From the moment we apply for our first job, the drumbeat of putting the best foot forward and showing strengths begins. Throughout your career, you’re competing against other candidates for that job, project, promotion, or other opportunity. Sharing that you don’t know what the heck to do next doesn’t seem like the best idea.
Vulnerability in the workplace is a misunderstood concept, says Peter Bregman, founder of leadership consultancy Bregman Partners and author of Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most Important Work. It’s not oversharing unnecessary travails, being falsely modest, or making the issues all about you and your concerns, he says. Rather, vulnerability is sharing relevant concerns, uncertainties, or requests for assistance, which insecure leaders are often reluctant to do.
But that kind of openness could be exactly the emotionally intelligent solution you need to move forward, says leadership expert Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work: How Vulnerability Unlocks Creativity, Connection, and Performance. “Most of us believe that vulnerability is weakness,” he says. “Vulnerability is risk, emotional exposure, and uncertainty. If you think about those three things, there’s really nothing meaningful or important that we can accomplish or experience in our lives, both personally and professionally, that doesn’t require one, two, or all three of those things.”
Here are four ways vulnerability can help you in the workplace:
It makes you seem stronger
When you show vulnerability by admitting that you don’t know something or that you need help, you appear stronger. Bregman says that’s because you have the confidence to admit that you don’t know everything, but are willing to reach out for answers.
“The people who don’t have a lot of self-confidence, don’t often afford themselves the ability to be vulnerable. But the people who do have a lot of self-confidence, are actually willing to show more of themselves, right? They’re willing to be vulnerable because they’re not afraid that someone might come in and take advantage of that,” Bregman says.
It makes you more authentic
If you’re a leader in an organization, there is no better way “to evoke and inspire commitment from the people around you and connection than to feel like a real human being with them,” Bregman says. Vulnerability helps keep you “relatable” and connected, and teams work much harder and more effectively when the members feel connected to each other and the person leading them, he adds.
Showing areas where we don’t have all the answers shows people that we’re human. It also allows them to try to help or contribute, Bregman says. Pretending that you have no weaknesses or areas of uncertainty makes it hard for people to connect with you because it rings false, he says. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Showing the weak spots is part of who you are and an act of trust in the people around you.
It strengthens culture and performance
Before he began working in leadership development, Robbins was a professional baseball player with the Kansas City Royals. His experience there taught him a valuable lesson about vulnerability. Before games, he would get so nervous, he was nauseated. “But I looked around at my teammates and nobody looked as nervous as I felt,” he says. “I sucked it up and kept it to myself.”
Later in his career, as he worked with professional baseball players, he realized that most everyone else was just as nervous. They were just hiding it. But if they had been able to acknowledge the feeling, it may have reduced the stress and let them focus on the game, he says.
Robbins points to Google’s study that employees need “psychological safety” to contribute their best work. “In a study of its teams, Google found that psychological safety–the ability to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed–explained why some teams outperformed others,” says Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth in a recent Fast Company piece by Stephanie Vozza. That ability to feel safe sharing their feedback is critical to allowing employees to collaborate and contribute their best work, Robbins says.
It invites solutions
When you shift from you having all the answers to the collective team having all the answers, you shift the innovation dynamic, Bregman says. Employees feel valued and part of the process. Because you’ve inspired trust, your team feels more invested in solutions and is more willing to contribute, Bregman says.
Courage is a muscle you build, Robbins says. It isn’t always easy to show others where your weaknesses are. But, if you begin practicing vulnerability in small ways–asking for help on project or seeking trusted feedback before making a decision about which you’re unsure–your relationships will be better than if you pretend you always have the answers, he adds.