The problem with vulnerability

April 9, 2021
Jeff Couillard

Ever since Brene Brown’s 2010 TEDx talk “The Power of Vulnerability”, and her subsequent books “The Gifts of Imperfection”, “Daring Greatly”, “Dare to Lead” and others - there’s been a growing interest and conversation about the role that vulnerability plays in creating psychological safety, deeper and more meaningful connections and higher performing relationships.

So we’re clear, we’re big fans of much of Brene’s work on topics of shame, vulnerability and the fundamentals of belonging and connection.

And, as with any popular topic or concept, once it hits the ‘mainstream’ it easily morphs into the realm of generic advice - overgeneralized, unhelpful and sometimes downright harmful.

When vulnerability is helpful

In her book “The Story Compass”, author Colleen Stewart discusses the different types of stories that leaders can (and should) learn how to tell. One particular type of story, the Knowledge story, is an essential ingredient in helping people navigate through uncertainty. And knowledge stories rely heavily on the ability of the storyteller (often a leader or guide) to be vulnerable and transparent. To talk about the screw-ups, the misfires and the plans that went awry. To “admit when we’ve messed up”, as Colleen so pointedly reminds us.

The power of vulnerability, when used to encourage ownership of mistakes (and using mistakes as learning opportunities), is profound.

When leaders are vulnerable, they help to create the conditions for psychological safety - an essential ingredient in high performing teams.

But like all things, vulnerability has a shadow side. One that we need to acknowledge and be mindful of, especially when in positions of power and leadership.

When vulnerability is harmful

A quick story to set the stage...

Years ago, I was working with a team of leaders in the midst of a major transition (a new CEO was starting). In the first senior leadership team meeting, the new CEO sat down and promptly disclosed to the group of leaders sitting around the table that they “weren’t sure why they were hired, were uncertain as to whether or not they were going to be effective in their role and that they were relying heavily on the expertise of those sitting around the table.”**

Needless to say, this level of vulnerability shocked and dismayed the team of leaders. The chatter for months afterward continued to be one of questioning the competency of the CEO.

What was wrong with this display of vulnerability? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Be “authentic” and open about all of our inner thoughts and feelings?

In a word, no.

In the above story, the incoming CEO failed to account for a critical component of the relationship that they were stepping into - the ‘power dynamic’ component. In a hierarchical relationship, the person in the “up” power role (in this case, the CEO) has a different set of responsibilities than the person in the “down” power role (in this case, everyone else in the room).

This different set of responsibilities is what makes vulnerability such a tricky thing to navigate. Leaders who assume that “all vulnerability is good vulnerability” are prone to accidentally and unintentionally misusing their power, placing the other person (in the above instance, an entire team) into the position of supporting them and their needs, instead of the other way around.

Vulnerability from a leader, when it places an unfair burden of responsibility on those being led, is vulnerability misused.

Questions to consider before being vulnerable

Below are a handful of questions that would be worth considering prior to jumping into a vulnerability conversation with someone you lead.

  1. Who is this vulnerability for, really?
  2. Am I being vulnerable to get my own needs met or to model it for others?
  3. What do I expect or want the other person to do with my vulnerability? Do I expect them to fix it or take action to help me in some way?
  4. Will sharing this information help or hurt the development of psychological safety within the relationship?

“Vulnerability is the essence of connection, and connection is the essence of existence.”

— Leo Christopher

To be clear, we’re not suggesting that you shouldn’t be vulnerable and show your whole self to the people that you call your team. In fact, a lot of our work is helping teams of leaders show up more authentically and stand more firmly in their power.

This post is simply a reminder to be mindful of that power - to exercise your vulnerability with care and intention, so you don’t accidentally and unintentionally misplace your responsibilities and burden the people you’re there to support in the first place.

Questions? Thoughts? Feedback? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from you!