At a glance
By Beth Wallace
Empathy and authentic vulnerability have become vital in the workplace, and both are often regarded as key leadership traits.
“Although vulnerability has historically been perceived as a sign of weakness, it simply means expressing what you think about an issue or topic or how you authentically feel when you don’t know the outcome or how it will be received,” says Phillip Ralph, managing director of leadership development company The Leadership Sphere.
Ralph believes that workplaces have a lot to gain by building “open” cultures, particularly when it comes to eradicating toxic behaviours, such as bullying and harassment.
“I think vulnerability and authenticity lie at the root of human connection,” he says.
“They are the antidote to poor behaviour, but I think a lot of it gets closeted away, because people don’t have a voice to speak up.”
Championing authentic vulnerability can deliver many other benefits, too.
When leaders normalise asking for help, taking ownership of mistakes and sharing feedback, it forges deep connections among teams – making people more likely to listen to, cooperate with and trust each other.
“It also makes people more relatable,” says Ralph. “It demonstrates their humanity, in that they’re not perfect either.”
Vulnerability enables open and robust discussions, in which people are not afraid to voice ideas that go against the grain.
Ralph adds, “Being able to build stronger teams that are honest with each other can really catapult them into a whole other level of performance.”
Driver of innovation
American research professor Brené Brown is arguably the world’s biggest advocate for vulnerability. She has been singing its virtues for decades, most famously in her 2010 TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability.
While describing vulnerability as “the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity and love”, Brown also sees it as essential to innovation.
The team at 3D body scanning and data insights company Bodd understands Brown’s message all too well. As pioneers of 3D body scanning technology, Bodd has established a culture that views vulnerability – and particularly failure – as an essential component of growth.
“Innovation requires a certain level of creative thinking and a really tenacious approach to problems,” says Rob Fisher, CEO and cofounder.
“But it also requires a large propensity for calculated risk and an acceptance that there will be failures along the way.”
Since launching Bodd in 2016, its founders have strived to make their team comfortable with failure. In the early days, this included weekly “Clangers and Bangers” sessions, during which employees were invited to share their mistakes and wins.
While they have since refined the forum to focus on the company’s major deliverables, Fisher says the sessions are still an opportunity for staff from the top down to publicise their challenges.
“This ensures that everyone has visibility over what other people in the company are doing, but also gives them a finger on the pulse of the cadence and success – or failures and challenges – that have been faced along the way.”
Vulnerability, however, is not exclusive to challenges. For Fisher, it also means celebrating wins – and other people – in a genuine and humble way. Authentic leaders, he says, should be open to giving praise, showing appreciation and acknowledging that they are not always the experts.
He says that he and co-founder Dave McLaughlin intentionally surround themselves with people who are “smarter” than they are.
“It is our job to be the cheerleaders and get really smart people in their domains to come in, take ownership, perform like guns, and then be proud of the work they’re doing,” he adds.
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Teaching teams to be vulnerable
Customer relationship management company HubSpot has featured high on the list of Glassdoor’s best places to work in recent years.
This is largely due to its commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive community where every person can do their best work and show up as their authentic selves.
Vulnerability is part of the operating system at HubSpot, and the company offers training opportunities and tools to help employees develop it as a skill. Managers, for example, are equipped with diversity, inclusion and belonging discussion kits to help them foster authentic conversations about tough topics.
Likewise, “failure forums” allow HubSpotters to share stories about the mistakes they have made and the lessons learned from them.
The goal is to build a psychologically safe work environment where new ideas are both encouraged and expected, explains Kat Warboys, marketing director (APAC) at HubSpot.
“It’s been well documented that employees who feel motivated, purposeful and supported at work are more likely to bring positive outcomes to their teams and work hard for those around them,” Warboys says.
Warboys believes workers should be able to choose where they want to sit on the vulnerability spectrum.
“It’s about creating a safe space for sharing, connection and not feeling like we have to be perfect.”
Ralph agrees, adding that leaders should honour employees’ sharing styles and preferences, making allowances for different cultural backgrounds, histories, experiences, tenure and a range of other factors.
“We can only do that by connecting with people and understanding who they are as individuals,” he says, “rather than taking a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”