top of page

Vulnerability in the Workplace

Let’s begin this blog post on vulnerability with the three most embarrassing moments of my life:


When I was twelve, I had a massive crush on the cutest boy in school, Dusty. Naturally, he had absolutely no idea that I existed. I had never spoken a single word to him. One day, PE class got out late so I was in a huge rush to get to the cafeteria line. Frazzled and a bit disoriented, I looked over my shoulder to find Dusty standing behind me. I started to panic, but Dusty nonchalantly initiated a conversation, “Hi. Aren’t you in my English class? I hope the tater tots aren’t dried out today.” Once I got over my shock, we had a really nice conversation. As we parted ways with full lunch trays, I looked down and realized that I had put my shirt on inside out and backwards after PE. My shirt tag was waggling under my chin like a child’s tongue saying, “Nanner nanner!” I can’t remember what happened to my dried out tater tots as I made a beeline to the girl’s bathroom to hide.


Another time, I was milling around a crowded lobby with around twenty other leaders from all over California after an all day training. The air was stuffy and stale as we waited for instructions on where to go next. Suddenly, the burrito I had eaten for lunch rumbled in my stomach and emerged as a silent, lethal, toxic waste, fart. You wouldn’t think that a tiny little woman like me could release such noxious fumes, but I did. The impact on everyone else was immediate and cartoon-like. People rushed for the exits, plugged their noses, or fainted dead away (not really… but close). “Good God… Who did that?” My blush of embarrassment might have given me away as I blatantly lied and said, “Not me!”


And finally, my senior year of high school I dated John. He was kind, cute, and quirky, the son of a teacher and an FBI agent. A few days a week, I’d drive all the way across town to pick him up so that we could drive to school together. Sometimes, unbeknownst to our parents, I’d get to his house an hour early so that we could snuggle for a while before heading to school. One predawn morning, as the side gate gently creaked open on my way to John’s back door, all the house lights flooded on, and a deep baritone voice shouted, “Freeze!” A gun was aimed at me, with John’s father’s pale face flashing surprise on the trigger end. The next hour featured John and I sitting guilty on the couch as our various romantic misdemeanors were pried out of us.


In all of these embarrassing moments, my messy, imperfect, vulnerable, human side was on full display for others to see. The elaborate mask I wear on the surface cracked open to reveal the soft, squishy, secret me underneath.


We hide our imperfections from others, especially at work where vulnerability feels like it will cost us a promotion, respect, or our career. If they knew how much impostor syndrome I feel… OR how I screwed up that report… OR how resentful I still am about… OR how everything is falling apart at home… OR how much doubt I have about the current strategic direction… OR how much I need some appreciation right now… OR any number of things…


The truth is, a certain level of vulnerability at work is essential to the creation of a trusting, supportive team culture. According to Forbes Council Member, Jennifer Spears, “You need to create an environment that is psychologically safe for employees to share ideas, to take initiative, to try things that they are not yet competent in without fear of blame, ridicule or punishment.” To create that kind of environment requires some vulnerability.


The Research

The normal human state is not always positive and self-assured. We know that truth deep down in our brains and make instantaneous judgments about how authentic and trustworthy that person is based on whether they show their human side. Like when an airbrushed Instagram influencer sends out ten pics a day, every day, with their smiling face surrounded by roses, balloons, and strawberries swimming in cream, you instantly know it’s fake.


For instance, Michael Slepian and Evan Carr at Columbia University had volunteers examine 30 still photos of a person’s facial expression while they were interviewed about their daily life. After seeing the pics, the volunteers were asked to rate the photographed person’s authenticity, trustworthiness, happiness, and desirability to have that person be their leader or team-mate. In fact, the photos were intentionally constructed using facial morphing software to either have very consistent facial expressions (always hovering around the same average: always neutral, always happy, always angry, etc.) or widely variable facial expressions (sometimes angry, sometimes happy, sometimes neutral). Despite the variable faces displaying more extreme negative emotions, the volunteers overwhelmingly judged these people to be more authentic, more trustworthy, more happy, and more desirable to have on their work team as a leader or colleague.


We are hard wired to spot who is wearing a mask and who is not, and instinctively trust the ones who are willing to be vulnerable with us. In fact, another study by James Gross and Bob Levenson (two faculty I had the privilege of working with in graduate school) showed that inauthentic people who suppress their emotions make our blood pressure rise.


