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.

Teflon Man.

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.

The Wimp.

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.

Further Reading

Crying at Work

Getting Fired (Up)

The Confidence Curse

15 Responses to Vulnerability – a strength or a weakness?

  1. Jessica Sherin

    The ability to share a bit of what’s going on under the hood is one of the characteristics I admire most in leaders. I agree – I think it’s all about having a professional mindset, and also being tuned into the impact you’re having on the person you are sharing with.

    • Liane

      Jessica, I love the way you described that–thinking about the impact you’re having on others. I find that people at the extremes of vulnerability–both too much and too little–tend to under-appreicate the negative impact they are having on their colleagues. Watching a person being inappropriately vulnerable can make teammates squeamish! On the other end of the spectrum, the Teflon person make teammates feel distant. Thanks for this…I’ll share that with the teams I work with.

  2. Audra August

    This is a great piece, Liane. This really highlights how vulnerability can be a catalyst to enhance not only personal relationships and team effectiveness – but also leadership culture and board governance.

  3. Kim Rogers

    People seek to relate to their leaders and if a leader never shows vulnerablility they are very hard to relate to. Your piece does a great job of showing us that by being vulnerable, a leader shows others that he/she is human. What results is a stronger connection and level of trust.

  4. Julie Jones

    I keep sharing with leaders I work with that vulnerability is in vogue! Your piece talks to the value and valiance of being vulnerable and while it is a balancing act to get it ‘just right’ the leaders who have the courage to experiment are reaping the rewards. As Kim Rogers comments above what results is stronger connections and trust levels which in turn leads to more innovation, more meaningful contributions and a more humanistic workplace.

  5. Tammy Heermann

    I love this concept so much. I work with some pretty macho types – bankers, engineers, doctors – and with leaders in different generations. I’m wondering how you help them see that the old stiff upper lip or never show your weakness mentality is not what people want to see in leadership today?

  6. Tiina

    I once had the most amazing leadership learning moment that has really stuck with me over the years. I found myself in a leadership role that I was really struggling with (in hindsight I probably wasn’t ready for that level of responsibility just yet) and had an unfortunate performance conversation with my boss, the CEO. No place to hide when you report to the CEO. I had myself a ‘pity party’ for a couple of days and then decided to tell the managers that reported to me all about what had happened. They told me that that would never happen to me ever again. The next thing I knew there were new ideas being generated, projects kicking off, initiatives finally delivering what they had promised, clients being serviced in different ways and we started really adding value in the organization. I have always put it down to that one moment of being totally vulnerable with a great group of people that I absolutely trusted. At the next performance review the CEO said “I don’t know what you did but there has been a complete 180 degree turn in your team’s performancce”. PHEW ! If only more leaders could experience how proud I was of the whole team at that moment.

    • Liane Davey

      Wow…what a powerful story. I’m really interested in your decision to share your reaction to the meeting with the CEO with your team? Did you expect such a positive reaction? How did expressing your vulnerability change the level of trust on your team? I’d love to use your story in my upcoming book.

      • Tiinamoore

        Hi Liane…to answer your follow-up questions…I’m not sure why decided to be vulnerable with my managers. I may have been acting from intuition or maybe out of fear. I knew I couldn’t fix everything myself and that I needed to get help. I thought maybe I should just be honest to be able to engage people. I’m so glad I did. I think what happened is that when I was totally vulnerable with them they realized that I was not going to hide anything and they could totally trust me. I’d be honored to have mystory in your book. I have others. ; )

  7. Bryan

    Yes, there are times where as the leader you have to put on the brave face, share a difficult message, show defeat with grace. And most of the time you just need to be who you are (good for you, Tiina!) There are different approaches leaders can take to a given situation that can all in turn produce the same intended result. Liane, your examples above all help as I find the best leaders do tend to be the ones with the greatest range (can turn it up and be tough and tone it down and be more vulnerable as required.)

    • Liane Davey

      Great point Bryan. There is no one right leadership style for all the different situations that a team gets into. You really need different modes for different situations. I love Tiina’s story about showing vulnerability. Is there a time you can think of where you needed to downplay your feelings of vulnerability with your team? It would be fun to have the counter story to demonstrate the point about range.

  8. Patricia

    Being a Director in a very old style firm, I have found that one has to maintain a “stiff upper lip’ with the top level Execs, but at the same time, within my own team, my managing style “allows” the expression of vulnerabilites as long as we are still working towards the objective and don’t reach the whine stage. It is very important as the Director, to immediately recognise and address the issue when a member of your team expresses these “vulnerabilites’.

    • Hi Patricia, thanks so much for your comments and welcome to the ChangeYourTeam community. I can certainly relate to your comments about keeping the stiff upper lip with executives. Unfortunately, when I work with leaders, it’s the executive teams who are least willing to be vulnerable and most invested in their facade of perfection. The energy involved in trying to maintain that is really a waste. I am confident that we are starting to crack this problem, but it will take more Directors like you to change the tone. We’ll keep working on it!

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