Lean into your Vulnerability

Jul 14

Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change.” – Brené Brown, American professor known for her expertise on shame, vulnerability, courage, and empathy.

Workspaces characterized by rewarded vulnerability enables employees to express themselves authentically at work and in behaviour that reflects who they really are and what they think or feel, without the need to “mask” their true selves.

Vulnerability. Few words in the English language have the power to evoke strong reactions from people as this much-maligned and much-misunderstood word. Vulnerability is popularly associated with weakness, fragility, shame and embarrassment, and has thus been banished into the badlands of the emotional landscape. There it festers into a toxic broth and simmers with the so called “difficult” emotions like shame, secrecy, and guilt. If you show too much of vulnerability, you risk being branded “erratic and wild,” and if you display too little vulnerability, you risk being branded “robotic!”

So, what exactly is vulnerability and how do we reclaim our right to re-engage meaningfully with this emotion? Let me begin with a personal example. Life has presented me with multiple challenges—professional and personal. However, in retrospect, I realize I have been able to navigate those challenges only because I’ve consciously and choicefully engaged with my vulnerability.

This means that I have been self-aware of every emotion/feeling that I would experience; been alive to them (without attempting to suppress, hide, fade or quick fix them into acceptable emotions to appear “strong”), and experience and express them appropriately. Doing so has reiterated that vulnerability is indeed the source of strength, courage, and authenticity.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness,” writes Brené Brown in Daring Greatly. Vulnerability is indeed an expression of authenticity. “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we must make every day. It is about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen,” she further writes.

How then do we leverage the power of vulnerability to create psychological safety at the workplace?

Organizational behaviour strategist Timothy Clark in The Four Stages of Psychological Safety writes that we thrive and flourish in spaces that support us through choice, respect, equity, equality, and dignity (CREED) and make us feel included, feel safe to learn, feel safe to contribute and feel safe to challenge the status quo. When teams and organizations sequentially advance through each of the four stages, they intentionally create psychologically safe spaces that are deeply inclusive, accelerate learning, nurture creativity and innovation and optimize contribution.

Many organizations have leveraged the power of vulnerability. For example, Ernst & Young and General Electric have programmes that encourage their leaders and employees to share personal stories of vulnerability and engage in open and honest conversations about inclusion.

Several leaders have also begun to embrace vulnerability. For instance, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, talks about growing up in India, his eldest son’s health issue, and his struggle with imposter syndrome in his book Hit Refresh. By talking about his personal challenges, Satya Nadella has helped create a safe and inclusive environment at Microsoft where his employees do not shy away from discussing and addressing difficult topics. Another leader who has been open about his challenges and shortcomings is Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix. Kiran Mazummdar-Shaw, Founder and Executive Chairperson of Biocon Limited, has been open about her challenges as a female entrepreneur and the gender biases she has experienced. Her honest narratives have encouraged organizations to make their workplaces supportive and equitable to women.

A few pointers to embed vulnerability as a tool to create psychological safety at the workplace:

Acknowledge all your feelings and practice sharing them. Practice “checking in” with your feelings as often as possible. Are you feeling angry, frustrated, or delighted? Give yourself permission and time to engage with those emotions/feelings and wait for the insights to unfold. Then share your experience with the team. Rekha*, a mom of a 1-year-old, says, “It has been overwhelming for me to manage work and my kid. After a lot of deliberation, I spoke to my manager and my team about my challenges, and they have all been so supportive by providing flexibility and reducing my load a little. If I had kept my problems to myself just to appear sound and sorted, I would still be struggling.”

Practicing vulnerability takes time and patience. The workspace offers us several micro and macro moments to become comfortable with expressing our vulnerability. For example, I am going through a recent bereavement. In the early days, friends and colleagues who knew of the incident, asked me “How are you?” Instead of replying on auto pilot mode with an “I am fine,” I chose to say, “At the moment I don’t know how to respond to that question.” I felt comfortable to express my discomfort. I am not sure how my friends and colleagues felt. Even if they did feel uncomfortable with my expression of vulnerability, it is OK. We need to normalise expression of discomfort while engaging with vulnerability. Otherwise, we reinforce the status quo of being disengaged with vulnerability—both ours and that of others.

Practice selective vulnerability. Expressing vulnerability is not about self-disclosure or oversharing. Selective vulnerability is about maintaining a fine balance between sharing information that can build trust and oversharing details that do not serve the purpose.

Preserve and respect boundaries. From vulnerability springs authenticity. Being vulnerable is not about flaunting intimate details of your life. It is choosing what to share, how much to share, and with whom to share. It really is contextual. According to Brené Brown, we must set boundaries, maintain our integrity, and still make the most generous assumptions about others. Doing so enables us to be true to ourselves and compassionate and respectful of others.

Ask questions that spark meaningful conversations. Encourage your team to talk about their emotions and feelings by asking open-ended questions and practising active listening. Avoid the temptation to react or problem solve. Jhanvi*, a senior IT professional, says, “My team recently sat down to simply connect with each other and understand each other’s problems. During our conversation, we realized that most of us in the team experience imposter thoughts from time to time. We spoke about how each one of us handles this issue. It turned out to be a very worthwhile meeting.”

Follow up with actionables. People feel seen and heard if they can see that you are committed to change and when you act based on their needs and concerns.

Vulnerability is the core of being human. It is a powerful tool to radically humanize the workplace. When we experience vulnerability and the associated risks and uncertainties, we need to be able to feel comfortable with the discomfort, lean into the vulnerability, listen to difficult conversations, and stay the course.

All this takes courage. But then isn’t vulnerability another word for courage?

*Names changed to protect identity