What Is Vulnerable Leadership and What Are the Benefits?

The word ‘vulnerable’ is defined as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” or “Open to attack or damage.” It is no wonder then that we look at vulnerability as a negative, especially when we are talking about leaders in the workplace.

Brene Brown, a social psychologist who studies courage, vulnerability, and shame, disagrees. In her 2010 TED talk, she posits that for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, and this requires vulnerability. In her book, Dare To Lead, she invites leaders to embrace vulnerability and courage cultures into their work culture.

Vulnerable leadership encourages openness in the workplace. These leaders admit when they are overwhelmed or when they don’t have all the answers. Here’s why you should embrace vulnerable leadership:

It helps to build stronger bonds in the workplace

The relationship between manager and employees is critical, and depending on how it stands, it can lead to positive results or totally alienate staff. Positive employer-employee relationships lead to increased productivity, improved morale, faster conflict resolution, and employee retention.

By being open, vulnerable leaders are better able to engage with their staff. This, in turn, opens the floor for employees to demonstrate similar behaviour. As a result, trust, which is crucial to forming stronger teams, is built. Brene Brown believes that “the behaviors that people need from their group almost always include listening, staying curious, being honest, and keeping confidential information.”

Vulnerability can be inspiring

As a leader, you are looked at by your team as the one with all the solutions. If you are a good leader, your employees will look up to you. And while your winnings will inspire them, they will also benefit from hearing about your failings and mistakes and what you learnt from them.

Sharing your own vulnerable moments can encourage your team to feel like they, too, will overcome the challenges they are facing. This hope and positive belief in their future can act as a strong motivator for employees.

It can foster innovation

By being vulnerable and admitting that you don’t have all the answers, you open up room for others to share their ideas. With open dialogue and input from the team, you can discover new and innovative solutions. However, this can’t happen in an office where people are afraid to share their ideas.

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It helps to de-stress the workplace

In the 2006 film, The Devil wears Prada, employees quickly clear the hallways when their boss arrives. They are so terrified of her that they do not want to run into her unless it is absolutely unavoidable. People will keep their heads down in such a stress-filled environment.

Stress interferes with concentration and can be a trigger for numerous illnesses. A vulnerable leader puts people at ease, and this allows them to do their best work.

Vulnerability can reduce turnover

According to a study by Mathew O’Connell and Mei Chun King, the cost of turnover goes far beyond finances to include loss in productivity and morale, among others. Therefore, companies employ several measures to counter it. Vulnerable leadership can be one of them.

Vulnerable leadership fosters trust, making employees feel like they are part of a family and part of the company’s journey. This can encourage loyalty and reduce turnover.

When vulnerable leadership fails

Because vulnerable leadership registers results, companies have tried to embrace it, sometimes with negative consequences. One of the reasons for this is when it is built on inauthenticity.

Employees can tell when leaders are using vulnerability to gain sympathy or pity. And as opposed to eliciting trust, this will have the opposite effect.

It takes a while to build relationships between employers and their staff, and trying to fast track that with vulnerability will not reap the rewards you hope for.

When leaders fail to toe the line between being vulnerable and oversharing, they might not get what they expect from vulnerable leadership. Vulnerable leadership doesn’t mean being overly personal.

A trick to employ is to ask yourself if what you are sharing will help your staff or if it is just meant to make you look more sympathetic than you actually are. If it is the latter, then you need to course correct.

In some cases, people can interpret genuine vulnerability as a lack of competence. Employees might feel that by a leader sharing their weaknesses, they are not entirely up to the task.

Vulnerable leadership

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Characteristics of a vulnerable leader

They care

Vulnerable leaders care about their employees beyond just the job. These are the types of leaders who will call an employee with a sick child to find out how they are doing or even go to the hospital to visit them. They do this because they genuinely care and not because they see it as their duty.

They ask for help

It can be hard to say, “I don’t know,” especially when you’re a leader. But vulnerable leaders, unlike their autocratic counterparts, continuously ask for help from their employees. In addition to showing their human side, this opens the door for employees to showcase their skills too. It also encourages others to ask for help when they need it.

They take responsibility for their mistakes.

In some companies, it is common for leaders to take the glory when things go right and blame someone else when they go wrong. However, to err is human and vulnerable leaders own up to their mistakes and even apologise. While this might not be easy, it helps to build trust with employees.

They are transparent

They share their processes and their journeys and reveal the good and the bad. They are open about the challenges they face and how they overcome them and ask for employees also to share.

They don’t just share about their personal lives; they share about the company too. Vulnerable leaders will share their insecurities about the company’s future as well as good news and their hopes for it.

In Summary

Vulnerable leadership creates a culture of trust. By truly embracing it, leaders lessen the burden of carrying their teams alone and empower employees in the process.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.