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How To Practice Vulnerability In The Workplace: A Pathway To Authentic Leadership

Rebecca Noori

What springs to mind when you hear the word vulnerability? Perhaps you think about vulnerable seniors struggling to afford their rising energy bills or vulnerable families on the poverty line. Or maybe you're worried about vulnerable countries that bear the brunt of environmental disasters. 

Vulnerability has negative connotations; it prompts us to feel sympathy, despair, and offer support to those most in need. It's not a word we typically associate with strength and leadership. 

But what if vulnerability was a superpower your organization could harnessto be more authentic, build better workplace connections, and lead with empathy? We believe it is. This guide explores the concept of vulnerability, why you should embrace it, and expert tips on how to be vulnerable in the workplace.

What Is Vulnerability?

The clue is in the name. Vulnerability is the ability to expose our emotions—feel the highs and the lows, acknowledge them, and share these feelings authentically with others. It's about being vulnerable enough to open up our true selves without fear of judgment or repercussions. This can be incredibly powerful yet also challenging if our default mode is to mask our inner dialogue.

What Is Vulnerability In The Workplace?

Being entirely authentic and human in the workplace can be revealing. It feels risky to expose our feelings to people who are intertwined with our career trajectories. But being vulnerable at work can profoundly impact the people you work with. When you step up to be honest with your peers and direct reports, it permits everyone to do the same. Vulnerability in the workplace could mean: 

  • Participating in a tough conversation.
  • Having a different viewpoint from your team about a project or decision.
  • Admitting that you're struggling.
  • Providing difficult feedback to a direct report or colleague.
  • Sharing the struggles you're having outside of work.

Speaking to Russel Lolacher on the Relationships at Work podcast, Leadership Coach Diane Lloyd shared an example of how she experienced a workplace scenario that tapped into her vulnerability:

"Out of the blue, a client asked if I would switch from an online facilitation to an in-person facilitation next week, and I can feel the vulnerability wash over me. Where's the discomfort coming from? I have to get curious about what that resistance is. Is it that it's unfamiliar to be back in a room facilitating people, or is it something else? Discomfort can shut us down, or some crappy behavior can come from that, or we can get curious about it and think, "What is going on for me, and what do I need?" So, I emailed back and said, "I need a little more information, and some time to make a decision."

What does it mean to vulnerable at work? Having tough conversations with colleagues plays a large role.

What Are The Benefits Of Vulnerability At Work?

Vulnerability in the workplace can feel uncomfortable, especially for leaders who want to exude strength and confidence rather than anything resembling a lack of power. However, vulnerability has multiple benefits for leaders, individual employees, and the overall business, including:

Building Genuine Connections 

Workplace connections enable employees to develop relationships with colleagues and managers that increase engagement, collaboration, job satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. Our recent State of Workplace Connection study found that: 

  • 77.63% of employees consider workplace connection important or very important in achieving a great company culture.
  • 69.5% of employees would be happier if they had deeper connections with their work colleagues.
  • 76.13% of employees already have a close friend at work.

Russel Lolacher explains how working as part of a long-established team and being vulnerable with his colleagues has created a high-trust environment: 

"I've had the same team in my organization for 11 years—all the same staff. We trust each other; we like each other as human beings; we've got each other's back; we know each other as people with spouses and partners and children. It's rewarding when you're that vulnerable and build that connection with other people. One of the most valuable things I've ever done is being vulnerable at work."

Enhancing Creativity And Innovation

Being vulnerable can unlock creative ideas and solutions to problems in the workplace. Employees who feel comfortable expressing their opinions without fear of ridicule or rejection can develop more innovative approaches to difficult situations.

In contrast, author and University of Houston researcher Brené Brown carried out over 13 years of interviews with people who remembered being shamed for their artistic attempts at school and hadn't felt secure enough to be creative again.

