Creating a Culture of Vulnerability at Work Through Leadership
Updated: Mar 8
In recent years, there have been multiple studies that indicate that vulnerability is a success factor in the workplace. Brené Brown, a name frequently associated with the topic of vulnerability, defines it as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Mutual trust is required for teams to work effectively, and vulnerability is the foundation of that trust. Here’s a great perspective that I think is fitting in the work environment:
“Trust is defined as choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another’s actions.” Charles Feltman
There is much to study on the value of vulnerability at work, but the relationship between vulnerability and leadership is an important element that cannot be overlooked. The leader that exemplifies vulnerability creates safe space for team members to also express their thoughts and feelings, encouraging productivity.
Here are 4 tips to help you foster a culture of vulnerability as a leader in your workplace:
Let Team Members Articulate Their Feelings - The first step to creating a vulnerable workplace is to change the perspective on feelings. Why? Because vulnerability is the core of all emotions. For a long time, the consensus in business has been, “Let’s leave feelings out of this.” I think what people mean when they say it is, “We don’t want to be emotionally reactive at work. Let’s not have emotions drive our thinking.” In other words, become more like a computer with minimal consideration for a person’s human experience.
However, if we view emotions and feelings as what they are - data - we can allow valuable insights to rise to the surface. A person could be holding anxiety for the root cause of ongoing issues. If the person doesn’t voice their concern, the root issue won’t be addressed, and the problem won’t be solved.
Vulnerability makes it safe to say, “I feel [frustrated, angry, confused]” about this. It makes it safe for individuals to leave a meeting with uncomfortable feelings, and with the understanding that there are no repercussions for voicing their feelings about an issue.
Allow the feelings to bring problems to the surface, and move toward a solution. Provide opportunity: We don’t all have to agree, but we have to move forward.
Coach Employees and Coworkers through Feelings - Listening, rather than providing solutions, is the key to coaching team members through feelings. Help them process their emotions to move them towards what they want. Ask many questions to determine if they want help figuring out a solution. Two great question to start with are:
What would it look like to have this issue resolved?
What do you need to do to resolve it?
Rather than providing feedback based on their response, simply be an active listener and lend a listening ear. Through this process, they’re building the muscle of vulnerability and you’re setting an example for them to follow in the future as they work through these emotions on their own.
Set Norms - Norms are the agreed-upon behaviors you set for a meeting or a workplace. Ask the question: How do we want to practice our work principles? It’s important to communicate that it’s safe to disagree with no repercussions. Creating a culture of vulnerability that builds trust, often starts with the organizational leaders. It is up to them to be intentional about making their team members feel comfortable to express their opinions as a normal part of everyday conversation among individual teams. It’s important to realize that this is a process that takes time and building trust between team members and managers and colleagues is the key building block to creating the safe culture you desire in your workplace.
Check In with Your Team to See How You’re Doing - Periodically check in with your team members. This indicates that you are committed to open and honest dialogue. Consider asking your team members, How well did we do with norms? What could I improve? What could you improve? Then consider their answers and if/how their feedback can be implemented with the culture of the workplace. From these individual conversations, you will begin identifying how each member wants to contribute to a goal. Being open and honest with them will build trust and they are more likely to share their values with you and how the goals of the organization align with those.
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More reading on vulnerability at work: