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Is Your Vulnerability Making Others Uncomfortable?

The appropriate place for vulnerability at work.

Geeky looking man

A little too vulnerable?

Geeky looking man

A little too vulnerable?

The wonderful work of Brene Brown is inspiring many people to replace shame and self-loathing with confidence, patience, and an acceptance that vulnerability is a part of life whether you resist it or are strengthened by it. I am a big fan of her work.

I believe her work corrects a misguided and harmful message that came from the stoic, stiff-upper-lip generation who kept trying to convince us never to show weakness. The big problem was that more time and energy was going into disguising weaknesses than improving them.

As with any movement that makes a rapid transition from science into popular culture, the vulnerability craze has taken things a little too far. Some of the people talking about “authenticity” today are giving equally bad advice. Time for some balance!

The Original Issue: Too Little Vulnerability

Vulnerability is natural. Unfortunately, many people have learned not to show vulnerability at work. Rather than admitting when they are stuck, or worried, or frustrated, they try to maintain the image that everything is fine—that they are in control.

If you are trying to preserve a false sense of invulnerability, you are missing a very important opportunity to convert your team members into allies. In extreme cases, you’re probably turning them against you. They will be waiting and hoping for you to fail.

Stop deflecting accountability for mistakes onto others. Stop having an answer for absolutely everything. Try not to repress natural reactions such as disappointment, concern, or frustration. Allow yourself to express emotion when you experience it. You will find you create a much greater connection with those around you.

The New Problem: Too Much Vulnerability

So not owning up to vulnerability is probably bad for your health and it certainly inhibits trust from developing on your team. But let’s not get carried away. Expressing vulnerability is good; failing to move beyond your vulnerability can divide you from the rest of your team. If your expressions of vulnerability cause your teammates to question your capability, or make them squirm with discomfort or pity, you’ve gone too far.

Generally, the test is whether or not you continually look to the team for help on an issue without making any changes on your own. If you do that, you have essentially left the problem in their hands. Great team members ask for help when they need it, but they never cede ownership of the challenge.

Stop constantly questioning whether you measure up or not. Don’t make self-deprecating comments hoping that your teammates will prop you back up. Do something to make yourself more effective if you honestly believe you aren’t up to the task.

Vulnerability is a powerful source of connection between people. Although for decades it was seen as inappropriate to express vulnerability at work, we are finally appreciating the benefit of a healthy dose of vulnerability among teammates.

Too little vulnerability can make you seem aloof and reduce the likelihood that your teammates will have your back. Too much vulnerability and the team might try to disassociate with you because you are a weak link. The magic is to get it just right.

The secret lies in having underlying confidence in your worth and then being willing to share when circumstances rattle that confidence. Appropriate expressions of vulnerability at work are ones that demonstrate your humility and your willingness to get help from your teammates. They don’t detract from your ownership of the issues.