Leaders often feel pressure to have all the answers and to be stereotypically strong. Showing vulnerability at work is not an option.
But today, I’m here to make a case for showing vulnerability at work, and why it can have a positive effect.
While I feel that attitudes to leadership are shifting, I feel there is still some work to do to enable leaders to be more authentic and to be able to show their vulnerable side from time to time.
Why Leaders Feel the Pressure to Be “Strong”
In the olden days of leadership, the leader tended to influence outcomes using their formal authority.
That is – “I’m the boss, so do what I say”.
While this can be effective if the leader is technically competent, smart and capable, it has a bunch of negative side-effects.
Firstly, the leader needs to have all the answers to be able to provide the right direction. If it’s wrong, the team will keep going in that direction anyway (or choose to leave) because that’s the dynamic that has been set.
This directive leadership style can also cause resentment amongst team members, especially if they feel the direction is wrong.
It also means there is a lack of input and diversity of opinions, which could actually make for better decisions.
If Times Have Changed, Why Do Leaders Still Struggle With This?
It’s well known these days that inclusive leadership is generally more effective and motivating for teams, but the remnants of the legacy “do what I say” leadership still remain.
So why is this, if we know better?
Well, here are a few reasons that I observe:
- High price of failure. When failure costs many millions (or billions) of dollars, people get upset. This pressure can have leaders feel less comfortable delegating and share responsibility.
- Need for credibility. Leaders sometimes feel compelled to prove their worth. One way to do this is to make all the decisions and showcase their knowledge. The source of this challenge may be insecurity or feelings of “imposter syndrome” that can be hard to shake.
- Generational differences. The reality is that many people currently sitting in senior executive or board roles are on the older side. Some have grown up in an era where leadership was more likely to be command and control than inclusive. This entrenched attitude can be hard to shake.
- Gender stereotypes. A female who shows vulnerability might be called “too emotional”. A male who shows vulnerability may be considered “weak”. Both may be considered to not be “management material”. These stereotypes are not helpful, and make showing vulnerability at work just that little bit harder.
To make further positive shifts in the workplace, we’ll need to show a little vulnerability at work.
There are several potential benefits to this, which I’ll cover next.
The Benefits of Showing Vulnerability at Work
It would be remiss of me not to mention the work of Brené Brown here.
She has done extensive research into vulnerability and related topics and is one of the reasons I wrote this particular article. I highly recommend checking out her website and various talks about vulnerability, courage, blame and empathy.
Showing vulnerability at work can be daunting, but it is an excellent way to begin building trust.
Leaders who show vulnerability at work are exposing themselves to personal risk.
For example, let’s imagine a leader is confiding in a team member or colleague about various worries relating to a particular project. This information could potentially be used against them, by people who have a political or personal point to prove.
They could say that the leader is “not confident” or “not cut out to run the project” or make other statements denigrating their capability.
However, it’s this potential risk that helps to build trust.
Leaders are role models for the people they lead. If you expect people to be open and honest with you about their various struggles or worries, what better way than to show them your own “human side”?
The leader who practices the “stiff upper lip” approach or never shows emotions is actually communicating to their team:
Emotions are a sign of weakness. We have it all under control. This is how we work around here.
Learn More: How to Manage Your Emotions For Better Leadership.
Building Trust Through Intimacy
I like the Trust Equation developed by Trusted Advisor. I’ve written about it before, and have provided the equation again below.
I believe that the factor that vulnerability helps with the most is Intimacy.
Intimacy refers to the degree to which someone will be open and honest with you.
High intimacy means they’ll tell you what they’re thinking, and what troubles them. They’ll confide in you. Low intimacy means they’ll keep it to themselves.
If you want to be aware of the issues influencing your team so you can better support them, then Intimacy is one factor that you need to cultivate.
Simple Ways to Show Vulnerability at Work
Hopefully you’ve seen the potential merit of showing vulnerability at work.
So how do you do it?
The good news is, it’s probably something you naturally want to do, but you may have been holding yourself back.
So here are some ideas.
1. Admit to and Own Your Mistakes or Failures
If you never make mistakes, that must be nice.
But for the rest of us, they happen. Owning up to them is a display of vulnerability.
A colleague once told me about a candidate they interviewed for a project management role. In the interview, they asked the candidate to tell them about a previous project failure that they had experienced.
The candidate said that they’d never had a failed project.
I used to do a lot of project management work, and I consider myself to be a pretty good project manager.
But I can tell you a bunch of stories about project issues and failures that I was a part of. If you also do a quick Google search for “project failure rates” you’ll see statistics ranging from 50 to 80%.
Were they all my fault? No, but I must have been a contributing factor.
Of course, there are successful projects and I’ve led a few of them, too.
But the point is, if you pretend you have never failed or made a mistake, you’ll probably lose credibility because everyone makes mistakes.
2. Share Humorous Stories
In a similar vein to the previous point, this one is about sharing stories or anecdotes that may show you in a less-than-perfect light.
For example, you may share a story about how you mispronounced the CEO’s name during a presentation or didn’t recognise them when they were in the lift with you.
These sorts of stories do a few powerful things. They can:
- Show other people that you don’t take yourself too seriously
- Demonstrate confidence. If you were insecure or fearful, you would never share these stories; and
- Open the door for other people to share their own interesting experiences.
Once again, it’s about showing that human side, and not being afraid to do so.
When I’m delivering training, I’ll often share stories about how I stuffed up earlier in my career – where it’s relevant to the training of course!
Learn More: Are You Taking Yourself Too Seriously?
3. Ask for Input
Asking your team members, colleagues or your manager for input can feel daunting, and it’s another example of showing vulnerability at work.
Asking for input not only gives people a chance to contribute (which is great for motivation and a sense of purpose), but it also shows that you don’t believe your ideas are all that there is.
Diverse opinions make for better solutions.
Your ideas might not always be the best.
I believe it’s a show of vulnerability, because we are intentionally pushed against the entrenched belief that leaders know best.
Learn More: 5 Leadership Misconceptions We Need to Correct.
4. Admit You Don’t Know
As I mentioned earlier, we have been conditioned to believe that we should have all the answers.
But of course, we know that this is impossible.
Sometimes, it can be worthwhile simply saying that you don’t know the answer.
Other people will likely find out eventually, and you’ll look worse when they do.
You will no doubt feel pressure to pretend you know the answer. And some people will look at you and say that you “should know”.
If that happens, you can tell them that you’ll go and find out.
It takes courage to do this, and vulnerability takes courage.
It’s All About Balance
You might be thinking: “If I did all of those things, I’d seem like a really useless leader!”
And I agree with you – if you did all of these things, all the time, you may be perceived as ineffective.
As with many things in leadership, it’s about balance.
Show vulnerability all day every day, and it may impact your credibility (another important ingredient in the trust equation above).
But neglect to show any vulnerability, and you may be missing an opportunity to strengthen relationships with your team.
What do you think about showing vulnerability at work? Join the conversation in the comments below!