By now, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the business case for vulnerability in the workplace; research from people like Brené Brown and others combine to reinforce its significance. Yet, we see leaders who still associate vulnerability with weakness. So, if vulnerability isn’t weakness, what is it and why does it matter to leaders?
Vulnerability is the capacity to admit a mistake, acknowledge a weakness, ask for help when we need it, or even suggest an out of the box idea for others to critique. In other words, it’s about expressing uncertainty, taking risks, and being emotionally open. And, this is the kicker, vulnerability is knowing we can do that without fear of judgment, and it’s a primary ingredient in the secret sauce that enables teams to perform at an epic level.
Unfortunately, many leaders who want characteristics like openness and honesty to mark their teams often unintentionally minimize the likelihood of that happening by falling into three common traps that undermine vulnerability.
#1: Leaders opt for efficiency over empowerment
A member of your team comes to you with a problem on a project that they’re struggling with, what do you do? Some leaders’ common tendency is to be efficient in resolving the issue by taking the project on themselves or moving the problem to someone more capable of getting the work done quickly. Of course, we want to solve problems efficiently, but reassigning ownership often represses vulnerability.
Instead of optimizing for short-term efficiency, empower your people by asking questions and seek to coach them through the challenge. Instead of jumping in and taking over or delegating the responsibility to someone else, explore openly with them how you might be able to help. This will most likely lead to a productive conversation where they feel supported by you.
#2: Leaders cultivate or allow a spirit of internal competition
We get it. You might have a competitive spirit. You want to crush your opponents, and you want people on your team to have that same attitude. But allow that competitiveness to go too far, and that same spirit could become the enemy of great collaboration. If your team feels like they’re competing against each other, they will likely have difficulty being open and honest with you and the rest of the team about their challenges.
We recently met with a frustrated director who observed the leadership team that he served alongside and declared, “They’re just focused on their silos! It’s like they’re in competition with one another, and the minute we get into a room everyone’s posturing for more leverage.” When a team is focused on winning together, they will make each other better and crush the competition.
#3: Leaders have clear expectations that they fail to tell anyone about
A lack of clarity around what the leader expects is one of the biggest detractors to vulnerability on a team. When clarity is lacking, fear and defensiveness tend to abound. Leaders need to be explicit, transparent, and clear. It’s our observation that most great teams/organizations are characterized by their clear expectations. In fact, great leaders improve trust and vulnerability with their people by consistently holding them accountable to well-defined expectations.
Final Thought & Reflection: No one bats a thousand when it comes to leadership. Sometimes we make a mistake and negatively impact our team’s willingness to be vulnerable. When you reflect on your missteps, which trap seems to catch you most frequently?