Strength in vulnerability: Transforming work culture

What does it mean to be “vulnerable” in a business environment?

In the past, being vulnerable as a company had a singular meaning: It meant you had a weak spot. A flaw your competition could exploit to your demise.

Today, thanks to bestselling author Brene’ Brown, we’ve begun to focus on vulnerability’s other meaning. A way of behaving, relating, that would reveal our concerns, weaknesses and flaws, in an attempt to understand one another and as a result, deepen connections.

This is sufficiently difficult to do in our safest places, with a best friend or a spouse. Traditionally, behaving in this manner at work would have been professional suicide, and I imagine it still is at some companies.

However, over the last decade or so, many business executives increasingly have embraced vulnerability in leadership. At Simon/Myers, we believe in Servant Leadership. Servant Leadership is all about putting your team’s needs first. Their victories become your victories. Their advancement, your advancement. And just as often, their struggles, your struggles.

To really know what your team needs, they need to be vulnerable. They need to talk about their needs and trust you as their manager/leader. They need to believe that you won’t turn their honest disclosure of their challenges against them. The trick here is that vulnerability really only works as a two-way street.

How much trust will they give someone that claims to be perfect, only sharing what makes them look good?

I feel compelled to briefly mention what Servant Leadership isn’t. This process doesn’t absolve leaders from leading. Decisions still need to be made quickly and with authority. But these choices should be fully informed on the needs of the team members they will impact. It also doesn’t mean we hold back on honest feedback. In fact, we are compelled to hit hard issues head-on when they are exposed.

What is the practical benefit of this commitment to open communications? From my experience, it is the candid exchange of information that helps us understand each other at a deeper level. As a result we know what motivates each other, what drives us to succeed or what might be hindering our progress. The information gained provides the basis for effective collaboration, coaching or 360 feedback.

The hardest part in this process? Having new hires believe they are in a safe place where they can share, fail, learn and try again. Depending on how long someone has been in the workplace it typically takes 18 months to two years before they fully embrace this way of working.

As you might expect, this discipline doesn’t come naturally to everyone. So when you hire, you should screen for people that have a high emotional intelligence. Empathy and vulnerability go hand in hand.

Does it always work perfectly? Absolutely not. It was really difficult to build this type of rapport during COVID and fully remote work. “Zoom” doesn't help build trust. Does this approach always lead to mutual success and happiness? No.

Sometimes we can’t find mutual ground that leads to success for all involved. But, if we manage the process right there are fewer surprises. We can honestly say we’ve done all we can to help everyone succeed.

Conversely, seeing my team advance and overcome hurdles in their professional life is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Of course, our motivation isn't fully altruistic. Having staff that advances in their career helps with retention and feeds our pipeline for future agency leaders. In short, it is good business.

I believe the reason fewer executives and managers put this type of leadership style into practice is that they fear they’ll appear weak. I’m sure that operating from a position of power or superiority is still the norm.

If you believe business is a zero-sum game, then you should stick to that approach. However, if you see how your colleagues’ mutual progress can raise the tide and lift all boats, I suggest you consider the power of being vulnerable.

Lou Simon is the principal/founder of Simon/Myers, a marketing agency with offices in Wheaton and Chicago.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.