It's okay not to be okay: The importance of vulnerability in leadership

Compassion and empathy have never been so intrinsic to organizational strategy

It's okay not to be okay: The importance of vulnerability in leadership

Vulnerability has always been seen as a weakness. For decades in society we have been taught to hide our vulnerabilities and only focus on our strengths. But with a major shift in the way we work in the past two and a half years and a strong focus being shined on mental health, people are more comfortable talking about their vulnerabilities and trying to find ways to deal with them.

“There has been a massive shift in the past five years towards vulnerability as a crucial leadership skill, which was accelerated by COVID,” Rowena Millward, co-founder and principal at MacMORGAN Next Practice Growth, said. “Every person has fears and insecurities, as well as strengths and capabilities – we are wired for fear and growth.  In the past vulnerability, or the sharing of fears and imperfections was perceived as weakness and incompetence.

“But in fact the opposite is true. You need great strength to be open and honest.  The benefit of peeling back your armour is it creates deep trust and connection.  It makes you human and relatable, and encourages others to do the same, which in turn creates deep trust across teams, promotes inclusivity and psychological safety.  It motivates people to feel accepted and contribute their best in the workplace, both individually and together.”

It is okay to be vulnerable

Expressing your vulnerabilities in the workplace was always seen as a self-sabotage career move. Now it is seen as an honest attempt to get your work colleagues to understand who you are and that you may need assistance in some form or another.

“Vulnerability is something we need to relearn in the workplace,” Millward added.  “Senior leaders today have had decades of signals that you only show confidence, excellence and solutions.  This is probably what got them promoted.  It’s what they have been role modelled from leaders when they were younger.  It’s what they have been rewarded for.

“These skills are still valuable - no one is saying to fall in a heap and share every fear you have ever felt - but there can be balance.   No one has all the answers all the time.  Vulnerability is sharing that part we have been taught to keep hidden, when appropriate.  And it’s important to do this in an authentic way – as people can sense when its fake.  Its showing up as a whole person, who still at times has doubts and insecurities, even when they are highly capable.”

Breaking down the barriers

Vulnerability helps people relate to each other as it breaks down barriers between job titles and seniority in an office and allows everyone to feel comfortable in undertaking their daily duties and in conversations.

By showing our vulnerable side we are signalling to everyone in the office that we are human, we make mistakes and we have insecurities about many issues.

“By being vulnerable as a senior leader, you then give permission for others to be vulnerable and share,” Millward said.  “It makes it safe, builds trust and shows that vulnerability is a strength to be valued, rather than a weakness to be hidden.  Just try it.  You will find it reduces unproductive competitive behaviours and siloes, and instead promotes empathy, inclusivity and  creativity.  All the things organisations need - especially in the context of high change, when you need the full integrated talents of your people to collaborate and create new solutions.”

The role of human resources

Human resources has a vital role to play in the role of allowing and encouraging individuals to show their humanity in the workplace. By understanding someone’s personal values and fears, it enables protocols to be put in place that will make for a better and safer culture.

“COVID collapsed the artificial wall between professional and personal lives – and people loved this aspect,” Millward added.  “Seeing dogs and kids in the background.  Learning who leaders were at home.  It is now time to take the next step and learn to be comfortable with being vulnerable.

“Human resources can coach leaders on simple ways to get started by sharing what their personal values are and what they have learnt from past mistakes; what keeps them up at night and what has been an area of development they have struggled with.

“Human resources can help leaders understand when vulnerability is appropriate and how it can help them connect more deeply with employees.”

By having a more empathetic workplace it allows people to work more harmoniously together and builds collaboration, which ultimately leads to goals being achieved quicker.

With stronger trust employees feel more confident in their work and aren’t scared to ask questions for fear of ridicule.

“We all have fears, flaws and imperfections, so vulnerability makes everyone more relatable and motivates us to be open and help each other, which creates high performance,” Millward said.

Being vulnerable may just increase productivity in your company. Who would have thought?

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