Vulnerability at Work

Vulnerability at Work

“Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.” Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW

Most people don’t associate courage with vulnerability. Acting courageously elicits images of strength and overcoming evil; it takes courage to do the right thing, courage to stand up to a bully, or courage to try something new.

But when you think about it, vulnerability takes courage too – the courage to share, to be exposed, or to face the unknown. Brené Brown’s research focuses on empathy, shame, vulnerability, and courage and she has found through her extensive research that vulnerability goes hand in hand with courage.

For example, sharing a personal or embarrassing story with your team takes courage, but the benefit is that they’ll feel more comfortable and willing to share their thoughts and ideas with you. You’ve just lowered the bar of embarrassment a touch and the result is a more effective brainstorming session; that’s pretty cool.

Vulnerability sometimes means sharing embarrassing stories, but it is also:

  • Being able to say “I don’t know”
  • Asking those around you for help
  • Confronting and acknowledging uncertainty rather than avoiding it
  • Disagreeing with a colleague
  • Being the voice to or supporting an unpopular idea or position

Each of these examples of vulnerability in the workplace exposes you emotionally or ideologically; though you may experience some immediate discomfort, like ripping off a band aid, it can have a positive impact and long term benefits.

So, have you ever found yourself ready to share an embarrassing story at work or admit (gasp!) that you didn’t know the answer to something, only to bite your tongue? But what if you did something different? What if you went out on a limb, were a little bit vulnerable, and exposed a sliver of yourself that you might otherwise not share. What would happen and what could come out of the experience?

It’s time to revamp the old, outdated mindset that vulnerability should be avoided.

Vulnerability at work has a place and time, and benefits you and your colleagues when done in an authentic, appropriate way. How can you use vulnerability at work for the better?

How to be more vulnerable at work (and why you should try)

Vulnerability does not automatically indicate weakness, oversharing, crossing a line, being unprofessional, weak, or just plain inappropriate. Of course it can, but it doesn’t have to. Below are examples of how you can find that balance of being vulnerable while still being professional and how it can bring about positive results.

Acknowledge mistakes

Making a mistake or an error, whether it’s big or small, can feel instinctively bad, creating a visceral reaction. It can make you feel weak, inadequate, inexperienced, powerless, or open to harsher evaluation. Our natural instinct is usually to try to hide it, distance ourselves from it, or minimize the role we played in it (maybe deflecting blame to someone else). None of these are good options.

Mistakes are inevitable and if you can avoid dwelling on them and beating yourself up, it really is the best way to learn and get better.

So rather than being defensive about making a mistake at work, coming up with an excuse, or blaming someone or something else, do some internal digging and then talk it through with your manager or your team, whoever you’ve let down or want to sympathize with:

  • Acknowledge the mistake and, after some self evaluation, explain why you think it didn’t go right. Take accountability and be responsible for the error, owning up to your part in it. If you are a team leader, take responsibility for the team’s failure, even if certain actions were not your own.
  • Draw on your courage to ask for feedback, recognizing that it is an opportunity to learn and not let the same mistake happen again. Sharing this thought process with others can go a long way towards showing your professionalism and genuine desire to do better next time.
  • Share your mistakes with colleagues who are going through a rough time; it can make them feel better about one they’ve made. It humanizes you and provides comfort to them whether you share a mistake on similar scale or bigger (sharing a bigger mistake can help make their mistake seem less devastating).
Ask for help

For some, it’s really hard to ask for help. Not just at work, but in many aspects of life. Doing everything on your own can be a source of pride and the rewards are all yours. But is that worth an idea or issue failing or faltering, not being as strong as it could be with the input and collaboration of others?

Asking for help feels vulnerable because it can be interpreted to mean:

  • You don’t know something. Not knowing something isn’t automatically a bad thing; maybe you just need a sounding board or have a kernel of an idea not yet fully developed.
  • Need to rely on the support of someone else. If it’s not all the time, for every little thing, you’re probably good. You’re actually being smart and efficient by bringing in extra help or someone with more knowledge/experience.
  • Need something (tangible or intangible) from someone else, like asking for another person’s time and input. But consider that most people are flattered to be asked for their advice and genuinely want to help.
  • You are dependent. Again, it’s probably not that extreme if it’s infrequent. Reframe it: you’re not being dependent, you are leveraging the skills of those around you.

So if you’re worried about how asking for help will look and that you’ll be walking around with an undesirable badge of vulnerability, consider why the benefits of asking for help outweigh the negatives and think of that badge as a sign of courage.

Ultimately, you’re putting the problem, the company, the project ahead of yourself or your ego. Ideas, concepts, and questions benefit from other people’s perspectives and experiences. Draw on those resources. Using the support of your team will bring out the best in the idea.

Just keep in mind that the intent of asking for help is not to dump your problem onto the other person and make it their problem. The best way to ask for help is to be prepared and thoroughly know the issues or problem before going to ask someone for help. Imagine what they will ask you and make sure you’ve thought through all of the various angles. And share how you’ve gotten to the roadblock you’re currently at, why, what questions you’re trying to work through, and how you think this person’s perspective can help.

