I was sitting on the stoop outside my office in tears. My company was six months from running out of money. Our future hinged on us raising more capital through Series A financing. To say that I had a lot of feelings would be a vast understatement.
When I confided in my cofounder, his response was radical: be completely vulnerable. Share every feeling, every fear, every ounce of my being with the whole company. Initially, I thought he was nuts, but I did it anyway. It ended up being one of the most positive and productive conversations the team ever had. And to top if off, not a single person left the organization over the following, painful months.
I knew that when leaders routinely put on happy faces or stuff down challenges, everyone follows suit and problems fester. Soon, there’s an erosion of trust. Not only is trust important for company morale, but it can positively impact the bottom line. High-trust companies frequently outperform the S&P 500.
Vulnerability is excellent for both the team and the business, and I’m grateful that I chose to take that step. Here are the steps that I took to get myself there.
I started being honest
As humans, we’re both creative storytellers and incredibly tapped into others’ emotions. When we sense an emotion in someone else but don’t know the reason, our brains furiously try to explain it. In doing that, we sometimes catastrophize to protect ourselves from danger.
It’s a hard habit to break. Whenever I’ve contemplated giving candid feedback to a team member, I often envision terrible outcomes. So I enter the conversation tense, and the person immediately puts up their guard. But when I enter a conversation to express my honest thoughts (and be open to a great outcome), people tend to be receptive. When you show vulnerability, you can tackle problems before they fester and stop resentment and fear from building up.
I kept a record of how I felt
Building self-awareness through mindfulness gives you a better sense of where you are in the moment, like when you’re reaching a critical stress level or leaking creative steam. If you keep pushing yourself to the limit or rushing through your day, you can never recharge or rest. That causes problems when you’re making decisions because you’re not doing so from a clear mind.
To build my awareness around my emotions, I keep notes on how I feel and respond to different situations. I also pause throughout the day to take inventory of my body and mind: Do I feel triggered by an event? Was that angry email I received four hours ago the culprit behind the pit in my stomach? When I took a few moments to observe the stress, I noticed that it reduced its effects and brings a sense of clarity when it comes to my motives and actions.
I named my emotions
When you’re honest with yourself, you can recognize and name your emotions. That’s valuable because it’s difficult to be logical when you experience an emotional trigger. But naming what you feel can shake you out of the fog.
For instance, when a client shouts at you or your best employee threatens to leave, your amygdala goes haywire, sending fight-or-flight chemicals through the brain. When you step back and label those responses, the logic that lives in the prefrontal cortex gets into the game and tames the fireworks. It’s like a reset button against panic. To hit that button, I find it helpful to have a reference, such as a list of emotions from the book Nonviolent Communication, that I can use to label what I’m feeling.
I grew my comfort circles
Hardcore vulnerability means taking some risks. Once you’ve named an emotion, it’s time to share that feeling with a trusted friend, coworker, or mentor. Start with the inner circle you already trust, but then stretch a little, and build trust with others to create an outer circle that can offer comfort.
Maybe you’re not ready to share with your manager your insecurity about not being metrics-oriented enough. You can, however, start discussing it with an insightful peer. Once you build a relationship with the fear (and develop a plan to tackle it), you can share it with your manager. Research shows that sharing emotions can help build relationships.
I practiced speaking honestly
Have to share your named feelings with a group? Practicing will help you feel more confident. The trick is to rehearse in front of someone who will give kind but blunt feedback, and practice solo in your office or home.
Practicing in this way can be difficult because it brings up the feelings I’m discussing. But that’s good: If I’m not feeling anything as I talk about it, I know I’m holding back. Once I feel an emotion that I want to share, I know I’m ready.
Being fully present and vulnerable as a leader can be scary. But maybe it should be. After all, that’s what’s so hardcore about vulnerability: challenging yourself to open up to others. But in the process, you get to grow and become a better leader and a better boss.
Tracy Lawrence is the founder and CEO of Chewse, a service that delivers family-style meals to offices from the best local restaurants.