Leading with vulnerability is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Here's what you need to know about what leading with vulnerability means for you and your company:
- Making some missteps is part of running a business, but being transparent about them is what will earn you respect along the way.
- Providing employees with direct feedback on their work and giving them the tools they need to improve boosts satisfaction as they hone their skills.
- When everyone in the room is comfortable speaking up, experimenting, and making mistakes, big ideas start to bloom!
Vulnerability is the feeling of uncertainty or emotional exposure we get when stepping outside our comfort zone. Leading with vulnerability can show up looking like you’re:
- Showing your softer side
- Admitting you can (and do) make mistakes
- Being transparent with your team
Although we tend to associate vulnerability with emotions like fear, shame, or uncertainty, vulnerability is a powerful tool for making connections and meeting organizational needs.
When leaders are willing to be vulnerable, authentic, and get out of their comfort zone, they create a safe environment for employees to do the same. Being uncomfortable helps us grow, and leaders who show up as their authentic selves create organizations where anything is possible.
What does it take to lead with vulnerability?
When business leaders show their feelings, own their shortcomings, and acknowledge mistakes, employees perceive them as more trustworthy and reliable. In fact, employees who are asked to describe their favorite leaders use words like humble, transparent, and willing to ask for help.
Vulnerable leaders boost engagement, reduce turnover, and motivate their team — all of which positively impact the bottom line. According to researcher Brene Brown, leading with vulnerably means:
- Showing up to tough situations and being willing to give honest feedback. Don’t put off conversations about issues with projects, initiatives, or teams. Show up, be compassionate, and tell the truth.
- Acting out your values and making sure your behaviors match your beliefs. If you want your team to focus on the details, make sure to fine-tune your own work too!
- Trusting in your team and being trustworthy yourself. Build a team you trust, and show that you trust them. Relax your control on a project and allow team members to demonstrate their individual leadership skills.
- Learning to pick yourself up if things go wrong. If a project doesn’t go as planned, be transparent with your team about what you could have done better and what you plan to do differently in the future.
Vulnerable leadership isn’t about appearing weak, oversharing, or playing a role. Instead, it’s about being authentic, operationalizing your values, and recognizing your own humanity.
Practicing vulnerability in your leadership
So what does vulnerable leadership look like? Leading with vulnerability is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s also about stretching your limits, taking risks, and creating a workplace where employees aren’t afraid to grow. Vulnerable leaders create the feeling of psychological safety, which happens when members of your team know it’s okay to take interpersonal risks. When everyone in the room is comfortable speaking up, experimenting, and making mistakes, big ideas start to bloom!
Vulnerable leaders create the feeling of psychological safety, which happens when members of your team know it’s okay to take interpersonal risks.
Bringing more vulnerability into your small business is easier than you think. Here are a few ways our leadership team at Zenefits practices vulnerability:
1. Be honest
Being honest at work means not only owning up to your mistakes but also being willing to make them. “People respect those that take risks,” explained Jeff Hazard, Zenefits’ SVP of Sales. “Part of being vulnerable is putting yourself out there.”
It takes courage to show up to an uncertain situation, have a challenging conversation, or tackle a problem with an open mind. Sometimes you want to put a conversation about your employee’s performance off rather than risk hurt feelings. Sometimes you’d rather avoid discussions around product issues or low sales than being the one to address them.
Being willing to jump in and get messy, even if it means admitting you were wrong, can save time, and potentially lead to better outcomes.
“Sometimes you just need to come out and say it,” said Hazard. “Look, this program we rolled out didn’t work. We made mistakes, and now we’re trying to fix them. Heck, what we tried isn’t working, and we’re going to shut it down.”
Making some missteps is part of running a business, but being transparent about them is what will earn you respect along the way.
“I’m in sales. We make mistakes,” Hazard emphasized. “I’ve had to fix comp plans, lower quotas, or lay people off because we overhired. Most of the time, people already know there’s an issue, so get the elephant out of the room. People will respect you for that.”
