Vulnerability Gone Wrong: How Much Is Too Much?
No one really cares about your title as executive or CEO these days because leadership isn’t reserved for those with a corner office. People care more about who you are as a person and how they can connect and relate to you. Can you be trusted? Are you honest? Are you relatable in any way, shape or form? These are questions running in the minds of those you lead.
Leaders who try to present an image of perfection and having it all together will struggle to win the trust and respect of their teams. It’s an unrealistic and unhealthy approach.
Just a few years ago, the Edelman Trust Barometer identified that leaders’ trust among employees was on the decline. The 2019 findings, however, revealed something slightly different: Employees are ready and willing to trust their employer, but not in the “business as usual” fashion. They are looking to be talked with, not at. They are seeking connection and wanting ways to restore credibility.
With this in mind, evaluate the kind of leader you are to your people:
- How do they feel when they leave your presence?
- Do they feel good about themselves or just good about you?
- Can you relate to the experiences they go through? Can they relate to yours?
- Do they see you as their boss or an emblem of authority?
If all your team sees is someone who tells them what to do—a person they only go to when they need answers—then it is time you take a closer look at your leadership. The No. 1 way to make others feel comfortable with you is by being open and vulnerable. But this does not mean using vulnerability as a healing tool for your unresolved wounds or issues. It simply means stripping the professional mask in a setting where it is not needed or necessary. It involves having the etiquette, respect and understanding of your audience to share ways in which you can relate to the human experience.
Vulnerability is a powerful relationship-building tool, but can backfire depending on what it is that’s motivating you to let your guard down with your team.
For example, I once worked with a leader named Jim who had a desire to connect more deeply with his team. He also struggled to maintain a positive outlook after going through a divorce and wondered what his team members did to stay positive. He took everyone out to lunch one day and asked each person to share what their morning routine was and what they did in their spare time. Jim felt the advice they shared could help him be more positive and begin to approach dating. While his intention was good, his timing and context was out of order. The purpose of his share was primarily about him, rather than building a relationship with the team. Needless to say, the attempt did more harm than good. The team gossiped about his approach behind his back. This is the perfect example of vulnerability gone wrong.
Vulnerability has a purpose which is often driven by a need to help someone else. In the situation above, Jim could have reflected on the following questions to help determine the purpose of what he intended to share:
- Will the story I am about to share help illustrate a point, make a connection or inspire action?
- Is my motive in sharing to feed my ego and make me look good, or is it to truly help someone?
- Will this help them overcome a challenge or effectively work through a grievance?
If the answer to these questions is no, then hold off on the share. Know your audience so you can determine where and with whom the share is most appropriate.
In another situation within a small team, one of the employees (we’ll call him Mike) had a background of being in prison. Everyone knew this and the leader constantly used the background as a reason why she felt Mike could not see things the “correct” way. She constantly used her academic superiority and knowledge to guide discussions often disregarding Mike’s input. Mike already felt labeled and ostracized because of his background. In this instance, here’s what vulnerability would look like: Instead of labeling and making assumptions about him, the leader in this instance could put aside judgment and share a time when she too felt ostracized. This would create the space that the human feelings of isolation were not unique to just him and would have allowed her to connect and use a story to help Mike overcome his challenge and inspire him to action. She could also reflect on the following questions:
- How can I connect with this person without allowing their experiences to cloud my judgment of who they are?
- Am I demonstrating empathy in this moment?
It is easy to put yourself in a position of moral superiority or authority when you see and hear others’ experiences. At the end of the day, people want to feel connected and safe. They want to belong and realize they are not the only ones who make mistakes and who sometimes trip and fall.
Vulnerability is a path to connection, but boy does it feel scary. It does not come easily for everyone. It takes a lot of self-awareness and emotional intelligence for one to become vulnerable with others in a way that builds trust. If you don’t know what you are feeling, how can you share it with others? It’s only when you truly understand who you are that you can build the bridge of connection.
Take some time to understand yourself better, to understand your past wounds and bruises and heal them. Then, work to develop emotional intelligence, which includes understanding your emotions as they happen, and managing them accordingly. From this point, you can be vulnerable and show emotions to others that focus on them without worrying that you may be losing your power and authority by doing so.
As leaders, while we strive to be of service and exhibit humility, we have to face reality in our daily relationships. We will be tested on the principles we believe and, in those moments, we too need role models to look up to so that we can be guided, inspired and taught. Think about the following:
- How would my role model deal with this person?
- How would they handle this situation?
Allow yourself to gain the respect and understanding from your team on a human level. Let them respect and listen to you—not because of the power or authority that you hold, but for who you are as a person. Vulnerability done right can help you create effective and trusting relationships with those who work with you.
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Monique Russell helps leaders and teams practice leadership living from the inside out. She is a professional speaker and an inspirational teacher providing effective communication strategies that reduce conflict, improve productivity, and boost the quality of professional and personal relationships. She is the managing partner of Clear Communication Solutions, and an advisory board member for Leadercast. Connect with her on LinkedIn to learn more.