Vulnerability in the workplace has been lauded for its role in creating cultures of trust, engagement, and respect. Many leaders say they embrace vulnerability because it allows them to connect with colleagues and team members on a deeper level. Leaders who admit they don’t have all the answers are also able to start open conversations with colleagues and team members, which can cultivate an atmosphere of collaboration and challenge confirmation bias. That’s good for individuals, teams, and companies alike.
There’s no way to “opt out” of vulnerability, especially in a setting like the workplace, where relationships are front and center. “I’ve never been in a business that would be able to serve its mission and reach its goals without relationships,” explains Brené Brown, the author of several books about the power of human connection, “and vulnerability is the glue the binds relationships together.”
But there is a catch. When vulnerability veers away from authenticity, it can tend to feel scripted. And rather than deepen relationships, this dynamic can actually be polarizing and professionally harmful.
Why vulnerability can backfire
Showing vulnerability can backfire when it’s used for the wrong reasons. Studies have shown that people subconsciously register lack of authenticity, which means that trying to script your vulnerability story is a non-starter.
So is using vulnerability to gain pity or, on the flip side, displaying it as a badge of honor without regard for its repercussions on others. In Silicon Valley, for example, failure has become something of a fetishized “bragging right,” especially because founders often bounce back quickly and move on to the next project.
But the collateral is still consequential. Jerry Hum, whose first company failed, said he and his partners bought into the entrepreneurial mantra of failing their way to success, even though, he wrote, “Admitting failure would have saved us a great deal of time, energy, and money.”
Vulnerability can even backfire when leaders have the best of intentions. Take the example of Cynthia, a general manager in a healthcare organization. When she landed a promotion, she told her new team, “I want to do this job, but it’s scary and I need your help.” Her full-disclosure, seemingly authentic style of leadership caused her to lose ground with her employees, who perceived a lack of credibility.
A vulnerability script attempts to “hotwire” connection
Interpersonal connections aren’t made overnight, and that’s why a vulnerability script doesn’t usually have the intended effect. Performing vulnerability is, as Brené Brown puts it, an attempt to “hot-wire” connection.
A vulnerability script has one hallmark quality: people don’t buy it. And because of our finely tuned ability to sniff out inauthentic communication, it’s easy to discredit someone once we get the slightest whiff of it.
Vulnerability scripts are as varied as the people who express them, but some common examples include:
- Oversharing about a personal problem or challenge to build instant camaraderie with the listener
- Communicating without a filter to build a persona of someone who is vulnerable and relatable
- Reenacting moments of embarrassment or failure for an audience in an attempt to gain pity
- Humanizing yourself to a degree that makes others uncomfortable
Understandably, the boundary line between “vulnerable” and “overshare” can be blurry, and it depends on your audience. If a listener thinks, “There is no way I could get away with saying that/sending that email,” you’ve probably gone too far.
How to be real without oversharing
There’s one almost foolproof way to gauge whether you’re being real with your vulnerability, versus enacting a vulnerability script: by determining whether the information or story is helpful to others.
If it’s not, there’s a good chance that you’re performing vulnerability for the wrong reason. Maybe you’re processing a challenging setback, and you want to be transparent with your team about what happened. If your emotions are still raw and your thoughts are still cloudy, however, this is the wrong time to lay it all out there. It’s not likely to be helpful for you, and it’s less likely to be helpful for your team.
But if you’re sharing something that is useful, that’s meant to resonate with others without relying on them to respond in any certain way, your audience can then listen and learn from the vulnerability that you convey. Instead of trying to force listeners to play along with a vulnerability script, you’re presenting an authentic (and yet not unfiltered) side of yourself. To quote Cynthia, the general manager who lost credibility after her full-disclosure admission to her team, being authentic “doesn’t mean that you can be held up to the light and people can see right through you.”
It’s not about going for broke with every vulnerable moment. It’s about developing relationships that incorporate vulnerability little by little, and elevating others–rather than yourself–in the process.
Melody Wilding is a high-performance coach and writer who teaches Human Behavior.