Busting the myth of vulnerability: it’s not a weakness and it does belong at work

Vulnerability is tough. No matter your age, gender, experience or personality, it’s not easy to be vulnerable. After all, crying at work isn’t comfortable. Newsflash: vulnerability doesn’t equal hysterics. Nor histrionics. Nor any other kind of emotional hullaballoo. Crying does not equal vulnerability. And the myth that vulnerability is code for weakness is just that: a myth. A dangerous one too.

Vulnerability has been a hot topic in recent years. This familiarity is what prevents leaders, teams and organisations from truly taking it on board; they believe that they have a good understanding of it at an intellectual level. Yet this misunderstanding of what it means to be vulnerable perpetuates the fear of practicing it.

What is vulnerability, if it is not weakness?

Vulnerability is a willingness to let go of who you think you should be, to be who you are. It’s not about treating your colleague like a therapist or sharing every personal detail of your life. It’s about feeling able to own up to a mistake and to apologise for it. It’s about asking for help or admitting that you don’t know everything.

And there’s the rub. Being vulnerable – in work and in life – is tied up with how those around us view us, or rather how we believe they will view us if we reveal a vulnerability. For leaders in particular this tends to be a vicious circle. If there’s an expectation or desire to be seen as all-knowing, it’s far easier to pass blame when mistakes are made, to not acknowledge a mistake in the first place, or to refuse to ask for help. The negative impacts of this modus operandi range from an uncomfortable and unproductive atmosphere to an organisational climate where damaging behaviour goes unchecked, sometimes with dire consequences. Corporate disasters are extreme, and chilling, examples of how a refusal to own shortcomings and mistakes manifest.

The pervasive fear of seeming weak

Vulnerability causes issues, despite how well people think they understand vulnerability intellectually, because it pushes emotional buttons which are set in deeply held values, beliefs and codes of behaviour. We know that vulnerability is not defined by:

  • Tears
  • Unchecked emotion
  • Oversharing
  • Over-familiarity

Yet when our outward behaviours are rewarded, however subtly, by displaying the opposite (stoicism; emotional restraint; keeping to oneself; standoffishness), we learn that this characterises, ‘strength’, ‘success’, ‘achievement’, ‘reliability’, ‘control’, ‘discipline’, ‘toughness’…fill in the blank as you please. We learn to put on a mask, to hide who we really are, and we shy away from telling our authentic truth.

Vulnerability is critical to organisations’ function

While it’s a challenge to be vulnerable – even in organisations and working cultures where ‘toughness’ is not especially valued – it is necessary. Without it, teams lack trust and find it harder, or are less likely, to try something innovative. Why go out on a limb, why risk emotional security without any guarantees, when the consequences might not only mean failure but truly being seen?

The other necessity with vulnerability is that it requires everyone to practice it and not pay lip service – from the CEO to the post room assistant. It’s not enough to expect you to be vulnerable, or her, or him, or them over there. As with any initiative, double standards will only breed resentment; at best, leaders, management and staff will play along with training, coaching, or whatever the intervention may be, without genuine commitment to doing the hard work.

Take off the mask in private, then go public

Leaders have to take charge and set an example. Yet being in a leadership position is where vulnerability is often the most difficult. When people look to you for direction and for answers, the weight of ‘I don’t know’ is multiplied. So how can leaders break the deadlock and start to peel off their mask?

With support.

Attempting to take on any new behaviour – or indeed to modify existing behaviour – is tricky. It takes practice to refine the mechanics of the skill and time to build confidence using it. And in organisations where a certain behaviour – vulnerability in this case – is not valued, it’s hard to even attempt that course of action, never mind display any degree of comfort on the journey. Coaching creates a space where individuals can begin to explore vulnerability without judgement. This can then be transferred to real-world situations and leaders can start to set the example to those around them; change filters through the business as people see leaders practicing what they preach.

Coaching and vulnerability go hand in glove

The space to learn is crucial for vulnerability. It takes a considerable amount of trial and error before new ways of being are assimilated. Coaching leaders to be vulnerable is not a case of removing the ‘L’ plates and waving them off to the open road. Coaching provides a space where leaders can experiment with their new behaviour, first with a neutral party, then with colleagues and staff. From there, leaders have a safe space in coaching to which they can return, reflect, review and make changes to their actions before venturing forth again. This solidifies their learning and does so in an environment that’s safe and with someone who is skilled and experienced in walking through difficulties with people. Moreover, the coaching experience is good vulnerability practise in itself; to be coached is to explore your limits, strengths and weaknesses, imperfections and what makes you, you. If leaders are comfortable with that, it’s a compelling place to start.

Dispelling the vulnerability myth

Coaching support makes the journey to vulnerability smoother and the behaviour more likely to stick. For vulnerability to thrive, it has to be the responsibility of all. Beginning with those at the top, staff have a model on which to base their own behaviour and vulnerability becomes a habit that everyone takes ownership of. Which means that vulnerability isn’t just a muscle that’s flexed internally, but with suppliers, customers and investors alike. And if we can treat the people outside our business with the same level of respect and humanity that we treat those within it, then that has surely got to be good not only for the organisation but the entire commercial landscape.

If vulnerability is something your organisation struggles with, give us a call on 0117 370 1800. We won’t judge and we won’t ask of you anything that we wouldn’t be happy with ourselves.

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