Originally posted with the Forbes Coaches Council, May 2019.
Think about what makes you feel engaged, productive and motivated at work. Is it feeling like a cog in a machine? Is it the feeling that you have no meaningful understanding of the people leading you? Is feeling alone and isolated? Of course not!
Healthy, happy workplaces foster connection: Humans fundamentally want to feel that they understand and are understood by others. When we feel connected to our colleagues and our leaders, we want to work harder, find better ideas and exceed expectations.
Research has shown that a big part of connection depends on our willingness to be vulnerable, and that vulnerability also open us up to all sorts of other good things. Brené Brown, the foremost researcher into vulnerability in human relationships, has said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” A workplace conducive to vulnerability is also conducive to breaking new ground, finding new solutions and evolving to meet new opportunities and new challenges.
So why is it so hard for us to show vulnerability? Many of us are afraid to be vulnerable in the workplace because we think of vulnerability as weakness — and we worry that showing weakness will be disqualifying for leadership. So we stifle our questions, only put forward ideas we know will succeed and avoid telling personal stories or revealing our failures so that we can appear strong, capable and without flaw.
This desire to seem infallible might stem from a vision of leadership that was prevalent 30 years ago: the emotionless, distant, authoritarian boss. But the world has changed, and our relationship to leadership has changed, too. Hierarchies don’t have the same rigidity, information flows more freely and trust is less automatic. To be a leader now requires expertise and confidence, but also authenticity, honesty and connection.
How can we cultivate vulnerability in the workplace? It requires balance — to get personal without losing sight of being professional. But a few strategies can help:
- Ask — and invite — questions: Be curious and ask questions with a genuine interest in the answers. Then ask follow-up questions. And give the fullest, most honest and respectful responses you can to any questions that are asked of you.
- Don’t pretend to know something you don’t: We can’t always know everything. When you don’t know an answer or are struggling to comprehend what another person is telling you, don’t try to fake understanding. It’s much less embarrassing to say “I don’t know” right away than to have to admit it later (and it usually does come out eventually).
- Tell stories: Recounting a personal story in a presentation or a meeting can make your peers and reports feel more connected to you and more invested in whatever you are talking about. Keep it appropriate, of course — but a sense of who you are personally can go a long way toward helping people understand you professionally.
- Take risks: Don’t be afraid to put forward that big idea you have or to try a new initiative with your team. When you handle both successes and setbacks with grace, people are more likely to want you to succeed — and to help you get there.
- Be transparent when you can: Letting people into your process, your successes and your failures gives them a sense of buy-in, loyalty and connection. As a leader, there will be times when you have to make decisions unilaterally or operate under conditions of confidentiality. But letting people know what’s happening, when you can, helps them trust you when you can’t.
Making yourself vulnerable is scary. But like anything, with practice it gets easier. And the rewards it brings — to you, your team and your organization — far outweigh the risks.
Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?
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