When my colleague Martin Eldon and I deliver our Presentation Mastery Programme, we usually show a video of a TED talk by a lady called Brene Brown. Brene is an expert on social connection. She conducted thousands of interviews to discover what lies at the root of social connection. A thorough analysis of the data revealed what it was: vulnerability. Vulnerability here does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies having the courage to be yourself. This article explores how being vulnerable, far from being a weakness can actually enhance the quality of your leadership.
Let me state my view at the outset here. I know that the very concept of vulnerability sounds too ‘squishy’ or flaky to some folks. If you had known me 30 years ago when I started out on my managerial career I would have been one of those folks. Now, however, I genuinely believe that it can be a powerful tool for emotionally intelligent leaders and managers.
Still sounds a bit weak, touchy-feely, daunting, or counter-intuitive to you? If it does, please read on to find out why it’s not….
Image courtesy of Bruce Mars
Brene Brown describes vulnerability and authenticity as lying at the root of human connection. In the context of being a leader or manager it means replacing professional distance and being cool with potential uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Opportunities for vulnerability present themselves to us at work every day in many ways. Examples she gives of vulnerability include calling an employee or colleague whose child is not well, reaching out to someone who has just had a loss in their family, asking someone for help, taking responsibility for something that went wrong at work, or apologising for the way you spoke to someone yesterday when you were having a bad time yourself.
Sadly, human connection is often dramatically missing from the workplace. In a Harvard Business Review article Johann Berlin, CEO of Transformational Leadership for Excellence recounts an experience he had while teaching a workshop in a Fortune 100 company. The participants were all higher-level management. After an exercise in which pairs of participants shared an event from their life with each other, one of the top executive managers approached Johann.
Visibly moved by the experience, the participant in question spoke to Johann saying, “I’ve worked with my colleague for over 25 years and have never known about the difficult times in his life.” In a short moment of authentic connection, this manager’s understanding and connection with his colleague deepened in ways it had not in decades of working together.
So, the question we have to ask ourselves is why is human connection in this way missing at work? As leaders and employees, we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. Sure, it might be acceptable to disclose our vulnerability to a partner or close friend behind closed doors but we should never show it elsewhere during the day; least of all if we are a leader or manager in the workplace.
However, thanks to the work of Brene Brown and others, data is suggesting that we may want to revisit the idea of projecting such a macho image. Research shows that onlookers subconsciously recognise a lack of authenticity. Just by looking at someone, we download large amounts of information about others. It seems we are programmed to observe each other’s states so we can more appropriately interact, empathise, or assert our boundaries, whatever the situation may require. It’s like we are wired to read each others’ expressions in a very nuanced way. This process is called “resonance” and it is so automatic and rapid that it often happens below our awareness.
So, why do we feel more comfortable around someone who we believe is authentic and vulnerable? Well, because we are sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders and managers. The notion of servant leadership, for example, which is characterised by authenticity and values-based leadership, attracts more positive and constructive behaviour from our team members and greater feelings of hope and trust in both the leader and the organisation. Evidence indicates that having trust in a leader or manager improves employee performance.
Why then, with all of these advantages, do we so many folks fear vulnerability or think it inappropriate for a workplace? Well, it seems that we are afraid that if someone finds out who we really are, or discovers a soft or vulnerable spot in us, they will take advantage of us. And, let’s face it, there are some people who might well just do that.
But, here’s what may also happen if you do choose to embrace being authentic and vulnerable. Your team will see you as a human being (shock, horror!); they may feel closer to you; they may be prompted to seek your advice. Rather than feeling like another peg in the system, your team will feel respected and honoured for their opinion and consequently become more loyal to you.
Here’s the problem with all of this. Talking about vulnerability in the workplace can be a conversation killer. Being vulnerable gets a bad press in many organisations, especially in the context of relationships and workplaces. Everyone has an opinion on the word vulnerability. People try to hide their vulnerabilities at all costs. Yet when the moment comes, you get ‘turned on’ by those courageous enough to be real and who embrace moments of vulnerability by acknowledging their current state, taking responsibility for their emotions and asking for help.
The thing is that hiding your vulnerabilities can be exhausting. It is like being a secret agent, and no-one must know. You hide or protect your vulnerabilities, driven by a belief that by doing so you are strong enough to handle just about any challenges.
But, when you open the door to being a vulnerable and authentic leader or manager you are taking the first step towards ownership of your emotions and creating environments for growth and learning. A leader who can be comfortable at what they see in the mirror and acknowledge “I don’t know” or “l was wrong” fosters an environment of imperfection. The benefits of a leader’s willingness to put themselves out there in a way that recognises you don’t need to have all the answers, and together we can all create the solution.
Ian Henderson is Director of Training at Eagle Training, one of the UK’s leading providers of leadership, management and personal development.