The Power of Vulnerability

LaL executive coach Marc-Andre Olivier explores the power we gain by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in the workplace.

It was the standard CEO kick-off speech launching our WeLead training program. My client (the CEO) came in and spoke to his team about the transitions they were facing as an organization, what some of their goals were and how LaL’s leadership training aligned with that. He mentioned to the group that he and his senior team had been through the training themselves, and described how it had dramatically changed the way they worked together; the value gained beyond the workplace and the significant difference it had made in his personal life. He then encouraged his team to take full advantage of the opportunity available.

He was just about to wrap up when someone asked if he would be willing to also give an example that illustrated how he had benefited from the program at a personal level.

The CEO looked down for a moment, and in a very simple, straightforward way shared that his way of interacting with his ex-wife had been creating tension for their son. The room suddenly grew very still.

He had been able to get clear on the pain he still had from his divorce and the anger he was holding towards his ex. He recognized how this led to behaviors that weren’t consistent with the kind of father he wanted to be for his son. He couldn’t change what had happened in the past, but he had moved forward to create a better relationship with his ex-wife in ways that honored both his own values and his hopes for his son.

He didn’t try to hide the tears in his eyes, and his authentic emotion was clear. Every person in the room sat in rapt attention.

Long after the CEO had left the room, the power of his words were still present. Many times during the following days people referred to this moment.

I saw him as a real human being.”

“That was inspiring.”

“I feel really great about being a part of his team.”

“That was a huge learning for me to see that kind of honesty.”

Many shared that they had always been afraid of showing their vulnerability because of how others might perceive them. They were surprised to see that the judgment or loss of credibility that they imagined not only didn’t transpire, but that the opposite reaction took place. People felt more warmly towards the CEO, more motivated to follow his encouragement and more connected to him as a leader.

Brené Brown – whose TEDx talk on vulnerability went viral – summed it up when she stated that we all struggle to be vulnerable because we think of vulnerability as a weakness even though when we witness people being vulnerable, we think of them as courageous.

This experience reminded me of how vulnerability is as inevitable to being human as the fierce efforts we make to hide it. Too often we become invested in the appearance of “having it all together” despite the uncomfortable truth that no one actually does. So we numb out and live in fear of the judgment or loss of credibility we would face if we showed one another the messiness of our imperfect selves.

Although we feel momentarily safer, the real costs are found in how we feel unsafe, become a threat to each other, and that when we shut down the “bad” feelings, we lose out on the good ones too… like joy, gratitude and connection. And when it comes to people, at work or anywhere else, connection is everything.

By the end of that training, no one really remembered much about what the CEO said in that 20-minute speech, but the memory of that moment of deep authenticity remained vivid. With its cascading effect, his simple statement had more impact on creating a culture of openness, candor and authenticity than anything else he said about it before, while at the same time reinforcing his position as a respected leader. Who would call that weak?

How has being vulnerable been an asset for you in the workplace?  We would love to hear your comments.

  1. Janet Lassiter says:

    Often times people don’t try to translate good practices from the workplace to the home. There is usually something to gain from trainings other than workplace improvement.

  2. Vanessa Chang says:

    The way I do it at work is to let my employees know about my personal life to some degree. They have been over to my house, had dinner with my family and I have even taken a few small fishing trips with a few. All of this helps keep me as a real person and not just the boss trumpeting orders each day. In the end, this approach has worked best for me. But then again, I am not power hungry.

  3. Patrick Boyle says:

    Who would call that weak? Not me. At least not this situation. The thing is that a boss needs to show vulnerability, but in the right way.

  4. The Circuit says:

    When I accepted my first job as a teacher straight out of universtity, I worked for a lady that showed absolutely no emotion toward anything. People feared her and the first thing they did was look for her car pulling into the school. It wasn’t until a few years after I left that job that I heard of her getting sick. It made her vulnerable and more human. She stayed on and beat her illness as well as became more positive influence on the workers and students than she had ever done before her illness.

  5. Poptart says:

    Not sure about the workplace, but being vulnerable helped my wife fall in love with me. At least that is what she says. She said it made me more likeable and real. How romantic, right?

  6. Robyn Shapiro says:

    It’s important to feel connected to your leader. Vulnerability by both parties can help make the connection. To get the most trust and the most repect, you have to show you are a real person.

  7. Melinda Phillips says:

    The fact that the CEO was able to come up with a personal situation on the spot helped his credibility. If he declined or stammered on, people may not have taken in what he said.

  8. Brian Olenik says:

    Vulnerability can be both a good and a bad thing in the workplace. Here, it worked out as to improve the working situation, but it could also do the opposite. Often times a leaders vulnerability can lead to an uprising. I guess this would be bad for the boss, but in the end, maybe it’s best for the company if he/she is replaced with a more complementary player.

  9. Jack Barton says:

    I think vulnerability in the workplace needs to come with time. It’s okay to be human, like we all should, but too much too soon might just make you look weak.

  10. Jon Davis says:

    Marc-Andre, this is a great story. I was so connected to your writing when you spoke about his vulnerability. Ever since LaL I began to open up to others about struggles I have had and it always makes for closer relationships. It also has a sense of freedom. Loved this post so keep up the great work!

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