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2. Leading with vulnerability means accepting who you are right now
Feeling threatened or insecure in your identity or role can lead to behavior like information hoarding, gossip, or micromanagement, any of which have a negative impact on your company culture. Instead, leaders should focus on accepting who they are and where they have room to grow.
“Lead with authenticity,” Hazard said. “It’s important to ask yourself, ‘am I okay with who I am?’ If the answer is yes, then you won’t feel exposed as a leader. None of us are perfect, and people seek real, raw, and genuine connections.”
When you’re running a small business, it can be tempting to ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’ However, leading with integrity means staying true to yourself.
- Admit what you don’t know
- Ask for help when you need it
- Own up to your mistakes
No one is perfect, and leaders need to be comfortable with themselves the way they are.
“I think too many leaders think they need to be perfect, and they put up a facade. People see through that,” Hazard added. “[Then] it’s even worse for the leader because they are constantly in fear of not living up to the image they project. So for me, I’m comfortable with who I am, and I shoot the way I see it.”
When you accept yourself ‘as is,’ you also leave space for improvement. Operationalizing your values and putting plans into action is easier when you can acknowledge your weaknesses and strengths.
3. Build a team you trust (and that trusts you!)
“Now that we are working more on our own in separate spaces, the hiring process is becoming increasingly critical to building a team,” said Shaun Wiley, a Senior Vice President at TriNet Zenefits. “If you hire the right people for your culture, you can build trust. With trust, you can develop a team. As a leader of a strong team, it is much easier to attain your goals.”
Trusting your team takes courage — especially if you’re putting big decisions in their hands. However, hiring the right team members goes a long way.
“Hiring people who have intellectual horsepower, are naturally curious, self-starters, and do not compromise on ethics allows a leader to trust that the right actions for the business will be taken,” Wiley said. “Asking someone to lead a project that ultimately will impact thousands of customers and potentially billions of dollars of transactions requires that you trust this person. I also need to be trusted as a leader.”
Being vulnerable means trusting in your team members to get the job done. However, it also means showing up in your own way to create an environment that feels psychologically safe.
“When things don’t go as planned, as they often do not, the team leader needs to feel confident and comfortable in communicating with me the issues in an open and honest fashion,” Wiley added. “Sharing my concerns and personal thoughts without a false sense of security or arrogance allows mutual trust to grow. Ultimately it is my responsibility as a leader to own every decision made by the people I work with.”
At the end of the day, Wiley said leaders should ‘trust, but verify’ when getting comfortable with their team. “You need to let the rope out slowly. Trust is built over time, with wins and losses. Take the time.”
4. Learn from mistakes
According to Brene Brown, getting back up after failure is a skill best taught before setbacks happen. When plans fail, we can feel shaken, angry, and tempted to create our own explanations or reasons why. These explanations are often more of a reflection of our fears than of reality, and being able to stay objective goes a long way.
Vulnerable leaders can not only admit to their mistakes but also learn from them. Being curious and attentive helps leaders face the facts about what went wrong and approach the situation differently. This means paying close attention to the circumstances, your actions, and the actions of your team — which can sometimes be a challenge when working remotely.
Leaving room for open (and non-judgemental) discussion about failures during a project can help your team not only learn from their mistakes but also learn it’s safe to make them.
“With an increasingly geographically remote workforce, leaders cannot “walk the halls” and learn from personal interactions,” Wiley explained. “I find myself reading the faces of my coworkers in two dimensions and listening to the changes in their communication tone to determine whether the team is in a healthy place.”
Leaving room for open (and non-judgemental) discussion about failures during a project can help your team not only learn from their mistakes but also learn it’s safe to make them. Providing employees with direct feedback on their work and giving them the tools they need to improve boosts satisfaction as they hone their skills.
Becoming a vulnerable leader
When leaders show up with authenticity, honesty, and trust, they create positive working environments where team members aren’t afraid to be themselves. Being vulnerable takes courage, but it’s a must for getting outside of your comfort zone and helping your organization and yourself grow.