Vulnerability as an Asset
Issue 144, January 25, 2024
We’ve all heard about EQ as the skill and management strategy transcending IQ. Emotional Quotient is defined as the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions (Wiki) and the ability to manage one’s own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict (HelpGuide). Any way you define it, it’s an essential leadership approach in today’s culture that is increasingly fraught than normal with division and contention. But there is another way to understand this operational strategy, and it’s called vulnerability.
Literally, vulnerability is referred to as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally” (Oxford Dictionary.com). But in a slightly different context, it is a “willingness to show emotion or to allow one’s weaknesses to be seen or known; a willingness to risk being emotionally hurt. The foundation for open communication consists of honesty, trust, and vulnerability” (Dictionary). It is the foundational aspect of vulnerability that plays to a wide audience and resonates particularly well with next gens.
In fact, the work of Brené Brown, a well-known thought leader on the power of vulnerability, states that “imperfections are what connect us to each other and to our humanity. Our vulnerabilities are not weaknesses; they are powerful reminders to keep our hearts and minds open to the reality that we’re all in this together.” She adds, “The quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting. There is a constant barrage of social expectations that teach us that being imperfect is synonymous with being inadequate. Everywhere we turn, there are messages that tell us who, what and how we’re supposed to be. So, we learn to hide our struggles and protect ourselves from shame, judgment, criticism and blame by seeking safety in pretending and perfection.”
How does that translate to a workplace culture? We have recently written about “The Risk of Certainty” and “Leading with Courage;” vulnerability is another way to view openness and transparency as key leadership skills. If you think about the social and psychological challenges facing younger workers, the workplace where they spend most of their time should be one place that is safe, where they can collaborate, and be rewarded for taking risks. Didactic management is no longer sustainable, and it takes a high level of mindfulness for any leader or manager today not to fall back on command and control, especially when next gens are so enthusiastic about asking questions and demanding clear answers.
According to LeadershipFactor, “Vulnerability in leadership refers to the willingness of leaders to show their authentic selves, admit their limitations, and openly express their thoughts and emotions. It involves being genuine and transparent, allowing others to see both the strengths and vulnerabilities of a leader. Rather than projecting an image of invincibility, vulnerable leaders acknowledge their imperfections and demonstrate humility. By embracing vulnerability, leaders create an atmosphere of trust and authenticity within their teams.”
Vulnerability on the Job
Let’s return to the need for psychological safety and a supportive sanctuary as the cornerstones of an effective workplace culture. Leading with vulnerability becomes a model for employees to feel secure in their own limitations, self-described or otherwise. Imagine this scenario: A senior leader is highly competent at her job at a leading fitness organization. Nonetheless, she admits that she has overcome learning disabilities, but occasionally falls into a place of uncertainty about understanding how to read the room or respond appropriately to a new situation. She is completely open about her issues to her staff, and as a team, they have learned to make light of these cognitive differences and support her when they happen. She is equally supportive of her team, encouraging open and trusting relationships among her co-workers. It’s not often that managers admit their personal biases or shortcomings. This is a true story as Peyton McFaden, Director of Global Sales Ops at Peloton attests. With vulnerability leadership like this, the fear of failure becomes less of a character flaw and more of a teachable moment.
Here’s another angle. By creating a culture that encourages risk-taking, learning, and embracing new ideas, leaders who exhibit vulnerability set the stage for innovation to thrive, according to LeadershipFactor. This is a twist on the tech mantra “fail and fail fast,” as a less strident approach to ruthless innovation. With vulnerability, the team (or individual) seeks input from a diverse, inclusive group of voices. It is more calculated risk-taking, with a page from Darwin about adapting to change to foster growth that is sustainable.
So many employees resist introducing their own innovative solutions fearing criticism or judgment from co-workers or managers. This can be a tough dynamic to overcome. Most individuals tend to hold judgments subconsciously or even consciously. Creating a culture of vulnerability encourages openness and fairness. But overcoming resistance to this meritocracy is difficult, to say the least. The old habits die hard and most everyone is more satisfied with the status quo and not rocking the boat. Courage and open, clear communications are crucial tools for creating and sustaining a culture that respects vulnerability.
A Roadmap to Success
According to the Development Dimensions International, Inc. (DDI) Global Leadership Forecast (GLF) 2023 research, leaders are struggling with vulnerability. According to the report many leaders self-report as vulnerable, but their direct reports tell a different story. If the benefits of being a vulnerable leader are better understood, many leaders may be more open to vulnerability and realize that it can lead to success.
Author Wendy Norfleet, leadership coach Shawn Andersyn, and LeadershipFactor have produced playbooks for embedding vulnerability into leadership. We have augmented their tip list with anecdotal findings from our own practice.
- Build Trust and Strong Relationships
It’s only logical that when leaders are open and honest about their strengths and weaknesses, team members are more likely to trust them. Norfleet adds, “When leaders are vulnerable and open about their challenges, team members are likelier to empathize with them and feel a sense of connection.”
- Improve Communication
Effective communication is sincere and genuine. Andersyn states, “Vulnerability allows leaders to communicate more openly and when leaders are willing to admit their mistakes and seek feedback, team members are more likely to feel comfortable sharing their own concerns and feedback.” Norfleet adds that an open and honest communication culture is one where team members feel comfortable sharing their feedback and ideas without fear of judgment or retaliation.
- Practice Self-Awareness
Andersyn states the first step towards embracing vulnerability in leadership is to be self-aware. It requires grace under pressure to build self-awareness; it’s a journey and takes time to improve. LeadershipFactor adds that developing vulnerability starts with understanding oneself. “Leaders should engage in introspection and self-reflection to gain insight into their emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. By becoming more self-aware, leaders can be more open and vulnerable in their interactions with others.” For the brave of heart and mind, leaders should actively seek feedback from their team members and demonstrate openness to criticism or suggestions.
- Become More Authentic and Relatable
It seems counterintuitive for leaders to be seen as remote and unapproachable. Vulnerability can help break down barriers, making it easier for leaders and their employees to connect personally. Effective leaders are vulnerable and more empathetic; they understand the challenges and struggles that team members face and are more likely to provide support and encouragement, according to Andersyn.
- Practice Resilience
When leaders are open about their challenges and failures, their teams can learn from them and move forward better, states Norfleet. This can help them become more adaptable and agile, as they can respond more effectively to changing circumstances. The result is that leaders may be better equipped to navigate complex challenges and lead their teams to success.
The Pathway Forward
Ultimately, vulnerability is a not-so-secret weapon in the ever-evolving workplace culture. To do it successfully, vulnerability needs to be encouraged in others. A safe and trusted environment nurtures everyone, encouraging them to share ideas and solutions. Vulnerability also requires continuous improvement. Effective leaders become more committed to personal growth, are curious, seek out learning opportunities in the spirit of continuous education, and follow self-development practices that promote vulnerability.
As Brown writes, “We need our lives back. It’s time to reclaim the gifts of imperfection—the courage to be real, the compassion we need to love ourselves and others, and the connection that gives true purpose and meaning to life. These are the gifts that bring love, laughter, gratitude, empathy, and joy into our lives.”
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.