Can we be too vulnerable as leaders?

By February 12, 2020 Uncategorised

As an organisational psychologist in the field of leadership, I am regularly inspired by new ways of thinking about effective leadership and emerging concepts that may be critical for today and tomorrow’s leaders to develop. In the last decade, incredible thought leaders, such as University of Houston’s Dr Brene Brown, have presented compelling arguments about the power of vulnerability in leadership, defined as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”.

In her work, Brown argues that vulnerability creates opportunity, is the basis of innovation, helps our self-worth soar and is critical for building trust and having others genuinely connect with us. Her qualitative research on vulnerability over the last decade has created a global dialogue on the positive outcomes that may be fostered when leaders are vulnerable. 

This is further supported by emerging empirical work and conceptual papers investigating the links between vulnerability and positive outcomes. For example, in one study, disclosure on the part of the leader regarding a sensitive issue prompted reciprocal disclosure aiding a more effective resolution of the issue (Meyer, Le Fevre & Robinson, 2017). Nienaber, Hofeditz and Romeike (2015) identified 49 studies that have referred to vulnerability in the context of building trust at the interpersonal level and proposed a framework for exploring vulnerability in the context of leadership. 

We are working in a time where vulnerability is becoming more and more acceptable, and we are encouraged to bring our ‘whole selves to work’. This means being our authentic true selves, sharing experiences across both personal and professional domains, and giving people an insight into who we truly are; the lines between a ‘this is me at work’ persona versus a ‘this is me at home’ persona are being challenged as we speak. Indeed, studies have shown that if we try and project an image, onlookers subconsciously register a lack of authenticity (Seppala, 2014) and switch off as a result. 

However, as leaders, how do we make sure we harness the power of vulnerability without letting it become an overused strength and potentially counterproductive to the outcomes we are trying to achieve? Can we be vulnerable by sharing our own emotional experiences to the point that others feel uncomfortable? Can we disclose the way we emotionally handle things to the point that others then feel hesitant to approach us for fear of getting us on a ‘bad day’? Can a leader be so self-deprecating in sharing mistakes and fears that it is not perceived as endearing or ‘down-to-earth’ and instead is interpreted as a lack of confidence in the leader? Can we share our worries so much so that others perceive us to lack credibility and a strength to which they aspire? 

Research and anecdotal evidence would suggest that yes, we can. 

And Brown is one of the first to advocate for vulnerability with boundaries. This is really important to think about because as leaders, we can so often feel the push to develop fully in something to the detriment of something else. But rather, it is more important to think about what we can ‘dial up’ or ‘dial down’ in increments, considering the situation and people who we are leading – afterall, our effectiveness as leaders is often reflected in the output and actions of others. 

Here are some points to reflect on as leaders when exploring our own vulnerability and its impact: 

  • Think back to the powerful model of situational leadership proposed by Hersey and Blanchard (1977) and Fielder’s Path Goal Theory (1967) which prescribe the use of different leadership behaviours for different situations and in the case of Path Goal Theory, the leader’s role being to provide what is missing or needed in a given situation. Think about this in the context of being vulnerable – if you are leading a new team and the team requires your technical guidance and direction, your role is to largely be the professional and the expert. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, but recognise when others expect you to be the expert because they need guidance. As Brown asserts, effective leaders do have a select group of people to whom they can confide that they are ‘in over their head’ but it is small and select on purpose.

 

  • Think about your team members’ experience of you as the leader and what state of vulnerability they may be in (as an indicator of how you, as the leader, should respond with your own vulnerability). Reflect on – if I am vulnerable as a leader, does that make others vulnerable? If so, what impact will that have? i.e., can we all afford to be vulnerable together right now? For example, when your team members are engaged in fairly routine, business as usual work and are more emotionally relaxed, it may be opportune to share more of yourself, invest in building trust and mentor and nurture others through sharing your own learnings and failing as a leader, rather than during situations when the team are feeling under pressure or stress. A study by Lapidot, Kark and Shamir (2007) suggested that when followers felt more vulnerable, they reported more incidents of trust being eroded with their leader because of their heightened emotional state i.e., they were in preventative/defensive mode. Kramer (1996) proposed that negative events are more salient than positive events and so as a leader, think about the complex relationship between trust and vulnerability. Vulnerability not only creates an opportunity to trust but also increases sensitivity to negative manifestations of the leader’s behaviour and consequently heightens the likelihood that trust will be eroded (Lapidot et al., 2007). 

 

  • By promoting the importance of vulnerability to effective leadership, are we extending an ‘invitation to struggle’ to others? That is, promoting a view that it is ok to step completely outside your comfort zone, fail, make mistakes and not be perfect? And whilst I completely believe that being uncomfortable, being courageous and making mistakes is absolutely critical to learning, growth, the achievement of our true potential and part of our human experience, how tolerant and accepting are we really of leaders who are vulnerable and struggle in their roles? How tolerant and accepting are our largest organisations and their shareholders? We often talk about celebrating learnings and mistakes and courageous decisions but often when things go wrong, those who were most vulnerable take the hit. As leaders, be clear on how you frame and ‘present’ your vulnerability and the script or messaging around it. Think about what exactly you are being vulnerable in or the areas in which you believe you are being vulnerable. Think about the impact on those around you and what they expect of you as a leader. Think about in what areas it may be ok to ‘struggle’ and be vulnerable and compare them with the areas in which you would be expected to have nil or minimal exposure. The principles of influence (Falbe & Yukl, 1992, Cialdini, 2007) suggest we build status with others by being competent at what we do and adding value. And this status is critical when engaging others to execute our vision as leaders. Reflect on the situations in which status may be compromised, the implications of that and why it would be compromised. Ask yourself – are new situations I am entering an opportunity to be vulnerable and build trust but also a risk to my status? And what are the implications of this? 

In leadership, often balance is key and too much of one approach or one style may become counterproductive over time. We advocate that leadership is a lifelong journey and cycle of building self-awareness or looking ‘within’, learning, application, reflection and critical appraisal of approach and impact. It is really important to think about what we need to ‘dial up’ or ‘dial down’ and thinking about vulnerability with boundaries is exactly this. 

At CLA, we provide psychological products and services for leadership. We work closely with leaders in a coaching context to explore their strengths and when these may become overused or potentially counterproductive unique to them. If you would like to learn more about how we can help develop your leadership, please contact us. 

References

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). The science of persuasion. Scientific American Mind, 14, 1, 70-77. 

Falbe, C. M. & Yukl, G. (1992). Consequences for managers of using single influence tactics 

and combinations of tactics. Academy of Management Journal, 35, 3, 638-652. 

Fiedler, F. E. (1967). A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness. New York: McGraw-Hill. 

Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human 

Resources, 3rd ed. Eanglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kramer, R. M. (1996). Divergent realities and convergent disappointments in the hierarchic 

relation: Trust and the intuitive auditor at work. In R. M. Kramer & T.R. Tyler (Eds.), Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research (pp. 216−245). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Lapidot, Y., Kark, R. & Shamir, B. (2007). The impact of situational vulnerability on the 

development and erosion of followers’ trust in their leader. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 16–34. 

Meyer, F., L Fevrew, D. M. & Robinson, V. M. J. (2017). How leaders communicate their 

vulnerability: Implications for trust building. International Journal of Educational Management, 31, 2, 221-235.

Nienaber, A., Hofeditz, M. and Romeike, P. (2015). Vulnerability and trust in leader-follower 

relationships. Personnel Review, 44, 4, 567-591.

Seppala, E. (2014). What bosses gain by being vulnerable, Harvard Business Review, 

December 11, 2014. 

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