Building Trust In A Psychologically Safe Culture 

Psychological safety at work happens when employees dismiss interpersonal fears and are confident to speak up, contribute, and own their mistakes. Diane Lloyd explains how this all stems from authentic leaders creating a space for people to be safely vulnerable in: 

“Vulnerability sends a signal that it’s okay to be yourself. When we’re willing to be seen and speak our truth, there’s this incredible chemistry that happens. The moment I shifted and showed up and spoke my truth and got real about what was going on, in a boundaried way, it gave everyone else the signal that it was okay for them to show up that way too. We build trust in this beautiful organic way, and then the work can happen.”

Increasing Leaders’ Self-Awareness 

Being vulnerable can be challenging and does require leaders to question: 

  • What are they sharing?
  • How might it be useful to the recipient?
  • Could this offend employees?

Answering these questions encourages leaders to be self-aware and think more critically about their actions. Self-awareness is a valuable skill for successful leadership and enhances communication between people, creating an emotionally intelligent environment. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Tasha Eurich introduces two types of self-awareness: 

  • Internal: How well you know yourself.
  • External: How well you understand how others see you.

There are four types of self-awareness archetypes depending on whether leaders have low or high internal and external self-awareness

Vulnerability belongs to both of these types of self-awareness. Understanding yourself and how others can interpret your words in a vulnerable situation enables anyone in a leadership role to create a safe and successful workplace.

Improving Decision-Making 

Signal AI’s State of Decision-Making report found that 63% of business leaders spend 40 hours of the week or more making decisions. But they can only make effective choices when they’re armed with all the information. Vulnerable leaders encourage employees to be genuine with their thoughts, resulting in more informed decisions.

  • Example 1: An employee named Jane has an unusual perspective to offer on a project decision. Even though her opinion differs from the rest of the team, her refreshing take enables her manager to see the project from a different angle and make a decision that benefits the business.
  • Example 2: Ted's team is deadlocked about whether to accept a client proposal or not. After expressing his concern that the project could be too difficult, Ted can begin a dialogue with his colleagues, enabling them to explore all the possibilities before finalizing the decision. 
  • Example 3: Lesley is struggling with elder care commitments that leave her exhausted. By opening up about her struggles, her manager can discuss flexible working policies which better fit Lesley's work-life balance.

What Happens When Leaders Avoid Vulnerability In The Workplace?

Vulnerability isn't compulsory, and there are plenty of leaders who aren't comfortable with it, believing it makes them look weak or incompetent. But skip this step, and you may notice some common problems in your workplace:

No Clarity

Without vulnerability, people may be afraid to ask for clarification about their role or the tasks you assign them. Redthread Research's Managing Better study found that only 38% of employees know what to do to progress in their company. This is down from 48% in 2021.

There has been a drastic decline across different types of clarity at work from 2021-2022.

Leadership coach Diane Lloyd explains why this can be damaging: 

"The act of asking for clarity from your boss, that's what we need more of. "I'm not clear on what you're asking for right now," or "What is this project supposed to look like?" That's vulnerable to ask your boss for more clarity. But too many people are running around, overworking, hoping they hit the mark because they're too nervous to ask for five minutes to get clear on what the mark looks like."

No Boundaries 

When leaders avoid vulnerability, they don't see employees as whole people and may not respect boundaries between their work and personal lives. This can lead to employees taking on too much responsibility, resulting in burnout which the World Health Organization defines as an "occupational phenomenon."

Burnout impacts as many as 79% of the American workforce, and is a one-way ticket to employee disengagement, absenteeism, and high turnover rates.

Poor Communication 

Finally, without vulnerability in the workplace, communication suffers. When leaders don't take the time to empathize with their team or ask their opinions, the message may get lost in translation. Salesforce research finds that employees perform 4.6x better when they feel their voices are heard. Without this, expect a decline in overall productivity and workplace morale.

Create a culture people won't want to leave with Nectar

4 Real-World Examples Of Vulnerability In The Workplace 

Check out some real-life examples of how leaders have embraced vulnerability when leading their employees, with mixed results.

Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard Shared His Mexican Heritage 

Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at Procter & Gamble, had been involved in developing diversity initiatives to make the organization more inclusive for employees from underrepresented backgrounds. However, he realized that he had never fully acknowledged his Mexican heritage during his career due to a fear of being labeled. Speaking on the Fearless Creative Leadership podcast, Marc Pritchard recalled:

“I was afraid of the bias. I had the privilege of being viewed as white, and a name that was Caucasian, even though my dad’s real name was Gonzalez. But I thought, "I need to own this because if I can come out and give my insights associated with why I suppressed that heritage, that’s going to create some emotional safety for people.”

