Vulnerability. That's what it takes to become truly innovative, creative and adaptive, says the leading national expert on vulnerability, Brené Brown.
Now if you're like most professionals, you probably feel that vulnerability doesn't belong in the workplace. After all, vulnerability, as defined by Dictionary.com is: (1) capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon; (2) open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.; (3) (of a place) open to assault; difficult to defend.
A Misunderstood DefinitionBased off of the definition, you might wonder why you would ever want to be vulnerable. Brown, however, clarifies in her discussion on Chase Jarvis LIVE that vulnerability is a misunderstood concept. Instead, Brown defines it based off the data she's gathered as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. She goes on to say, "How can you be a good leader who's not willing to walk into uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure."
Still, the idea of being vulnerable and authentic in the workplace has been questioned by many. Herminia Ibarra, author of, "The Authentic Paradox," in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) referenced an example of Cynthia Danaher, a newly appointed general manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. who hurt her credibility as a leader by being honest about how she felt.
Danaher recalled to the Wall Street Journal that she confided to her 5,300 employees shortly after filling her new role, "I want to do this job, but it's scary and I need your help." She went on to say that the company finally had a boss who "knows how to make coffee."
Ibarra, in her HBR review article said, "Being utterly transparent—disclosing every single thought and feeling—is both unrealistic and risky."
Brown further explained to Jarvis that vulnerability doesn't have to lead to loss of credibility and injury. "What I hear people say is, 'Yes, you can be vulnerable at work but not too vulnerable.' That's like saying you can be healthy but not too healthy—you can't really be too healthy. When people say too vulnerable, what they mean is there's boundary issues."
She then used an example of a business partner who in front of venture capitalists and employees cries, 'Um, I'm in over my head. I'm not sure what's happening, and I'm pretty sure it's all going to go to [omit] in the next two weeks.'
Sharing in this way isn't appropriate, Brown said. You'd be misunderstanding your role. However, sharing that information with a therapist or possibly their partner wouldn't be inappropriate. "Vulnerability," Brown said, "requires an understanding of boundaries: where we share, with whom we share, and why we're sharing."
Boundaries & Emotional IntelligenceTo be vulnerable, you must cultivate personal boundaries in your life. A boundary is a limit we set to help us define what is acceptable behavior from others in order to keep ourselves safe emotionally, physically and psychologically. The boundaries we set regulate how people treat us and how we treat others.
Setting personal boundaries is part of being emotionally intelligent. This learned skill of emotional intelligence helps you identify how you are feeling, how others are feeling, and how what you say and do affects others.
When Danaher told her employees that she was good at making coffee but needed help being able to fulfill her new role as general manager, she did not understand how her message would affect her employees emotionally. She had anticipated that by sharing this information, her employees would relate to a time when they started something new and felt uncertain. She assumed that by sharing this information, they would feel a bond with her because they would be able to relate. Instead, her employees felt a sense of insecurity because they were looking for someone who may not know everything but had a plan and vision for what they were working toward.
Fortunately, as previously mentioned, emotional intelligence is a learned skill, which means if you feel you're lacking, you can practice and improve.
While Danaher admits her faux pas is a painful memory, she has continued to learn from her mistake and has become a more resilient leader because of it. "A balance of openness, strength, and the ability to read others and their capacity for emotional content are all important aspects of vulnerability in leadership," Robert Beare Jr. stated in his doctoral dissertation at Capella University. He then paraphrased authors Goffee and Jones by saying, "In order to inspire followers to innovative and effective teamwork, leaders must develop the ability to be vulnerable and selectively show imperfection."
Becoming a Vulnerable, Innovative, Creative, Adaptive LeaderSince we're all individual, becoming our true selves will look different for each of us. However, here are six things you can do to become more authentic:
- Recognize yourself as a person who is always growing and evolving.
- Spend time introspectively searching who you are.
- Ask others (those who are fans of you as well as those who are not) what they think of your current leadership style.
- Work on your emotional intelligence and boundary setting.
- Practice talking to others.
- And follow Brown's advice to strive for excellence instead of perfection. Try something new, knowing it won't be perfect but that it doesn't need to be.
"Authenticity," Ibarra said, "is being aware of who you are at the core (personality, abilities, motivations, thinking/beliefs), and leading from that place."
Becoming the kind of leader that is authentic and vulnerable doesn't happen overnight. It comes as you conscientiously work toward it.