Jonathan Levy LCSW is a renowned licensed clinical social worker and has spent a lot of time studying courage, trust, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. You may recognize his name if you live in Chicago.
It’s worth noting how vulnerability is defined; Merriam-Webster’s definition is: “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; open to attack or damage.” Who would voluntarily sign up for that? Another definition is a bit softer but still daunting: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
While acknowledging that work can be a hard place to be vulnerable, we spend more than half of our lives in this environment — and no one who lives a happy, fulfilled life was miserable at work. Whether we realize it or not, many business functions are borne of vulnerability, including problem-solving, ethical decision-making, and giving and receiving feedback. So when we embrace and encourage vulnerability instead of suppressing it, authentic connections can form and amazing things can happen.
Dispel the myth that vulnerability is weakness.
There are many connotations around vulnerability that people shy away from, especially at work. Being vulnerable in the workplace has historically been denounced, in some industries more than others. And yes, vulnerability does require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It often means giving up control of the outcome, which many companies fear or even discourage. However, there is no courage without vulnerability. There is no innovation without vulnerability. Changing your attitude and seeing vulnerability as a competitive advantage instead of a blind spot is the first step.
Embrace a culture of belonging.
Company culture comes from the top, so business leaders need to be thoughtful of how they embrace and react to vulnerability. Business leaders should work to foster a culture of belonging where people can bring their true, authentic selves to work — vulnerable and all. This is a competitive advantage. Without belonging, there is suffering, which leads to all kinds of negative business consequences. “When we build cultures at work where there is zero tolerance for vulnerability, where perfectionism and armor are rewarded and necessary, we can’t have productive conversations.”
Lean in to difficult conversations.
Difficult conversations spark growth, but to have them, we must choose courage over comfort. One of the most challenging conversations to arise in the workplace is the performance evaluation. These discussions can be incredibly uncomfortable for both parties (manager and employee), but without them, you remain stagnant. And vulnerability is a cornerstone of effectively giving and receiving feedback. If you’re not open to giving or receiving information that may include uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure, you’re not embracing vulnerability. And without vulnerability, “we end up talking about people instead of to people.”
Level the playing field.
There is a lot of vulnerability in opening yourself up to receiving feedback, but if the feedback giver also shows vulnerability, productive conversations can be had. It’s easy to see managers as the holders of power in a performance evaluation, but managers can level the playing field by opening themselves up for feedback. Asking a question like “How can I better support you?” or “What is an area in which I can improve?” demonstrates to the employee that no one is perfect or has all the answers but that you’re in it together.
Understand you’ll make mistakes in the process.
Difficult conversations are challenging for a reason — there’s no manual. By having them, you may end up inadvertently offending someone, making an assumption or misspeaking. Brené Brown warns, “It’s not a question of whether you have bias or not, it’s what biases do you have, how many, how bad, and how deep?” But this reality is not a reason not to have courageous conversations. So expect to make mistakes, acknowledge them but be open to what you can learn from them.
Brené also has a feedback toolbox for difficult conversations, which can be applied in the workplace. Using the following phrases and conversation starters can help navigate difficult conversations:
The story I make up is… I’m curious about… Tell me more. That’s not my experience I’m wondering… Help me understand… Walk me through that. What’s your passion around this? Tell me why this doesn’t fit/work for you.
Vulnerable is a difficult thing to be in all parts of life, especially the workplace, but there is immense power in doing so. Tell us how you embrace vulnerability in the workplace.