Vulnerable at Work

What is being vulnerable at work?


Geek In Training

3 years ago | 9 min read

Photo by Kirsten 24K on Unsplash

Being vulnerable is not easy. It is even tougher to be vulnerable at work. Being vulnerable in front of your colleagues, managers, friends at work could be daunting.

A while back, one of my colleagues expressed extreme discomfort to share her vulnerabilities with her manager. And I could relate to this feeling. At times, I am very uncomfortable talking about my vulnerabilities while, on other occasions, I am very comfortable being vulnerable with people whom I trust.

So, what is the science behind vulnerability? Why being “vulnerable” is so undervalued? Is being vulnerable a stigma or is there a positive side to being vulnerable?

What is being vulnerable at work?

Being vulnerable at work means exposing your thoughts, feelings, challenges, and weaknesses to someone. Showing vulnerabilities is not a walk in the park. At times, it can be frightening to show your vulnerable side for fear of being judged.

This discomfort comes from the inherent need of being loved, respected, and accepted.

There may be moments when you are comfortable being vulnerable while others when you just want to feel safe in your shell.

Vulnerability @ Work

An organization where employees have the choice to be vulnerable is one that thrives relationships, connections, trust & interpersonal growth. These are organizations which have the right tenets in place for the employees to feel safe while being vulnerable.

To understand vulnerability, we need to understand human psychology. Imagine for a moment that each of us have two faces. The first face is one that we are comfortable sharing with others. This face is how we want others to look at us or perceive of us. Let’s call this “the good looking” face.

The second face is something very personal to us. A face that we hold very dear to us and we show only to those who are very close to us. We are comfortable showing this face to those people who would not judge us. Let’s call this the “the deep within” face. This face knows our weaknesses, our fallacies, our insecurities, & our biases very well.

Leaders who encourage employees to switch easily from the “the good looking” face to “the deep within” face are those who foster vulnerability @ work. So why is vulnerability so important for organizations? To understand this, let’s dig a little deeper into the “the good looking” face.

Photo by Rishabh Butola on Unsplash

The good looking face

The importance of looking good has been existing since humans existed. Not only humans but also animals have their own ways to look good. Be it peacocks who flaunt their feathers to gain attention of the peahens or giraffes who may get into a neck fights to show strength, we all want to look good. We want to look good so that we feel appreciated and acknowledged.

We thrive on positive feedback. Being valued, appreciated, and acknowledged re-enforces our need for self-worth. For example, when I write my blogs, I look for any positive comments or feedback since it re-enforces that the content is meaningful. Acknowledging that I’ve positively affected somebody in some small way adds meaning to my life.

The good looking face is what we always want to project to people so that our sense of self-worth is established. Therefore, why is the “deep within face” so important for an organization’s success?

The deep within face

Everyone deep within has a bundle of feelings that are very private to each one of us. Deep within we know our weaknesses, biases, and vulnerabilities. We prefer to keep this deep within us however at times, we might take a risk to share our vulnerable feelings with someone very close to us. Typically, a lover, partner, friend, or a mentor.

We are comfortable sharing these feelings in the hope that we will be heard with kindness and that we won’t be judged. Sharing these thoughts requires tremendous trust & credibility. Also, the strands of trust get strengthened when we share these tender thoughts with anyone.

Culture of vulnerability is good for your organization

An environment that allows vulnerabilities assists in various facets in an organization:

  1. Eliminates fear: Employees and colleagues are more courageous and the fear of making mistakes is reduced.
  2. Makes workforce more cohesive: Sharing vulnerabilities helps teams to come closer and form deeper bonds.
  3. Higher collaboration & productivity: Teams learn from each other therefore, eliminating common mistakes. When teams find their voice, they build deeper relations fostering even higher collaboration.
  4. Eliminates fear of failure: A team that is not scared of failure is open to experimenting and is willing to go that extra mile.
  5. Builds trust: Such an organization cultivates forgiveness and builds trust amongst members.
  6. Respectful: The team is more respectful of others since it makes the teams more human. It helps teams to speak the truth, speak up for others, and avoid any internal politics. Often such teams stay invested in others’ success which makes for a wonderful working environment.

Traits that encourage vulnerability

Being comfortable with being vulnerable requires various traits of emotional intelligence. An organization or a team where colleagues are comfortable being vulnerable exhibit the following characteristics:

Courage: Being vulnerable requires one to be courageous. It needs courage because when someone shows vulnerability, deep down inside we forego the need to be respected, the need to be loved, the need to be accepted.

Emotional awareness: Most individuals who are comfortable being vulnerable are also emotionally very strong and full of life. They are ones who have a very strong knowledge of their personal self. They are respectful of their own emotions and feelings.

