another and work hard together toward a common goal.
Professional vulnerability can be challenging and it will likely take some time to get good at it. But in the ever-changing landscape of work and leadership, it's a worthwhile skill to develop. Anything truly great will require vulnerability. When you set the tone of vulnerability for your team, you’re inviting them to do their best work. So go first. Be appropriately vulnerable and respect vulnerability when the people around you express it. Rinse, repeat, and succeed!
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