The stoic, stiff-upper-lip generation gave us really bad advice when they taught us never to show weakness. Unfortunately, some of the huggy-lovey people talking about “authenticity” today are giving equally bad advice. It’s time for some balance!
Vulnerability plays an important role in team effectiveness. It’s important to understand the risks of showing too little vulnerability and what happens when you go over the top. To help explain, here are some examples of how the right expressions of vulnerability can bolster trust and enhance team relationships.
Vulnerability is natural. Letting yourself appear vulnerable can humanize you and help you bond with your teammates.
In an excellent interview with Harvard Business Review, neuroeconomist Paul Zak explains how demonstrating that you trust someone causes both of your brains to release the powerful neurotransmitter oxytocin. That oxytocin increases the bond between you.
Being vulnerable in front of your teammates is a very clear way to show you trust them. Unfortunately, many people take the opposite approach. Rather than admitting when they are stuck, or worried, or frustrated, they try to maintain the image that everything is fine—that they are in control.
If you are trying to preserve a false sense of invulnerability, you are missing a very important opportunity to convert team members into allies. In extreme cases, you’re probably turning them against you. They will be waiting and hoping for you to fail.
Are you made of Teflon?
- Do you deflect the accountability for every project that goes south onto others?
- Do you have an answer for everything?
- Do you repress natural reactions (e.g., disappointment, concern, frustration) when things aren’t going well?
- Do you clam up when emotion (positive or negative) might cause you to say something really authentic?
If so, start small. Find one opportunity to open up to members of your team about what worries you. See how they react. You’ll be surprised how occasionally admitting vulnerability makes you seem stronger.
Even though vulnerability is a natural part of the human condition, let’s not get carried away. Expressing vulnerability is good; failing to move beyond your vulnerability can divide you from the rest of your team. If your expressions of vulnerability cause your teammates to question your capability, you’ve gone too far.
Generally, the test is whether or not you continually look to the team for help on an issue without making any changes on your own. If you do that, you have essentially left the problem in their hands. Great team members ask for help when they need it, but they never cede ownership of the challenge.
If your challenge is self-esteem, that’s a problem your team can’t solve. Don’t expect your teammates to have confidence in you if you don’t have confidence in yourself.
Are you a Wimp?
- Do you frequently question your performance and whether you “measure up?”
- Do you look for reassurance from teammates by making overly negative statements about yourself?
- Do you ask for positive feedback and reassurance from your boss over and over?
- Have your teammates stopped making eye contact because your vulnerability is making them uncomfortable?
If so, think about some things you can say that will make you sound more confident. Try questioning less and asserting a little more. You’ll be surprised how everyone’s view of you changes—most importantly, your own.
Just right. Finding the right balance.
For decades it was seen as inappropriate to express vulnerability at work, but now we are finally appreciating the benefit of a healthy dose of honest humanity among teammates.
Too little vulnerability can make you seem aloof and reduce the likelihood that your teammates will have your back. Too much vulnerability and the team might try to disassociate with you because you seem like a weak link. The magic is to get it just right.
The secret lies in having confidence in your worth and then being willing to share when circumstances rattle that confidence. Appropriate expressions of vulnerability are ones that demonstrate your humility and your willingness to get help from your teammates. They don’t detract from your ownership of the issues. Here’s some examples:
“I’m not sure how to respond to the way our marketplace is changing.”
“Our new team leader’s communication style is really different from mine – it’s hard to adjust.”
“I’m struggling to stay focused today because of a personal issue.”
Interpersonal issues are also great opportunities to show your vulnerability:
“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot, can we start over?”
“I don’t feel like I’m living up to your expectations, can we go over what you’re trying to achieve?” “I feel like I’m frustrating you, what could I do differently?”
The best teams are the ones where team members are confident in their roles AND willing to open up about their concerns and doubt. No Teflon people. No wimps. Just right.