He shared the positive results that his company experienced, with employees now having many more open conversations than previously. 

“I had to think long and hard as to whether admitting something very personal and being very personally vulnerable was worth it. I decided it was because if leaders can express their vulnerabilities to make it okay to create conversation, to create emotional safety, then that’s going to create the environment that we want.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Opened Up About Pandemic Fears 

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, wrote in "Hit Refresh" about how learning to embrace vulnerability changed his leadership style to be more empathetic. 

“Early lessons from cricket shaped my leadership style, as have my experiences as a husband, a father, a young Microsoft engineer thrilled to be part of our company’s visionary ascent, and later as an executive charged with building new businesses. The culmination of these experiences has provided the raw material for the transformation we are undergoing today—a set of principles based on the alchemy of purpose, innovation, and empathy.” 

Nadella displayed his empathetic leadership style during the Covid-19 pandemic when he emailed 140,000 Microsoft employees with an incredible message of unity, sharing his fears about the virus and its impact on family, friends, and the broader community. Doing so put him on an equal footing with his workers, demonstrating that he understood their anxiety and that they would face it together. An extract of his email read:

"We are in uncharted territory. Much is unknown, and I know how unsettling and uncertain this feels. Like many of you, there have been times over the past weeks where it has felt overwhelming and all-encompassing for me. I worry about the health and safety of my family, my co-workers, and friends. My wife and I worry for her aging parents, who are far away from us in India. I see the struggle in our local community, and around the world, the empty streets and restaurants, and I wonder when our social fabric will be restored. One truth that brings me comfort is just as this virus has no borders, its cure will have no borders. We are all in this together as a global community. For me, the best way I've found to get past this anxiety is to focus on what I can do each day to make a small difference."

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Dealt With Grief 

Sheryl Sandberg suddenly lost her husband after they had celebrated a friend's birthday on vacation together. In promoting her book "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy," Sheryl Sandberg recalls:

“Two years ago, I lost my husband, Dave, which is an unimaginable thing to live through. It felt like I was sucked into a void; I couldn't quite breathe or think. I didn't think I was going to get through it. And I was even more worried about getting my children through it."

As Facebook’s COO, Sheryl’s journey through grief coincided with an incredibly demanding job. Time reported that she fell asleep during a meeting, rambled, and misidentified a colleague on her return to work. But her boss Mark Zuckerberg didn't request that she take more time off; instead, he praised her for the two valuable contributions she made on that first traumatic day in the office.

Sheryl has used this experience to modify her leadership style. Instead of diverting work away from people dealing with personal adversity, she gives them an option: would they like to show up and do the work anyway? Allowing people to forge ahead when they're at their most vulnerable may help some employees find their bearings in a sea of chaos.

Hypersocial CEO Braden Wallake Posted An Emotional Response To Laying Off Workers 

Hypersocial CEO Braden Wallake went viral on LinkedIn in 2022 when he posted a crying selfie alongside a message explaining that he had laid off two of his workers.

Unfortunately, Braden Wallake’s vulnerability was not well received, with many critics claiming he made the employee termination story about him as a damage control measure. In a follow-up interview, he explained why he thought there was a huge gap between his genuine emotions and how people interpreted that vulnerability: 

"There's a lot of pain going on in the world, and I'm sure there's people who have been let go, and there's also a lot of b*llshit on social, where people are pretending to be what they're not. We live in a fake-it-till-you-make-it world, so when people put something out, it's difficult to know whether their intentions are true. I try to look at it from their side. If I saw a random person crying on LinkedIn, and I saw that he had a CEO title, would I think he was being honest? Maybe, maybe not. For the wrong audience, it didn't connect. But for a lot of people who are in leadership positions who have been through it, it connected 100%."

How to ace vulnerability at work by connecting with your team.