But not everyone needs to know everything

Fortunately, that does NOT mean we have to share everything with everyone. As vulnerability guru Brené Brown states: “Some of the most vulnerable and authentic leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with — truly authentic and truly vulnerable people — personally disclose very little.” So no, you don’t have to share your three most embarrassing moments with your colleagues. Whew!


How do you decide who to tell and how much to share? Consider using this question to guide you:

“Will sharing my emotions or experiences move the work or our relationship forward?”

For instance, I was talking to someone last week who was struggling with a teenage son who got kicked out of school and personal health troubles on top of it. Should they tell folks at work? In this case, absolutely. It’s highly likely that the situation at home may impact their performance at work, either through an emergency phone call during work hours or lost concentration. But is it necessary to share everything with everyone? Hell no. Perhaps the person’s supervisor needs the full story, but colleagues and direct reports might only need a broad brush stroke. “Hey guys, there’s some stuff in my personal life that’s really hard right now. I may be a bit distracted or need to take an afternoon off to handle an emergency. But this work we’re doing together is really good right now, and it’s the brightest spot in my life. I’d appreciate not having to answer a ton of questions about my situation at home unless I come to you. Instead, let’s dig in and get this project off the ground. Okay?”


Why did I share my embarrassing moments with you? To build relationship and trust with you, my dear reader. If you see me willing to take risks and be vulnerable with you, then you are more likely to trust me and my message. Authenticity and vulnerability starts with the leader.


The research suggests that one of the most critical behaviors that builds trust in a leader, is NOT stoicism, NOT confidence, and NOT consistency. Rather, it’s whether they are willing to ask for help. When you see a leader willing to ask for help it means they are willing to express the full range of their emotions and to be unmasked. As a result, you see them as more trustworthy, as genuinely authentic, and as someone you are more willing to follow. Hopefully, if you see me with my mask off here, on the Internet of all places, you’ll be more willing to take your mask off in your organization as well.


Summary

Allow me to end with one more story. I was recently a participant in a leadership retreat (the first one in years that I didn’t organize or lead!) The entire weekend was devoted to building trust and communication between us. It was marvelous. Out of all the activities, the one that was the most challenging for me was one where I had to take my glasses off and leave them in the care of one of the facilitators.


It’s such a small act. This wasn’t anything like when I jumped off Auckland Tower. All I had to do was take off my glasses. (I do this every night at bedtime.) Put them in the facilitator’s bag so they won’t get damaged. (This totally makes logical sense.) A gentle promise that she’ll get them back to me. (I know her and trust her.) But my oh my, did I feel completely unmasked and vulnerable. I was now blind as a bat. Reliant on others’ help. Ultra soft and squishy. So vulnerable.


It reminds me of how Simon Sinek defines love:

“it’s giving others the power to destroy us, and trusting they won’t use it.”

Here, I was, trusting my team and this facilitator to watch over me for the next little while. And they did. And the rush of gratitude I felt when she gently put my glasses back in my hands was breathtaking. And OMG do I trust and love these people now. (We're the Best Class Ever for reals!)


So unmask enough to let your colleagues witness the full range of your emotions.


Ask for help when you need it (in your out loud voice).


Set the example within your organization with the question: “Will sharing my emotions or experiences move the work or our relationship forward?” More often than we are comfortable with, the answer will be, “Yes.”


And thank you, dear readers, for holding my embarrassing moments and my glasses with such care and love.


Read More

This article in HBR by Emma Seppälä on the role of vulnerability in leadership is fantastic!


So is this one by Jennifer Spear in Forbes.


And naturally, Brené Brown has several books on the subject such as Dare to Lead.


Going Further

Isn’t it funny how giving someone your email or phone number can feel really vulnerable? I feel the same. So if you trust me enough to give me your email or number, I promise to treat your contact info as if they were just as precious as your glasses. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for subscribing and please share with a friend who might appreciate this message right now.


My experience as a participant at the leadership retreat was so inspiring and so rewarding. I channeled that energy into a visioning retreat I just created this past weekend for a couple who wanted to dream forward into their next 20 years together. It’s the same energy as I channel into the Heroine’s Journey women’s leadership retreat. If you are interested in finding a facilitator for your next retreat, whether it’s just for you, someone you love, or a large team, then contact me soon before my schedule fills.


Believe it or not, I read and reply to every email. So if you have questions about how to be more authentic with your team or community in a way that feels safe, don’t hesitate to reach out at irene@irenesalter.com


101 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page