If you’re new to a leadership position, you may feel like you have to be confident at all times. But vulnerability—when you show and express emotions—belongs in leadership. Being vulnerable creates a healthy and open work environment, where employees feel free to share ideas and problems. Learn how to be more vulnerable as a leader, and all the ways vulnerability can change your team for the better.
We know how important collaboration, trust, and connection are in the workplace. As a leader, you want to promote those values—but it’s hard. Because in order to create that type of culture, you need to be honest—and vulnerable—with your team.
Vulnerability is when you leave yourself open, showing and expressing your emotions. And every time you practice being vulnerable with your team members, you build trust and stronger relationships.
Vulnerability is emotional exposure. In leadership, vulnerability is when you show your emotions to your team and coworkers. This does not always mean big, showy expressions—like crying or angry shouting. Instead, vulnerable leaders are more like a quiet observer who are very in touch with the emotional pulse of the space they’re in. For example, you can show vulnerability by assigning a team member who wants more responsibility to a work task you’ve always managed.
Vulnerability used to be portrayed as undesirable or as a weakness, but that conversation has changed over the last decade. Partially thanks to Brené Brown, a bestselling author and shame researcher whose 2010 TED Talk on vulnerability has been viewed 58 million times. Clearly, she struck a chord. And it makes sense, because she showed how vulnerability can influence really important human experiences, such as compassion, connection, and even joy.
The power of vulnerability is that it forges a more genuine connection. When you show up as you are, you allow others to do the same. Benefits of being a vulnerable leader include:
Increased trustworthiness. By being open, you’re allowing your team to know you in a more authentic way. When you’re authentic with others, it makes it easier for them to be honest with you, which builds trust.
Employee engagement. Employees who trust you are more likely to be engaged in their work. When your team knows they have a reliable, engaged manager, they’re more likely to also show up reliably and engaged.
More productive teams. When teams are able to be honest with each other about conflicts, they can quickly deflate potential issues by being vulnerable, sharing, and asking for what they need. As a result, they can get the problem resolved and the work done faster.
Psychological safety. Great leaders create safe emotional space for their employees to share and be seen.
More courageous team members. Vulnerability is scary. By practicing it with your team, you’re creating an environment with more courageous team members who are more willing to take risks and be more creative.
Increased emotional intelligence. Vulnerability makes you more empathetic and compassionate, which builds your emotional intelligence.
Contrary to how it sounds, you need to establish boundaries in order for vulnerability to work. As Brené Brown wrote, vulnerability without boundaries isn't vulnerability. Ultimately, vulnerability in leadership is still vulnerability at work—and as such you need to keep it professional.
For example, maybe you have something in your personal life that’s impacting your leadership. You know you’ve been a bit off recently, and you feel like sharing it with your team will help them to get more context about your life. And, you don’t want them to think that your distraction has anything to do with their work. It’s fine to share a version of this with your team, but it’s not appropriate to repeatedly share about it, complain, or use it to excuse poor behavior (for example, yelling at a team member).Read: 15 types of employee performance reviews (with templates and examples)
Being vulnerable does not mean you’re always sharing. Vulnerability also means you know when to step back, listen, and let go of some control. This can be especially hard for leaders who are always expected to deliver high performance work.
Active listening helps you to not just hear the other party, but really absorb what they’re saying. It can be very vulnerable to take a step back from speaking in a conversation, especially if you’re used to being the loudest voice in the room as a leader. But the benefit is that you’re able to learn more about your team, their work, and be a better support to both.Read: Listening to understand: How to practice active listening (with examples)
Leaders often feel like they need to be able to tackle anything that comes their way. But you’re still a human being, and part of being vulnerable is showing that sometimes you need help. Asking for what you need is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign that you understand your workload and your team. It helps to move your projects forward, reduce delays (because you’re getting the support you need), and avoids resentment that can come from being overworked. Plus, every time you reach out to a colleague or team member to ask them for support, you’re empowering them to step up and take control of the work.
There is a fine line between oversharing and being vulnerable. The tricky thing is, oversharing can have an adverse effect, making others feel uncomfortable or closed off. To get it right, practice being vulnerable in a safe space. For example, you can form a group of friends or colleagues where you practice expressing vulnerability. You can also work on vulnerability with a business coach or a mental health professional if that feels more comfortable.
Being vulnerable means showing more private parts of yourself, but that doesn’t mean you need to share everything. Knowing the root cause of what’s bothering you will focus your interactions on what’s actually happening, allowing you to have more productive conversations. To be more vulnerable, you want to have the self-awareness to know how you feel and what you’re comfortable sharing.
For example, if your colleague shares an idea you both came up with but doesn’t give you credit, you might have an emotional reaction. But instead of sharing that emotional reaction (“I can’t believe you didn’t include me!”), it’s more beneficial to have a conversation around this with self-awareness. In other words, what’s really bothering you about this experience? Sharing the honest reason behind why it’s important to you that you’re mentioned when you collaborate will likely turn into a more productive conversation.
Empathy is seen as an increasingly important leadership skill. It’s one thing to know what others are experiencing, but it’s another to understand and share this experience with them. This is empathy, and it allows you to connect with your team in a more personal way.
For example, if your direct report has fallen behind on their usual workload, it’s tempting to get frustrated or feel like they’re doing something wrong. An empathetic response would be to ask them why they’ve fallen behind, and if there’s a way you can support them. Maybe they have something happening in their personal lives, or maybe their workload was just too much and they didn’t know how to tell you. Opening up this conversation with empathy will encourage them to share the truth about what’s going on, and make it easier to find a solution.Read: Why it’s time to prioritize your emotional intelligence
Vulnerability is a skill that can be learned. And it’s worth it. Having the courage to be vulnerable will make you a better leader, colleague, and employee. Ultimately, vulnerability in leadership isn’t just about getting something off your chest—it’s the best way to connect with, engage, and support your team.