5 Ways Leaders Can Ace Vulnerability In The Workplace

If you're new to embracing emotional exposure, follow these best practices to make a success of it:

1. Recognize When Someone Is Being Vulnerable With You 

How do you know when a work colleague is opening up and speaking their truth? The key is to actively listen, then respond to what they've shared rather than shy away from their vulnerability. Diane Lloyd advises:

“We need to see each other more, listen more, and show up in relationships and conversations. Whether they’re trying to be vulnerable or protected, we need to ask more questions, get out of our own discomfort, put our own stuff aside. I’ve learned that so much of relationship-building, trust-building, and vulnerability is that we need to self-manage our own reactions and responses. 

If someone's sharing something that's hard, I could get freaked out from the perspective of "What do I say?" "How do I fix this?" But if we stay in that conversation from a place of empathy, where we're curious, we let them know I'm sticking with you, and I want to stay connected."

2. Commit To Coaching 

Vulnerability isn’t always about throwing yourself to the wolves during a public display—at least not at first. One of the safest ways for leaders and direct reports to express themselves is through a one-to-one coaching relationship.

During The Self Aware Leader podcast, host Jason Rigby explains how to make the most of coaching sessions: 

“When you begin to coach somebody, and you're asking them questions, guess what happens? They're going to be vulnerable and open up to you. That's where it's important that you share some issues that you have had. Maybe back in the day, when you were on the sales floor or in marketing or finance, you made this mistake, and it cost the company this much. That's when you can share those things and what you learned to allow them to be vulnerable. That connection builds a deeper relationship."

3. Lead By Example 

Team members are more likely to feel comfortable expressing themselves when their leader shares personal stories and experiences first. Not only does this forge team bonds, but it also serves as an example of how to practice vulnerability in the workplace. Some ways to lead by example include:

  • Encouraging people to raise their hands in meetings.
  • Challenging other peoples' opinions.
  • Being honest when you make mistakes.
  • Speaking openly about your own emotions and experiences.
  • Celebrating vulnerability by thanking team members for sharing their contributions.

4. Take Care With What You Share  

"Think before you speak" is a critical motto when practicing vulnerability in the workplace. Jason Rigby explains how joking around and creating an environment where others feel comfortable is essential—but not if it goes too far. 

“Don't go down the dark road where you think you're a comedian and can say whatever you want. That depends on the culture, and you need to be careful that it doesn't become toxic. Someone in your organization may not like it, and the next thing you know, you open yourself up for a lawsuit. You can joke around, be vulnerable and have fun and not be super dirty or sexist.” 

Humor is only one aspect you should take care with. Actively avoid topics or discussions involving:

  • Relationship stories about your partner, spouse, or ex
  • Office gossip 
  • Cultural sensitivities, religion, or politics 
  • Contentious subjects such as animal rights, gun control, or abortion 
  • Sexual innuendo

5. Don’t Play Victim 

Vulnerability in leadership isn’t about burdening your team with your managerial problems. Jason Rigby explains a regular occurrence he sees in modern leadership:

“The minute they get a little bit of stress, they have to let everyone know that they're in a bad mood, that they’re a victim. If you want your employees to feel sorry for you because you're middle management and the CEO yelled at you, that's not going to strengthen the relationship. All that's going to do is make everyone look at you as a tyrant that's all about themselves. The ego gets involved, a lot of hurt feelings, and that toxic vulnerability causes relationships to be un-strengthened.” 

One way to keep perspective here is to follow former CEO of Home Depot Frank Blake's lead and use an inverted pyramid framework. He places the C-suite at the bottom of the inverted pyramid bearing the weight and responsibilities of the entire organization and its customers above. 

The inverted pyramid for servant leadership as seen in Built From Scratch. Companies like The Home Depot use this structure to better serve employees and customers.

Reward Vulnerability With Nectar 

Leaders and employees who show vulnerability and set an excellent example for their colleagues deserve praise. Nectar's recognition and rewards software can help you give credit where it's due to workers who help you create a better workplace. Are you ready to see what Nectar can do? Request a demo today to see how Nectar can integrate into your workplace experience.

Actionable workplace tips & insights for fellow people lovers

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