Being able to say “I don’t know”

When you’re confronted with a question or problem you don’t know how to answer or solve, it’s natural to respond in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the lack of knowledge. For example, winging it with a vague answer based what little you do know, or avoiding it with something like, “I’ll have to get back to you later.”

But both of these scenarios keep hidden the fact that you don’t know what the answer is.  

The former ignores the gap in your knowledge completely, while the latter covers it up and buys you some time to research. But you can drop the facade while still maintaining your reputation because these types of responses rarely work. In fact, they’re pretty transparent and the other person will know probably know exactly what you’re doing.

So instead of saying “I’ll get back to you” and scrambling on your own to come up with something, you could respond with a more polished version of “I don’t know.”

Because of course, saying you don’t know doesn’t show a drive, motivation, or curiosity to find the answer. Instead, try “That’s a great question that I haven’t encountered before. Talking out loud here, [let’s compare it to this thing that is similar] or [identify other issues/ask more questions related to what we don’t know that will help us answer the question] or [brainstorm different scenarios].” This type of response is best when a peer or someone below you asks the question.

If you’re talking to someone above you in the chain of command, tweak the second sentence a bit to explain that you’re going to look into it and will get back to them within the time they need an answer. This answer is still honest yet shows your go-getter attitude. If it’s the kind of question that benefits from more than just your brain, seek out colleagues for a brainstorming session, making sure to credit their support when reporting back.

Being more vulnerable in how you respond can have positive effects because it:

  • Is a more accurate and honest response
  • Makes the answer-seeking process more collaborative, if done together with a colleague
  • Raises more questions and ideas, which can lead to a more developed and thorough answer
  • Shows you’re motivated and can take initiative, which will overshadow any concern or fear that you don’t have all the answers
Confront and acknowledge uncertainty

It’s pretty painful to work through uncertainty at work. The unknown makes people nervous and frustrated. Avoiding the uncertainty or pretending it doesn’t exist can make things feel more manageable and less vulnerable. But that approach often doesn’t lead to productive results and can just increase tension or dissatisfaction.

For example, imagine you’re in a team meeting for a project that has yet to be approved or may not be moving forward, and you can feel the negative emotions and frustration around you. You know some have expressed these feelings one on one, but not all together as a group.

Without taking over the meeting or calling anyone out, this is an opportunity to acknowledge the uncertainty ahead. Instead of not addressing these feelings in the meeting, and letting the status quo continue, give a voice to and shed light on the difficult, frustrating, unsatisfying, or challenging nature of the uncertain state.

By addressing the vulnerability and actually recognizing it, you can create space for progress, new thoughts, awareness, and collaboration. Sharing that you’ve felt frustrated or nervous about the uncertainty, but are undeterred and want to maintain focus on the positive or next steps in the process can make space for others to express their opinion and alleviate some of the built up pressure.

Disagree and/or be the voice to an unpopular idea

Disagreeing with someone’s idea or approach, or proposing something that you don’t think will be popular, can be daunting, especially if you’re going up against someone with a strong personality or who is more senior than you. But don’t avoid bringing your thoughts up for the sake of reducing conflict. Harvard Business Review’s Conflict Strategies for Nice People explains that healthy conflict at work is a source of innovation.

Instead of avoiding, try to broach the conversation with some of these ideas:

  • Ask open ended questions to learn more about the reasoning or logic behind an idea. Clarify uncertainty with the intent of achieving the same goal through a different method if you disagree with the proposed method.
  • Use hypotheticals to propose different approaches or options, which has the benefit of not directly contradicting someone or their idea. “Imagine a scenario where…” will reduce defensive reactions.
  • Use “and” rather than “or” to explain how an idea can be expanded upon, adding your thoughts and concerns without presenting it as they’re wrong and you’re right, or that it can only be done one way.

Chances are, those around you will appreciate that you took a chance and brought new ideas to the table and they will feel more comfortable expressing their opinions or agreeing with you.

Being vulnerable appropriately

Like the rules of the road, there are some basic do’s and don’ts for sharing that more vulnerable side of yourself at work:

  • Create and stick to boundaries, e.g. don’t just share anything and everything with every person you work with. Be aware of your existing relationship with your colleague(s) and don’t push personal details that aren’t appropriate or wouldn’t be welcome.
  • Be selective about sharing a concern or fear, for example, with those who have earned your trust. If you share doubts with anyone who will listen, you’ll come off as negative or complaining.
  • Use vulnerability sparingly; sprinkle it with a light hand and more as a last resort, for example, to make someone feel less embarrassed by sharing your own similarly embarrassing or challenging experience.
  • Share a vulnerability to seek attention.
  • Share stories or ideas that are inappropriate based on the culture and people you work with.
  • Be vulnerable for the sake of being vulnerable; it shouldn’t be scripted, but rather authentic and natural, a genuine desire to share something or put yourself out there.

If you’ve experienced how vulnerability at work can be effective, let us know how it went! And remember, vulnerability takes courage and that courageousness is contagious.

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