What is vulnerability, really? Is it important? How much, if any, should be applied to the relationships in our work life?
Immediately when you hear the word, you might think it means unveiling your deepest trauma or expressing your raw emotions with every person your encounter. While that is an aspect of vulnerability, it’s not a thoroughly healthy picture. You may even believe the common conception of it being associated with a sense of “weakness.”
Brene Brown, a prominent researcher in vulnerability, describes it this way:
“Vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is not oversharing, it’s sharing with people who have earned the right to hear our stories and our experience. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
We may experience vulnerability differently in our various spheres of influence, but in this article, we’ll focus on how it shows up specifically at work. If you desire trust and intimacy on your team, then you must start with establishing a safe environment where your team feels the permission to be open.
Creating a Safe Environment with Vulnerability
So, as a leader, how do you begin to cultivate an environment where your team can safely step into being known and connected, instead of feeling the need to always exhibit perfection?
Brené Brown’s definition alludes to a setting where someone has the opportunity to learn and grow from a place of vulnerability. This is the safety piece that’s first needed for there to be more of a willingness to be open. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, has captured this in her research of teams as having a “psychologically safe environment.”
One way to test how safe an environment your team has is to ask your team members:
- Do you feel comfortable enough to admit mistakes?
- Do you feel comfortable enough to admit “I don’t know” at times?
- Do you feel comfortable enough to ask for help?
- Do you feel comfortable enough to receive and provide feedback?
Additionally, as a leader, ask your team how you respond to them. Are you quick to become frustrated, jump to assuming the worst, or resort to micromanaging?
When team members know they won’t be reprimanded for sharing back an observation, asking for guidance, or offering a viewpoint; it inspires courage. They are given permission to explore, express concern, show up authentically, and as a result: their strengths have a place to shine, and their weaknesses have the right soil needed for growth.
The Benefits of Courageous Vulnerability
When you steward your influence to empower your team in their imperfections, to be more authentic and transparent, you encourage:
- Increases in calculated risks
- Higher employee engagement
- More flexible employees
- Improved integrity in the workplace
Within your organization, this can lead to new ventures, growth, fresh innovation, measured risk, and a team that is willing to challenge the status quo.
Simply put, vulnerability is your level of openness and willingness to share your internal thoughts and feeling with those around you. For instance, when I am working with my team on a presentation, I have immense stage fright. My boldness conveys confidence, but it’s nerve-racking to stand before a crowd and try to form proper sentences. I’m fortunate though to work with a team that genuinely cares and respects my willingness to be open. Consider these statements below that offer different levels of opportunity for them to give more specific support:
- Low vulnerability statement: “I know we properly prepared and I’m confident we’ll do a great job!”
- Medium vulnerability statement: “I know we properly prepared and I’m confident we’ll do a great job! I could also really use some encouragement.”
- High vulnerability statement: “I know we properly prepared and I’m confident we’ll do a great job! I could also really use some encouragement because I’m having some nerves about standing in front of the crowd.”
All of these statements are true and choosing low or high vulnerability isn’t better or worse. There is, however, an importance to knowing your intent behind why you are sharing certain information. You could be sharing with another leader, a team member, or your organization, and you need to always examine how sharing could add value within the current circumstance.
Being vulnerable shouldn’t inspire fear, rather it should increase connection and support.
Honestly, there may be only a few people in your work life with who you share high levels of vulnerability. To say that you need to display deep vulnerability with everyone at work–well that would be quite exhausting. That’s why I love that within Brene Brown’s definition she includes, “… it’s sharing with people who have earned the right to hear our stories…”
The people you choose to be vulnerable with have established that they will add value to where you are, rather than make the situation worse.
Psychological Safety Self-Check Quiz
Not sure if your team already has safety at work? Here is a quick self-check quiz to see if psychological safety is currently present on your team. The more boxes you can check, the more psychologically safe your team likely is.
☐ My teammates demonstrate support instead of ridicule when failures occur
☐ My supervisor encourages challenging opinions/questions and responds well to them
☐ My supervisor asks for feedback from the team frequently and applies needed change
☐ My teammates won’t gossip about me but have honest conversations with me
☐ My supervisor actively listens first before they jump to providing solutions/advice
The trust you build through being authentic and transparent causes you to be a leader that your team can feel comfortable around. This doesn’t necessarily mean a “warm fuzzy feeling,” but that you are inviting the opportunity for ideas to be challenged, responding with grace, leading honestly, and asking open-ended questions.
Three Ideas to Consider to Start Increasing Your Vulnerability
Vulnerability isn’t something that can be forced. Unfortunately, you can’t step into the next meeting and declare, “It’s safe to be vulnerable! Sally, you go first!” It’s going to take time to create, as Amy Edmondson defines, “a climate where someone can be candid,” and leaders have to go first. There isn’t a perfect formula for creating a psychologically safe environment, but here are the tools that research indicates create psychological safety and promote courageous vulnerability.
1. Define your levels of vulnerability
Start by completing the psychological safety self-check quiz above and determine the current culture you work in and how your role influences it. Then, decide what vulnerability practically looks like for you and if possible, what it could look like within your team. Work isn’t a place for deep inner counseling to take place. Having clarity on your interpretation of vulnerability can be helpful in awareness of the actions of yourself and others.
2. Manage you, not others
Taking the lead can encourage those around you to do the same, but you should never attempt to force someone into vulnerability. Instead, model what you want to see! Choosing to be more daring could look like: being willing to share miscalculations, suggesting taking a different direction, asking constructive questions, inviting collaboration from outside your norm, responding well to feedback, or providing helpful insight.
3. Respond in kindness
While at the end of the day you can only control the level of vulnerability you step into, it’s important to also have a healthy response to those around you. This can take some emotional intelligence to recognize when someone may be attempting to be more vulnerable, it’s important not to shame them for being courageous or corner them into giving you a deeper level of response.
Are you creating an environment where your team feels that they can be authentic and transparent? Do they feel they have the freedom to choose the level of vulnerability they want to engage in? I believe the powerful part that vulnerability plays in the workforce is simply the permission to step into it.