When we think of vulnerability in the workplace, we think of being exposed, criticized or attacked for our flaws and mistakes. Vulnerability is often associated with the idea we’ll be susceptible to getting hurt. And we would never expect vulnerability to be encouraged or even allowed in the workplace.
But it turns out, business and vulnerability go hand in hand.
Vulnerability belongs in the workplace. It not only belongs, but it builds a more successful company that’s rooted in a culture of respect and trust. In fact, it tends to lead to higher engagement and productivity at all levels — ultimately leading to better business results.
When it comes to driving a culture that supports well-being, our research shows that 16 percent of what matters most to employees is a trustworthy organization.
3 ways to overcome vulnerability in the workplace
These tips come from our book club’s reading of Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. We worked with COURAGEworks, Brené’s online reading community, to help transform the way we lead.
1. Bask in joy (don’t run from it)
Joy is a feeling we should invite into our lives with open arms. However once within arm’s distance of joy, we flinch and turn away. Instead of celebrating when something great happens, we assume things are too good to be true and disaster is lurking nearby.
“Foreboding joy” is the concept of how we try to protect ourselves from being caught off-guard. We’d prefer to be disappointed by our own hands rather than have fate beat us to the punch. We can’t allow ourselves to feel joy since it leaves us open and exposed. Dr. Brene Brown suggests “Don’t squander joy. Stop allowing yourself to turn joyful moments into seeking despair.” (p. 126)
How ridiculous would it be for an Olympian on the podium who just won the gold to be thinking “What if I didn’t win Gold? What if I don’t deserve this?”
That’s basically what we’re doing when we withhold joy from ourselves. Bask in joy instead of running from it. Joyful moments don’t come every day.
2. Set boundaries
We all struggle with anxiety from time to time. Your job’s “busy season” is inevitable and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with work.
A noteworthy tidbit from Dr. Brown’s research on anxiety notes how participants defined the problem of anxiety: Group A sought to find ways to manage and soothe the anxiety, while Group B attempted to change the behaviors that led to anxiety.
Group A: “I make a pot of coffee after I tuck in my kids so I can take care of all the emails between ten PM and midnight. If there are too many, I wake up at four AM and start over again. I don’t like getting to work with any unanswered email in my inbox. I’m exhausted, but they’re answered.”
Group B: “I’ve simply stopped sending unnecessary emails and asked my friends and colleagues to do the same. I’ve also started setting the expectation that it might take me a few days to respond. If it’s important, call me. Don’t text or email. Call. Better yet, stop by my office.” (p. 143)
It’s clear that the Group B participants value their time and self-worth enough to establish clear work-life boundaries. They understand how important it is to put their foot down and claim “these are my rules of engagement.”
Set boundaries. By doing this, you might upset some people or risk being known as the person who doesn’t email back immediately. However, you’ll get to dictate how you live, work and communicate rather than put other people’s interests above your own. It’s a liberating feeling to reclaim your turf.
3. Keep your shadow comforts in check
“Shadow comforts” are what author and personal growth teacher Jennifer Louden calls our numbing devices. Dr. Brown adds, “When we’re anxious, disconnected, vulnerable, alone and feeling helpless, the booze and food and work and endless hours online feel like comfort, but in reality they’re only casting their long shadows over our lives.” (p. 146)
Shadow comforts can be anything — food, alcohol, video games, a website, an app. It’s worthwhile to take a moment and understand what shadow comforts you turn to when feeling stressed, anxious or helpless.
Ask yourself: are these activities fostering my well-being or are they convenient distractions from addressing certain emotions? Keeping these shadow comforts in check during stressful periods is one more way to shed your vulnerability armor and begin living a fuller life.
For many of us, it’s hard to be open with our feelings and emotions. We shut off emotions because we’re afraid of what people may think of us — that we’re weak. It takes courageous leaders like changemakers to embrace vulnerability to create a productive, supportive culture.
3 benefits of embracing vulnerability in the workplace:
1. A culture of trust
Trust plays a significant role in vulnerability. In order to be vulnerable, we need to feel trust. Growth in relationships requires two people to open up and share with each other all of who they are, not just the good. And this requires trust. So how is this done in the workplace?
Trust is a two-way street. Employees need to know they won’t be punished if they take care of important personal priorities at work and that the organization has their best interests in mind. And employers need to know their staff won’t take advantage of flexible well-being policies. A supportive and safe work environment is directly linked to respect and loyalty between peers and employees to the company. Break down barriers and be vulnerable. It’ll open you up to build beautiful and meaningful relationships — in and outside of work.
Vulnerability drives innovation in the workplace. According to Brené Brown, an expert on vulnerability and research professor at the University of Houston, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” The best ideas are cultivated in an open, collaborative and meaningful exchange. Every time a new idea is brought to the table, vulnerability is present.
Create a workplace environment where vulnerability is not only accepted but also encouraged and supported. People will have the courage and confidence to think creatively, express new ideas and explore curiosities.
Teamwork is built on a foundation of trust and the ability to be vulnerable with others. If you can’t be open or feel safe in a room with your coworkers, how do you expect any work to get done? The most effective and successful teams are ones who don’t punish team members for speaking up, taking risks or disagreeing. Disagreements are going to happen. In fact, they should be encouraged. But in order for a disagreement to be productive, open, honest and respectful, communication is key.
As a changemaker, you can set expectations for your team by letting team members know it’s OK to speak plainly and provide feedback. Without authentic, vulnerable communication, you can’t foster teamwork.
When you allow vulnerability and remove uncertainty in the workplace, you can create a more dynamic and sustainable culture of trust, drive innovation and teamwork. As a result, you’ll see security, respect and more engaged employees which leads to better business results.