Melinda Gates made headlines when she read her employee’s critical feedback in front of them. By doing so, Gates demonstrated that it’s okay to be vulnerable, show her own weaknesses, and work towards improving together. This is vulnerability.
When it comes to organizational culture, we often consider the importance of output or performance factors like clarity or autonomy, but the human side of culture goes ignored. Vulnerability can help organizational dynamics for the better or hinder them when absent.
A recent Catalyst survey highlighted that only 39% said their manager displayed openness. And 24% said their manager was vulnerable.
We can ask ourselves:
- What does it mean to be vulnerable at work?
- Why is it so important?
- How can organizations model and encourage Vulnerability?
What Does it Mean to be Vulnerable at Work?
Imagine if a direct colleague came to you with a task they couldn’t figure out. They explained how they tried a few solutions but were frustrated because they kept failing. How would you react? Would you be curious to listen? Try to understand what they are doing and help them find a solution? Or laugh in their face, judge and leave them to figure it out?
In a well-built organizational culture, we would help our colleagues. Though sometimes we think others won’t do the same. It takes some vulnerability on our part to start the process.
Broadly, vulnerability means opening ourselves to emotional, physical, or psychological risks. It involves being honest and authentic about our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Vulnerability is often associated with feelings of uncertainty, exposure, and discomfort. It requires trust and courage to show our true selves to others, especially when rejection or judgment is possible.
It’s ok to say, “I don’t know,” “I messed up,” or “I’m struggling,” or ask for help.
Vulnerability in the workplace is doing the same with colleagues, managers, or employees in a professional setting. It involves expressing ourselves authentically, admitting mistakes, asking for help when needed, and even sometimes sharing personal stories that may reveal one’s weaknesses or limitations.
Why is Vulnerability so Important?
Let’s flip the script. Imagine you are frustrated with a work task you’ve been trying to solve but can’t figure out. What would you do? Some people wouldn’t feel safe asking for help in organizational cultures with poor vulnerability. They struggle alone. For those of us that will ask for help, sometimes it requires a leap of faith or internal dialogue to convince ourselves that the person we ask won’t think we are incompetent or lazy. We usually find the help we need and are better off because we solve our issues and connect with colleagues.
Vulnerability can help us develop empathy and understanding for others as we become more aware of our emotions and experiences, helping us break down barriers and creating a more open and supportive environment.
Being vulnerable is essential because it allows us to connect with others, build trust, strengthen relationships, and help us to learn and grow. When we are willing to admit our mistakes, ask for help, and take risks, we are more likely to overcome challenges and achieve our goals.
Vulnerability in the workplace is essential because it does the same among an organization or team members. It helps us create a positive work environment where we feel comfortable sharing thoughts and ideas, leading to increased creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. When it’s high, it creates a sense of psychological safety (the belief that we can speak up without fear of negative consequences) and trust, which must be present to drive high-performance teams.
Like any skill, vulnerability takes practice. It takes time and reps to develop.
In contrast, when vulnerability is low, it can lead to fear, mistrust, and isolation. We may hesitate to speak up, ask for help, or share our opinions, which can hinder collaboration and limit progress. This can also create a toxic work environment where we feel unsupported and unappreciated, leading to disengagement, burnout, and high turnover rates.
How can we Model and Encourage Vulnerability?
So you find yourself in a situation where a colleague comes to you for help while stressed, there are several ways you can model and encourage vulnerability to help them out:
- Accept discomfort: acknowledge that these feelings are a normal part of growth and progress and develop strategies to manage and cope with them in a healthy way.
- Emphasize teamwork: encourage teamwork and collaboration to feel more comfortable sharing ideas and opinions, knowing there is team support.
- Foster psychological safety: improve psychological safety by listening without judgment, responding with empathy, and encouraging open communication.
- Encourage feedback: solicit feedback on how the organization can improve, show appreciation, and follow up with action.
- Celebrate vulnerability: positively reinforce the sharing of vulnerabilities and stories through recognition programs, awards, or simply acknowledge vulnerability in team meetings.
- Lead by example: model vulnerability by being open about struggles and failures to create a culture where others feel comfortable doing the same.
- Provide training: teach communication skills, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution, as they are all skills that can be learned and practiced to help drive more comfortable discussing complex topics and resolving conflicts in a healthy way.
It’s in our Hands Now.
Melinda Gates’s brave act was a powerful example of what can happen when modelling behaviour by letting our guard down and showing our true selves. When leaders like her model vulnerability, it normalizes the behaviour in the organization for all to follow.
Vulnerability in the workplace may seem scary, but it can profoundly impact our relationships and work performance. When we are honest about our weaknesses and allow others to help, we learn faster and achieve more.
By modelling and encouraging vulnerability, organizations can create a culture where employees feel safe to be themselves, take risks, and bring their best selves to work.
Overall, promoting vulnerability in the workplace creates a positive and supportive culture that fosters growth, learning, and success.
Who will you help next?
Jason Boivin, Lead Content Strategist at innerlogic.
Jason holds a master’s degree in Human Kinetics with a concentration in Intervention and Consultation from the University of Ottawa in Canada, is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association, and is a Chartered Professional Coach with the Coaches Association of Canada.
Jason is driven by his passion for helping others succeed in a meaningful way. Through his extensive work with high-performance teams, Jason has developed a deep appreciation for culture and its impact on relationships and results.