Vulnerability at work, a weakness or strength?
I have no doubt you will recognize this situation…
You walk in, or nowadays login, to the meeting and everyone looks at you. All waiting for you to have an answer to their questions, to solve that one problem or to lead them through that labyrinth of challenges. With them I refer to your stakeholders, your employees, your clients, or really anyone that in any way depends on you for solid advice and/or leadership.
This of course is fantastic if you have all the answers or dealt with a certain situation successfully before, and even more so when everything in your life and organization runs smooth. But let’s be fair, nothing in life always runs smooth. We face many challenges. Often times challenges behind closed doors that no one knows about, simply because we are not comfortable sharing those.
Experience has taught most of us that being vulnerable in front of others can be very risky. We can get hurt ego-wise, looked down upon or laughed at.
So now, what if a challenge occurs during or on top of an already stressful time and you do not know how to fix it? Let’s face it, we live in a fixit world. We have little tolerance for uncertainty or discomfort and tend, or more so are expected, to move quickly toward a resolution.
Therefore, possibly one of the most difficult parts of being a leader is learning to see that not always having an answer is NOT always a weakness.
Many of us have been raised to think that not immediately having a solution as a leader means that you’re not a good leader. Hence why many of us cover up our weak points and try to avoid certain situations in order not to lose face.
It takes a very brave leader to let his or her guard down and to allow themselves to be vulnerable. Telling your team or stakeholders you don’t have an answer to their or THE problem, often times is a challenge in itself.
More than ever, we read and hear about worries, stresses and insecurities. However, we are still far from finding that safe environment within organizations where we are allowed to be vulnerable, where we can talk about our insecurities and stresses.
I am sure you have laid awake at night, have become more distant and more quiet or maybe even the exact opposite, agitated and tense, at times. This often not only disturbs your effectiveness and the efficiency at work but even eventually always boils over into your private life. We cannot deny that burnouts have become very common these days. But what if we can minimize this?
What if we stopped seeing vulnerability as a weakness? Pretending to be strong all the time absolutely serves no one, unless maybe when you are in the middle of a life-or-death fight.
What vulnerability really means is that you are being authentic.
To be truthful about who you are and how things you have experienced have affected you.
Opening up is without a doubt the greatest vehicle, the opportunity, to connection and with that the fastest way to a solution. Sure, it may be terrifying at times, but brave always.
You have to realize that not creating that safe environment in your organization for people to open up, can actually result in a much bigger risk. It can for instance lead to someone taking sick leave which is not only quite a cost for an organization but often also leaves a mental scar on the affected person. It can even go as far as Brand reputation damage, insider threat, or worse.
Let me be clear here. In NO way I mean oversharing and offering every detail of your life up for consumption by anyone with a head. If you are facing true personal challenges than the right place for that is a counselor or psychologist.
I am talking about sharing work, organizational-related challenges you are facing. Research has shown us that frustrations and stress overrides logic thinking. Often times sparring, sharing experiences or brainstorming with those in your team, who are all eventually going to benefit from delivering a good product or result, can be very insightful, as well as bonding. With that you create an atmosphere of trust.
What you are really showing the people you work with is that you are human and that you are brave enough to admit that you do not always have all the answers. With this you open a door for a safe environment for the other members of your organization. You allow them to see that it is okay to not always have all the answers and that together you really are stronger.
We have put too much weight on the word vulnerability and have mainly seen it as something negative. So, it’s time that we start to see that opening up is actually a strength and not a weakness. AGAIN, there are times to be guarded and sharing real psychological challenges are often times better shared with a counselor or psychologist, but when you have a good team around you and things are challenging then try to open up and share your worries and stresses.
A really good current example to illustrate this vulnerability that I am talking about is Covid, which hit us all out of the blue. Although horrendously disruptive in almost every way, it has offered us an amazing opportunity to create that safe environment. Nobody in your organization will think you're weak when you now tell them that you’ve never anticipated anything like this and that you have no clue about what's going to happen next.
It requires unbelievable strength to come into a meeting and say: “I'm struggling with this Covid thing, I'm not sleeping, and I fear that I'm not there for you guys the way you need me or maybe expected me to be, and I'm not sure what to do at this moment.”
Again, being vulnerable doesn't mean broadcasting everything. What it means is being honest about the daily challenges.
It’s totally fine for a leader in this time to say, at this moment I don't know what the future looks like. I have a vision, I think I know what it takes to get there, but I know I can't do it alone. It's going to take all of us, and I need us to be a team now more than ever.
Creating a safe environment, you do with starting small. You don't have to go crazy with big ideas and tasks or heavy themes. Just be open to each other’s ideas. Leadership really is, here's a plan and WE might have to adjust along the way. As leader, you need to create an environment in which it is safe for your team members to expose their vulnerabilities.
Luckily the brain can be your best ally in this situation.The hippocampus is the part of your brain which involves memory and learning. It helps us put situations into context, based on our experiences, so we know how to react and when it’s ok to express our vulnerability. It’s the hippocampus which will help you overcome fear by drawing on the memory of similar circumstances in which you managed yourself well. Sharing experiences, and with that sharing your expertise for others to learn from, builds trust as also respect. This trust releases Oxytocin, a hormone that helps build trust and bonding. With that your team gets more confidence, feels valued and will as a result deliver better.
What that means for leaders is that you may need to build opportunities for success into the process of exploring vulnerability. It means that you may need to help your team members notice what is happening to them during those moments of vulnerability. The more mindful they are during those moments, the more information is stored in the hippocampus, to be drawn on later, as they need it.
Cortisol is also responsible for stopping the production of new neurons in hippocampus. This, as mentioned before, is the part of the brain that stores memories. Stopping that production can affect decision making, working memory and control of impulsive behavior. The first step in overcoming these negative feelings is to recognize that this is a normal emotional state. Although it's super uncomfortable at times, the negative feelings, especially when shared, will pass. Fighting the anxiety can actually make it stronger. Paradoxically, accepting that you are feeling anxious helps activate the body's natural relaxation response.”
What often times helps is to go out for a 10-minute walk and even better to have someone with you on your walk that you can share your stress and worries with. Even chewing gum or singing when you feel uncomfortable or stressed before sharing something can help. Research has proven that exercise and oxygen flow does relax tense muscles that have become tight and rigid when you experience stress. Exercise delivers oxygen to the brain, vital organs and muscles immediately and produces endorphins that soothe your mind and with that your body. Also, one simple breathing exercise to start with is just by inhaling as deep as you can for 4 seconds, holding it for 4 seconds and then exhale as long as you can has the ability to shift your focus, get’s you re-centered and can change your perspective.
As you can see, this all cannot only be a great change for your team, department or organization but it would even be very effective to implement this in your personal life.
Would you like more information or guidance about creating that safe environment and become THE LEADER OF THE FUTURE?