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Is vulnerability your workplace superpower?


LAST UPDATED: November 1, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Vulnerability in leadership builds trust and deeper relationships at work.
  • Effective vulnerability requires creating a safe environment to admit struggles and limitations, without oversharing personal details.
  • Emotional intelligence is critical to leadership, and vulnerability leads to feedback and self-improvement.
  • Vulnerable leaders are accountable, humble, and open to diverse perspectives.

For 35 years I've donned my work armour suit every day. That's not to say I haven't shown my authentic self at work — it's the authentic self, minus vulnerabilities.

I always equated vulnerability with an admittance I wasn't coping, and what would people think of me if I showed my vulnerable side? After all, I'm the glass half full guy, the guy who is always positive, always looking forward, and vulnerability wasn't exactly befitting of this persona.

A few years ago in a meeting with my fellow partners and managing partners for the first time in my career, I displayed true vulnerability. And guess what? The world didn't close in. There was no false pity, no dismissive platitudes. On the contrary, all I received was support, warmth, and longer-term, deeper, more trusting work relationships.

What a surprise. The armour which had served me so well for so long wasn't needed. In fact, it was clearly an unnecessary psychological burden blocking deeper more trusting relationships at work.   

Trust in a colleague or team is not forged by distant relationships.

It's not formed by working alone at home or by spending more time behind a screen, instead, it's forged through more time and better face-to-face collaboration with each other, particularly in an environment where people feel safe to tell the truth.

How many of us clock in and out of work every day and put on our emotional armour? And if we do, are we leading a truly fulfilling work life?

What Is Effective Vulnerability?

Since that day, I've learned to be effectively vulnerable at work. What does this mean? Essentially, creating a sense of psychological safety to say you're not OK or you're not feeling great today or you're not coping with that client or that piece of work i.e. feeling comfortable to speak up about my vulnerabilities or even admitting I don't know all the answers.

Emotional intelligence has become an important part of leadership and coaching because it's a known fact that a high EQ approach in the workplace means all relationships benefit, enabling more open feedback and thus self-improvement.

For some, this can be uncomfortable, especially for leaders. Being honest and vulnerable is not necessarily a trait we've come to expect from leaders. But from recent experience, the more I do it, the more my mindset changes, and the more comfortable I've become at expressing myself.

Effective leadership vulnerability means being honest when you're facing headwinds, explaining the situation and what's happening. It also means being able to talk about the possible impacts and critically, if you don't know something, saying so. As leaders, we can't know everything, and your team will appreciate your honesty.

It may well be that your team is holding back because they are nervous about bringing their vulnerable, authentic self to work. But vulnerability brings deeper authenticity, it creates stronger leaders and better, happier teams.

Taking Off Your Emotional Armour

Being vulnerable doesn't mean telling everyone about your personal life. There are still professional boundaries and sometimes certain things are best left shared with family or friends. Ultimately, it's a judgement call. A good place to start is asking something like; ‘what are my objectives in sharing my vulnerabilities?'.

Being vulnerable means being accountable, it's not about shifting blame or making excuses. It means putting yourself in a situation to have tough conversations. But it's also about approaching these humbly and with the premise that you want to learn from others' perspectives.

Vulnerability takes courage. It's not about sharing all your personal secrets, instead, it's about creating an environment where people feel safe to tell the truth. And it takes practice. But if handled properly, the benefits are far-reaching and can often lead to better, more trustworthy, and effective business relationships.

I want to leave you with a link to a fantastic Brené Brown TEDx talk in which she explores what drives our vulnerability (or lack thereof), the fear of not being worthy of connection, and the courage to be imperfect: Brené Brown: The Power Of Vulnerability | TED Talk.