Once something to be avoided at all cost, vulnerability and candor (such as admitting you don’t have all the answers) are now widely advocated in the workplace to build trust, engagement and cooperation. Research shows that sharing some vulnerability has a humanizing effect and makes leaders more relatable. Asking for advice or help at work can even make people appear more competent.
But there is a point at which vulnerability can morph into TMI and actually hurt your credibility. Like a lot of good things, too much of it can be, well, just too much. You still need to think about how what
you share and the way
you share it will build, or detract from, your leadership presence and effectiveness.
Rumbling with vulnerability
Best-selling author, research professor at the University of Houston, and a previous WFF Leadership Conference speaker, Brené Brown, Ph.D., has been at the very forefront of bringing vulnerability out of the closet and into the mainstream. Her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead
was named one of the top ten business books of 2012. And her TEDx talk, The Power of Vulnerability
, is one of the top ten most viewed TED talks in the world.
In an interview with Forbes Magazine
, Brown cut right to the heart of the matter. “The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.”
Researchers from the University of Mannheim in Germany built on Brown’s work and found similar results; people feared that exposing their vulnerabilities would make them appear weak or inadequate but actually others were more likely to see the trait as evidence of someone’s courage and strength.
In six studies across hundreds of participants, the researchers asked people to imagine themselves in a variety of vulnerable situations, from confessing romantic feelings to admitting to a serious mistake at work. When people imagined themselves in those situations, they felt that showing vulnerability would reveal weakness. But when they imagined others in the same situation, they tended to describe showing vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.”
Why the disconnect?
Intrigued by the difference in how we judge vulnerability in ourselves compared to how we judge it in others, the researchers then tested an additional theory about how the brain processes information. They found that when we imagine our own vulnerability, we think in very concrete ways. We imagine every flaw people will see and every way the interaction will go wrong. When we think of vulnerability in others, our mental picture is more diffuse and abstract. We’re better able to see the good as well as the bad — to a point.
Know where the line is
And here’s where you have to be careful. It turns out that how we respond to someone’s show of vulnerability can have a lot to do with what we already think of them. In people who we already judge as competent, vulnerability is more likely to be seen as appealing and humanizing. But in people we don’t already know, or who already seem to be a bit of a hot mess, showing vulnerability can damage credibility even further.
Being overly familiar at work can overwhelm colleagues and make the vulnerable person appear needy, according to research from Lisa Rosh, a management professor at the City University of New York. Vulnerability is something best shared over time in smaller bits, within the context of a larger relationship and once you have already established a position of competence. Consider these tips from communications experts before you share.
- Be clear about your purpose. Venting is not a good reason to overshare, nor is seeking sympathy. Before sharing a personal or professional vulnerability, ask yourself what goal it serves and how it helps the team move forward together, rather than simply putting yourself in the spotlight.
- Focus on your audience. Caught up in the fervor around transparency and vulnerability, leaders sometimes strive to share a moment of weakness almost just because. Think instead of what makes sense in the situation and what others need to hear. If the project is delayed because you made a mistake, own up to it, share the steps you’re pursuing to rectify the situation and ask for help. But if the snafu was totally out of your control, this is not the time to reveal how you once got fired for missing a big deadline.
- Stay out of the weeds. If you plan to reveal an area where you’ve come up short or need help from others, keep the rationale and your call for help succinct. Your team doesn’t need to know every misstep along the way or how sick you felt when you realized your error. Stick with the facts presented in a professional way and your candor will be more likely to reflect positively on you.
There is no question that truth matters and that letting your supervisor, colleagues and direct reports know the limitations of your knowledge or when you need a helping hand can raise your estimation in their eyes and increase your performance. Just be careful not to confuse candid with confessional.