Vulnerability is the spark that ignites innovation, learning, creativity and meaningful change
By Jumol Royes
The thought of being vulnerable – uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure – can be terrifying for most people, especially in the workplace.
Picture this: You’re on a Zoom call with your team discussing a sensitive issue that you’re super passionate about when you feel yourself getting a little emotional and tears start welling up in your eyes. You have two options. You can either turn off your video and mute yourself so your co-workers won’t see you cry because you’re afraid of being judged, or you can stay in the moment and let the tears flow unapologetically, signalling that you care deeply about the issue at hand and feel safe with your teammates.
Which option would you choose, and why? Think about what that says about your workplace culture.
For many organizations, vulnerability is still a taboo topic. Employees feel pressure to be a jack or jill of all trades and there’s often no room for emotion. That pressure can be internal and take the form of unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves while comparing ourselves to colleagues. Or it can be external and look like demands from a difficult boss or client to make them look good 100 per cent of the time. Having to please, perform and perfect at work can be draining and it definitely doesn’t sound like a good time.
Starting a new job is a true exercise in vulnerability. I would know because I’m experiencing it firsthand as I’ve recently stepped into my role as director of communications and community engagement for Elevate Media Group and its publishing arm, IN Magazine. Ours is a small, but mighty collective and I received a warm welcome from day one. It helped that I already knew everyone having worked with the team before. But I still had those first day jitters.
Being a new hire can sometimes feel like being a fish out of water. It takes time to get up to speed on best practices and procedures, meaning you don’t have all the answers (uncertainty). You undertake tasks with the real possibility that you might make a mistake and need to ask someone to point you in the right direction (risk). To connect with your co-workers on a deeper level, you must be willing to show up as your authentic self (emotional exposure). This is what vulnerability in the workplace looks like.
Before you start thinking that employees are the ones doing all the heavy lifting here, let’s be clear: A healthy workplace culture can only be created when management and senior leadership model vulnerability, too.
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author and popular podcast host who believes that success is helping others to succeed. Grant has a cult following on Twitter with close to 600K followers who look forward to his daily nuggets of wisdom and inspiration.
One of his recent tweets speaks to the role leadership can play in modelling a workplace culture that encourages and rewards vulnerability:
“Leadership is not boasting about what you know. It’s having the confidence to admit what you don’t know. You don’t need to assure people that you have all the answers. They just want to know that you’re committed to finding a solution – and capable of guiding a group toward it.”
Leaders who aren’t know-it-alls. How’s that for a novel idea.
Vulnerability recognizes that we can’t know everything while at the same time making room for unlearning some of the lessons we’ve picked up along the way. Many of us learned things in our families, in school, from friends and in the media that no longer serve us. We all hold old, limiting beliefs about ourselves and what’s possible that we do well to shed.
Then there are the things we’ve been told and taught about how to show up in the workplace. From what is and isn’t considered “professional” to outdated organizational hierarchies and corporate chains of command, we need to ask ourselves who benefits from these social constructs and then decide if we have the courage to challenge them and create something better.
Despite the stories we tell ourselves to the contrary, vulnerability is at the core of the human experience, even in the workplace. It’s the spark that ignites innovation, learning, creativity and meaningful change.
Daring to be vulnerable in the workplace is not for the faint of heart, so let’s do it together.