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How Can Embracing Vulnerability Improve Our Workplace Relationships?

workplace vulnerability
“But vulnerability is a bad thing to show them, right? Won’t they eat me alive?”  

My coaching client – let’s call her Anne - is walking me through a situation that has emerged at her workplace. A veteran salesperson and empathetic leader, Anne has lately been overshadowed by two new salespeople who are taking her share of the profits and dominating her client meetings. They are unapologetically aggressive and self-promoting in their approach to empire-building on her turf. 

Anne wasn’t sure if or how to be vulnerable in confronting her two new colleagues, a common question that comes up among clients who are dealing with tricky personalities at work .  

How does vulnerability serve to improve workplace dynamics? When does it make sense to let your guard down, and when do you keep it up?

And, as ultimately happened for Anne, what happens if you are ready to be vulnerable, but you cannot make your colleagues and other professional contacts follow suit? 

Don't Mistake Vulnerability for Weakness

When I propose Anne that she use vulnerability to try to build trust by telling on herself in an authentic way with these colleagues, she balks: “I tried that once,” she says, “I cried in a meeting, and I’ll never do it again.”  

Anne is not the first leader that has mistakenly understood vulnerability as weakness, seeing tears at work as the ultimate failure. For many professionals, inappropriately displaying emotion at work or dropping defense mechanisms to admit flaws - especially in front of a hostile audience - can have real-world consequences.  

But our definition of leadership - once seen as an all-knowing, fearless, perfect expert who never fails and never feels inadequate - is rapidly shifting.

Today, leaders are increasingly recognized as those who step vulnerably and powerfully forward; who admit their own faults first to make it safe for others to do so; and who create inclusive practices that allow teams and cultures to create their best work.  

When courage and skill are applied to the art of getting vulnerable, tactfully and consciously taking a risk for the sake of building deeper relationships, true leadership can flourish and internal competitors can be neutralized.    

Vulnerability Means Putting the Human Being First 

Shame researcher Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly describes vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." It is that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control. As she writes, most of us learned to put our best foot forward and maintain the mask of perfection at all costs.  

But when we allow ourselves to lead with vulnerability, we are able to disarm, deescalate conflict and draw closer with those around us - even though paradoxically in the moment sharing can feel like it will create more distance and less intimacy.  

Leveraging vulnerability means you get present to what is true for you and what you’re feeling from the other person and take a risk to name it out loud. 

When we lead with vulnerability, we put the relationship - and thus the human sitting in front of us - before the business outcomes.

Leveraging vulnerability means you get present to what is true for you and what you’re feeling from the other person and take a risk to name it out loud.  

In Anne’s case, when she paused to deeply consider the two new salespeople not as adversaries but as fellow humans, she found it easier to contemplate sitting down with them for a conversation. After preparing herself and initiating a meeting, she decided to take a risk and let them in on her fears, confessing to them both her nervousness and the impact their style had been having on her. Anne concluded the meeting with a request for a new way to work together and walked away feeling somewhat lighter and more hopeful about the relationship. 

Tactics for Applying Vulnerability in Your Life

The tips and tools below can help you start to bring more vulnerability strategically into those relationships inside and outside of work that are most important to you:  

Practice telling on yourself upfront. When you get good at telling on yourself, you can ground your feedback and sharing with “I” statements that help the listener empathize with your perspective. For example, open your conversation with statements like, “I’ve been thinking about this conversation all week,” or “I’m feeling a little nervous to talk about this with you,” or “I have been putting off saying the hard thing because I am worried how you’ll react.”  

State an intention. Get  explicit about what it is you hope your vulnerability will unlock. 

Whenever you lean in with vulnerability, it’s always a good idea to name out loud what you hope for the conversation and relationship.

If you are initiating the meeting - as Anne was - to resolve a conflict, you might share that your intention is to create greater clarity,  connection or to build a better bridge for communication. Whatever your goal, make it clear upfront and enroll your audience in it to help pave the way for what comes next.  

Throw your hat over the fence. If the idea of sharing with someone makes you nervous, or you know you have a hard conversation coming up that you’ve been avoiding, hold yourself accountable by “throwing your hat over the fence”: Force yourself to follow through on delivering the hard news by including it on the agenda, emailing them ahead of time to let them know it’s coming, or telling someone else what you have planned.  

Deliver the hard truth early. Whether you are asking for a raise, confronting a superior, or naming a microaggression, the longer you wait to say what you need to say, the more our sense of anticipation actually takes a toll on our cognitive resources. Practice saying the hard truth in the first 20% of the meeting, cutting to the chase so you can spend most of the conversation building a path forward from the part that you shared.  

Use neutral language to notice behaviors. It can be very easy in these conversations to jump into creating interpretations and assumptions. Lable your interpretations and assumptions with language that shows they are your perceptions only; stick to noticing and naming observable behaviors that could be recorded with a video camera to avoid triggering their defensiveness.  

Acknowledge the courage. Acknowledge the courage it takes for you and the other person to have these conversations. Thank them for participating and reinforce that you would like to keep the door open for future conversations. Acknowledge yourself for bravely putting down your defenses to build relationship.  

Your Turn to Go First

Vulnerable conversations take courage and persistence. To use vulnerability skillfully in the workplace requires practice, intuition and resilience. It also requires someone to go first, so if you’re waiting for your coworker, employee or boss to be the first one to share about their personal life or bring up a hard topic, it may need to be you who goes first (especially if you’re in the seat of power). The only thing you have to risk is your old pattern of leadership, and the connection, creativity and sense of freedom you have to gain will be worth the discomfort. 

Gia Storms Photo
Written By

Gia Storms

Gia Storms specializes in developing leaders, transforming teams and bringing meaning and purpose to the workplace. As executive coach, she brings energy, courage and  ferocity developed after 15 years working in politics and business. Prior to becoming a coach, Gia was the Chief Communications Officer at the Hammer Museum at UCLA and VP of Communications at the Times Square Alliance in New York. Today, she facilitates trainings across the U.S., teaches coaching for  the Co-Active Training Institute, works within major corporations like Microsoft and Google and writes a regularly on leadership. Originally from Seattle, Gia is a graduate of the University of Santa Monica’s Spiritual Psychology Program and Barnard College and lives in Los Angeles.

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