Trust: You are comfortable being vulnerable with those whom you trust. You may perceive vulnerability with showcasing your lower than normal self to others. In such cases, the need is to ensure that you are not being judged and this moment of vulnerability will not be held against you in the future. There needs to be a fine line of trust between individuals who exercise vulnerability.

Growth Mindset: Many a times, people open to others with the intention of being coached or to get a differing perspective to manage situations that expose one’s weaknesses. The mindset of someone who is willing to be coached is that of continuous learning and improving. Therefore, having a growth mindset becomes a pre-requisite for breeding such a culture.

Relations: We already talked about importance of trust earlier. If one’s need of trust is verified while being vulnerable, then it breeds deeper relationships in the long run. Mostly folks who are comfortable with being vulnerable, also have a larger circle of individuals close to their heart and soul. This scaffolding of trust builds long term relations with individuals.

Forced Vulnerability

While we are talking about building an environment that fosters vulnerability, we also need to understand situations or environments that are not in our control. These situations may make you feel vulnerable at work without you being able to control the situation.

For instance, imagine your colleague who wishes to share unsolicited feedback on the choice of your decisions, life choices, attitudes, and so on. Or imagine how you may feel when you made a blunder at work and now you need to tell your boss. In these days of Covid, imagine being a teacher who is teaching online, and the parents are hovering around their kids to judge the teacher’s accent, pronunciation, teaching style, and knowledge. All these situations are not in your control. However, you often walk into such unplanned situations where you show your vulnerable self to others.

While forced vulnerability can be uncomfortable for many, there may be others who are able to handle such situations with relative ease. Self-awareness plays a major role in handling such situations. If you are aware of how you behave in such similar situations where you feel cornered, you may be able to handle such situations better.

Build the culture

As a leader, if you want to encourage a culture where vulnerability is appreciated, you need to embrace a culture of courage, emotional awareness, trust, growth mindset, and value relationships. But the question still remains, why vulnerability is important for an organization.

You can create a culture where vulnerability is encouraged by giving your team a safe environment. This safe environment should ensure that any act of vulnerability is not forced upon. It is devoid of any judgments, rights or wrongs, or any expectations of getting anything in return. It is an environment of giving and learning.

A culture where sharing vulnerability is encouraged typically constitutes a high trust & learning culture. There are few acts that you can perform that encourage the right behavior in an organization or your team.

  1. What I learnt from my mistakes: We had a Teams channel called “What I learnt from my mistake”. The intent of this channel was for each one in the team to share anything one experimented or any mistake that one may have made. We would share what we learnt from the mistake or the experiment. This not only encouraged everyone to speak up but also embrace mistakes with the right intent to learn.
  2. Retro: Most teams today have retrospectives that encourages team members to talk about what went well and what did not go well in the previous sprint, month, quarter, or project. In addition, you may wish to have another pivot to your retrospectives to include “What you learnt”. In these conversations as well, the focus should be on what you learnt from your mistakes.
  3. Finger pointing: As a leader you need to ensure that the team members do not embrace the language of finger pointing and blaming. This language should not be encouraged even in casual hallway or coffee table conversations. This results in gossip and distracts teams and decreases productivity. Not to discount, the unnecessary speculations and rumor mongering that gossips may create. Most often the intention of finger pointing and gossip is to show one upmanship over others and pulling someone else’s position down. Gossip mongers often see each person’s position as either less than or more than their own and polarize thoughts of others in the team as well.
  4. Acknowledge: It is important to acknowledge the right behavior in public and private conversations. Encourage those who are willing to show their vulnerability. At the same time, coach others who may require some help to embrace this culture. Your acknowledgement shows your commitment to the larger vision.
  5. Share: Find opportunities to share your vulnerable moments and associated learning in an appropriate set up. If you are institutionalizing a cultural change then it may be important to lead by example.

The flip side

At the same time as a leader, you need to be careful that your organization fosters vulnerable moments and not vulnerable individuals.

As a leader, you need to remember that vulnerability is like a wave that can sour you high or throw you off your feet. While sharing a vulnerable moment, you can build trust with your team and grow close relations. Sharing a moment of vulnerability may help the team to relate well with you. It may just show your humane side as a leader.

However, you need to be aware of your team’s state of mind while doing so. There could be moments when the team is on a low and is looking for a clarity from its leader. In such moments, showing vulnerability may spiral the team further down and may create more confusion. If not worded properly, your repeated moments of vulnerability may showcase you as a vulnerable leader and may not have the requisite impact on the team.

To summarize, being vulnerable is not being weak. Being vulnerable is about having the courage to show your inner self to others in the hope to learn from the experience or help others learn. As a leader, building a culture that allows others to share their vulnerabilities without getting stigmatized as vulnerable individuals is the steppingstone to a learning, trusting, and courageous organization.


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