Vulnerability in the workplace

In the work I do, I get to work with a lot of different groups and leaders. It’s a privileged position where I have access to senior people in a way most people won’t. Inevitably you find that they’re just as human and foibled as the rest of us. They have the same kinds of insecurities and vulnerabilities.

One of the more interesting observations is that more and more leaders are becoming attuned to the acceptance of their foibles and the stuff they just don’t do very well. Instead of being stable geniuses or providing strong and stable leadership they accept that they can’t do everything and rely on the strength of the team to help them deliver.

It’s the expression of their vulnerabilities that I find particularly interesting. They don’t demean themselves. Instead they’ve learned to have humility about what they struggle with. Instead of “I don’t have data analysis skills and that’s a weakness I’m not proud of”, they say things like “I don’t have data and analytics skills and I accept it’s never going to be a strength for me.”

I believe that when we have better thinking in a safe environment about our vulnerabilities, we can express them in ways which are free of judgement and they are accepted.

What I find further interesting is how management teams then react to opening up about their vulnerabilities. Most leaders I come across are not the critical and judgemental types. They want to grow and enable their teams.

When I talk to management teams about the level of trust they have with one another and how that enables, or not, how vulnerable they are with another, it creates two different conversations. On the one hand they’ll say “we trust each other”, and on the other “I’m unsure how vulnerable I want to be with the team”. That second statement is a very valid standing and I don’t seek to create forced discomfort.

One of the elements of trust is the empathy we have with each other. That when I have something to say it can be heard. I feel included. I feel valued. That if I’m struggling to hit a target or achieve a goal, I can share that without judgement. And in fact the team and the leader create a safe environment where I can express that without my credibility being at risk.

And I will ask those team members to share easy levels of information with each other as an example of the kind of open conversation you can have with each other. I ask them to write down their responses to: You Can Count On Me To… and Never Ask Me To…

Some leaders and team members are really ok with this. They know what strengths and values they have. They don’t have to ‘manage’ their answer. It’s clear for them and they know how to express it. For others, though, it creates a real moment of discomfort. They want to be seen to be able and capable. They don’t want to express what you shouldn’t ask them to get involved with because they don’t want to lose face or credibility amongst their team members. That small and very real moment of discomfort is important because it tells us about how we genuinely feel about vulnerabilities – both from those willing to share openly and those who are ok with it.

And a personal example I think is valid here, too. I often choose to be vulnerable with my wider team. I have been vulnerable with my immediate team and they give me strength in knowing I am not judged by them. We work through stuff and I nearly always have a way forward – even if that way forward is to accept the mistake or it is to do nothing. When I choose to do similar with my wider team I get met with different reactions. Some don’t know how to respond, so they don’t. Others have an opinion about my actions to date (or lack of) and let me know them. Others let me know they appreciate knowing more about what’s happening for me and they don’t judge me for certain decisions made.

I’ve done a fair amount of self development work in many different ways over the years, so I have a level of comfort and self awareness about my strengths and values and weaknesses. Like you can always ask me to be a sounding board for stuff. I’m really keen on hearing people’s ideas and where it takes them. But never ask me to be the one to do the careful planning or detailed organisation stuff. It’s just not my bag and I can notice some stuff and in all likelihood will miss not having thought of important stuff.

Its complicated stuff. In the writing above I’ve used varying levels of language to describe the kind of stuff it’s all related to. Credibility. Ability. Capability. Strengths. Humility. Vulnerabilities. Openness. Trust. Self-awareness. Leadership. It all adds into the mix.

There’s no conclusion of any sort here. It’s just to share my observations of how I help others to explore vulnerability and my reflections on the concept in the workplace.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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