Vulnerability is not a natural and easy emotion for most leaders. In fact, being vulnerable can be intimidating and is considered to have uncertain results. This is especially true in the trades where strength, authority, and control are often prized. However, if practiced regularly, being vulnerable can create culture cornerstones of trust, empathy, and positivity in the workplace.
As a leader, projecting an image of strength and confidence at all times can become a trap as employees realize that you do not have all the answers. Being open to admitting that you don’t know the correct or most beneficial way to solve a problem will cause most leaders to take pause. The idea that one poor decision can tear down the management persona they have built over months or years is daunting. Those who manage in this fashion are correct. When they do not actually have the right answer or if they falter in their persona of knowing, it can be detrimental to them and their team. Instead, work to foster an environment of trust and empathy while creating a positive workplace culture.
When a leader is vulnerable, it shows their team that it’s okay to not be perfect—to make mistakes, ask for help, and sometimes struggle. This creates a sense of psychological safety for the team, which leads to creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. When employees feel safe to express ideas and opinions, they’re more likely to take risks and collaborate with others for solutions. According to author Brené Brown, “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
Following are five steps to help managers start conversations with vulnerability. Even those who aren’t managers should find value in the examples that can be applied to their interactions with others.
Step One: Acknowledge How You are Currently Feeling
Being vulnerable in business is not about revealing deep secrets or truths. Start by acknowledging the fears that you have for the business based on the current actions of the employee. Let them know why you are worried about those actions affecting the company and why you want the action to change. For example, if you are concerned about the impact that tardiness has on the rest of the team, simply state that you are afraid that others will follow the same example if the employee continues to be late.
Step Two: Ask Open-Ended Questions
Leave space in a conversation for your counterpart to be vulnerable as well. Consider asking open-ended questions that would give you insight into how others feel about the problem. For example, you may ask, “How do you think the other team members feel about you being late?” or “What impacts do you believe your tardiness has on the other team members?”
Step Three: Share Something Personal
Once you’ve opened the conversation with vulnerability, consider sharing something personal about how you had the same struggles earlier in your career or have them currently. Talk about a story related to the issue or a mistake that you made in the past. Knowing that you struggled previously could open the door for the employee to emulate your positive behavior.
Step Four: Be Open to Listening
Most managers go into a discussion expecting a specific outcome. Being vulnerable provides space for the employee to offer important information about how to manage them. This safe space shows that you care about the outcome of the work that they do, so be sure to provide plenty of it.
Step Five: Offer Support
Offer genuine support to the other person. This could be words of encouragement, reassurance that they are on the right path, or an offer to help them navigate their current work issues. Ultimately, let them know you value their contribution to the team.
In practicing vulnerability, leaders should see improvements throughout the business and in individual performance. This type of discussion and team building lends itself well to developing professional relationships and trust between employees of all types. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and experiences results in stronger relationships with customers, colleagues, partners, and other stakeholders.
Practicing vulnerability also allows for increased collaboration. By allowing others to share their ideas without judgement, you will find that employees will reach out to each other and often come up with the best ideas. This stems from the safety created by managers that all ideas are worth considering and the default of considering them a truth. Further, this could lead to increased productivity. As employees realize free capacity from not worrying about fear of judgement from their team members, work will happen faster.
When employees feel safe in sharing and are more collaborative and productive, it is likely that they will also have a greater capacity for creativity. Think back to an idea in your company that seemed new and innovative and then think about how it changed the way you operate. Often these types of ideas come from new employees that are not yet fully committed to doing things “the way they have always been done.” Strive to create an environment where all employees feel safe to challenge the status quo.
The final and greatest benefit of leading with vulnerability is for the leader. Trust, respect, and loyalty are created in teams when the leader is vulnerable, seeks out the best answers, and considers the ideas from their team as equal to their own. Ultimately, these leaders are authentic and genuine while being committed to sharing their own vulnerabilities.
I encourage leaders to commit to being vulnerable and taking the risk of creating uncertain results. Even in the trades where strength, authority, and control are often prized, it will produce better results. The benefit to company culture outweighs any risk. Practice the five steps outlined here to experience trust, empathy, and positivity in your workplace.