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vulnerable
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The Art of Being Vulnerable

Tuesday, October 20, 2015
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Leaders need to be authentic and transparent. However, when there is a crisis, people want leaders who are decisive. They want leaders who are calm in the midst of a storm and can bulldoze their way through failures and mistakes.

Mastering the art of being vulnerable as a leader requires you to recognize that exhibiting your vulnerability isn’t appropriate for every situation. Could you imagine a battalion commander leading his troop into battle while recounting his concerns about their previous lack of success? That’s not the way to rally the troops. But if this same leader chose to recount his own trepidation the first time he entered into battle and how he overcame it, then that would be an appropriate measure of vulnerability. There’s a time and place for sharing your doubts, failures, anxieties, and fears. Certain situations allow for it and others don’t. As a leader, you need to know which is which.

Similarly, there are people with whom you cannot be vulnerable. Exercising wisdom and discretion are key behaviors when it comes to being vulnerable with peers, employees, and clients; there’s an old saying that you don’t bleed around sharks. Yet, vulnerability is a fundamental element of trusting relationships. So, if you want to build solid relationships that will survive any transaction, you need to master the art of being vulnerable. The following four keys will help.

Key 1: Check Your Motives

Whenever you’re thinking about sharing something personal, controversial, or confidential, consider the five Ws:

  1. Why do you want to share? 
  2. What response are you trying to elicit by sharing? 
  3. Is this the right time to share (when)? 
  4. Is this the right environment for this type of conversation (where)? 
  5. Who benefits from you sharing (you or others)? 

Whenever the sharing primarily benefits us, vulnerability might not be the best course of action. While sharing may relieve the stress that you feel, it may create or elevate the stress in others in a detrimental way. When being vulnerable, our motives should never be to elevate ourselves and make ourselves feel better. Our goal for sharing should be to help others and should contribute to moving forward toward a defined goal.

Key 2: Heed the Change Potential

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Like it or not, as a leader, you set the tone and vibe for the team or organization. Your actions and your words have impact. Bringing controversial, uncomfortable topics into the spotlight by sharing your personal stories can pave the way for crucial conversations that lead to dramatic change. We should not hide from vulnerability when our people or our community can benefit. Here, refusing to share in order to protect ourselves and our reputation comes at the expense of others. In this instance, we should use the platform that we’ve been given for good.

Key 3: Evaluate the Impact

A leader’s vulnerability can carry with it collateral damage. Sharing marital conflict with your team may draw you closer to them, but it may create an atmosphere of confusion and distrust. Others who don’t know you may draw erroneous conclusions based on what they hear (and they will hear). Sharing your concerns about the competition and the company’s current situation may earn you the reputation of being a transparent leader, but constantly sharing these concerns may kill morale, destroy staff confidence, stress employees out, and lead to apathy.

Your goal with sharing should always be balance. You want to create trust, but you also want to build confidence. It’s okay for people to know that you struggle with anger, for instance, but it’s not OK for you to discuss it so much that it becomes their issue. It’s okay for people to know that you have sleepless nights at times. It’s not okay to dwell on your sleepless nights in such a way that they become a defining characteristic—or so that employees believe they need to emulate this behavior to succeed in their roles.

Key 4: Weigh the Cost

Being vulnerable comes at a cost. Once known, things cannot be made unknown. You also cannot control with whom the information is shared. You may ask for confidentiality, or for people to use discretion. However, you have no control over that which you’ve shared. So, before you tell a personal story, ask yourself whether it’s okay if your employee shares it with her spouse, and the spouse shares it with friends, and so on. If it is, go for it. If it’s not, then you may want to refrain from sharing.

A similar weighing of cost has to occur when it relates to organizational information. Employees will leave; that comes with the territory. Employees will share information and stories with other employees; that’s the nature of work relationships.

So, the art of being vulnerable all comes down to this: Follow the four keys and C.H.E.W. on it. Make sure that you’re being vulnerable for the right reasons—so that your vulnerability is a positive experience for those you manage and lead.

About the Author

Tiffany Crosby is an entrepreneur, author, writer, researcher, and trainer with more than 20 years of practical business experience. A graduate of Duquesne University and Franklin University, Crosby founded Petra Learning LLC in November 2011 after approximately 14 years at Ernst and Young LLP, where she was an executive director responsible for business advisory services. She combines her passions to develop fun, engaging, and innovative learning solutions for teams and companies. 

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