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How to Be Vulnerable: Guidelines and Resources

Copyright Carter McNamara, Authenticity Consulting, LLC

Sections of this Topic Include

What is Vulnerability?
Why is It So Important to Be Vulnerable?
Does Being Vulnerable Mean Being Weak?
Guidelines for Being More Vulnerable in Life and Work
Examples Where You Could Show Vulnerability
What If Being Vulnerable Backfires?


What is Vulnerability?

Definitions

We all have a sense of what vulnerability is, but not all of us have the same impression. For example, many people especially confuse vulnerability with weakness. We'll clear up that confusion later on in this topic. First, let's get a common impression of what vulnerability is. Wikipedia states that vulnerability is:

".. to have one's guard down, open to censure or criticism; assailable. Vulnerability refers to a person's state of being liable to succumb, as to persuasion or temptation."

Brene Brown, a well-known researcher, author and speaker about the importance of being vulnerable defines vulnerability as:

"uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure".

Four Types of Vulnerability

Brene Brown explains there are four types of vulnerability, including:

  1. Vulnerability: The willingness to speak up -- to be seen -- despite what might happen.
  2. Trust: The courage to trust others and to earn their trust in you.
  3. Rising skills: The resilience to keep trying, even after you have failed.
  4. Clarity of values: Translating your values into the behaviors that you will live by, despite the challenges in doing so.

Why Is It So Important to Be Vulnerable?

In our culture, a strong leader is often seen as someone who is always self-confident and assertive, who always knows the answer. For some, it means "my way or the highway". Also in our culture, the best employees are often seen as those who never make mistakes -- or at least, they never admit when they do. In our digital world, we're used to thinking of vulnerability as a weak point in the software where others can intrude and cause us harm.

So the concept of being vulnerable in life and work seems contradictory to what most of us have been taught about what a strong leader really is. Yet, literature about the importance of being vulnerable is increasing -- and for good reason.

  • Vulnerability shows your humanity. People are intimidated to be working for others who seem "perfect" or whom apparently are so fragile that they cannot admit when they are wrong.
  • Courage and vulnerability go hand in hand. It takes courage to admit when you are wrong, to be vulnerable enough to admit that wrong to others, especially to those who work for you.
  • Being vulnerable encourages that in others, too. If you want your employees to speak up -- to be bold -- when they have a suggestion, then you should model that vulnerability yourself.
  • Vulnerability encourages truthfulness in the workplace. The more truthful that you are, the more that others are willing discuss their truths of the workplace. Knowing those realities is critical to the success of any organization.
  • Vulnerability cultivates creativity and innovation. Both of those are the result of making mistakes. It takes courage and vulnerability to admit those mistakes.
  • It takes the pressure off from being perfect. No one is perfect. Everyone knows that. Everyone knows it's a farce to be pretending that we are.
  • It helps you to feel courageous, honest and authentic. That feeling is a foundation for your continued personal growth in other areas, as well.
  • It helps you become more aware of yourself. Without hiding the truths about yourself to yourself, you are more open to seeing who you truly are.
  • It can help to retain employees. One of the biggest reasons that people quit their jobs is because of poor relations with their supervisors. Good relations can start with being human - being vulnerable.
  • It builds trust. Others see you as being authentic -- one of the foundations for building trust.
  • It can give you more energy. Hiding your flaws and untruths can be exhausting.
  • It helps you to be more flexible and adaptable. Hiding from truths and ourselves keeps us rigid and inflexible. Being human helps us to bend with the wind, rather than breaking from it.
  • It shows accountability when we admit our mistakes. That can be contagious to others -- to be accountable for themselves as well.
  • It helps to solve your own problems. Often, when we read advice columns in the newspaper, the advice is simply to respectfully state what you see or feel -- to be vulnerable.
  • It cultivate forgiveness. Research shows people are more willing to forgive others when they sense authenticity and repentance in them.

Does Being Vulnerable Mean Being Weak?

Being vulnerable will be the same as being weak to you if you truly believe that people should be perfect -- if you truly believe that others will only accept you if you are perfect, as well.

That illusion of perfection might temporarily impress others. It might gain you a relationship built on the illusion of perfection. It might gain you a promotion in a culture where one mistake can ruin your career.

Actually, being vulnerable is being strong and courageous. It's admitting who you are. It is weak to not have the courage to admit what you are seeing, hearing or feeling.

3 Myths about Vulnerability
"Vulnerability Is Not Weakness" and 4 Other Lessons from Brené Brown
Let’s Get Real. Vulnerability is Not a Weakness, it’s a Strength
Vulnerability Is Not A Weakness, It's Core To Effective Leadership
New Slant on Vulnerability: Strength Not Weakness

Guidelines for Being More Vulnerable in Life and Work

Do

  • Be vulnerable when there are occasions to do so. See the examples below.
  • Start by being more vulnerable when there are occasions to do so with people whom you trust.
  • Strive for a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. A growth mindset sees mistakes as opportunities. A fixed mindset sees mistakes as a flaw in your character and capabilities.
  • See the video The Power of Vulnerability.

Don't

  • Don't overdo it. Don't keep mentioning that you're practicing vulnerability. That makes it seem like you're doing it as a matter of duty.
  • Don't stage it. Don't ask others to show examples of being vulnerable. That, too, makes vulnerability a duty, rather than a natural act.
  • Don't share endless details about a mistake that you made. That seems like you're working hard to show you're vulnerable, rather than merely being vulnerable.
  • Done's share information primarily to get a reaction from others. That's being a performer, not a vulnerable person.
  • Don't tell all your secrets. Vulnerability should be a healthy way for for you to be, not a way for you to get reactions from others.

Additional Perspectives and Guidelines

Why Being Vulnerable at Work Can Be Your Biggest Advantage, According to Brené Brown
Why It’s Time to Take Off Your Workplace Armor
Being Vulnerable Is the Boldest Act of Business Leadership
Why Embracing Vulnerability Is Crucial to Workplace Success
The Importance Of Being Courageously Vulnerable At Work
Vulnerability in the Workplace
Being Vulnerable Can Make You More Successful at Work—Here's How
What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable
The Strength of Vulnerable Leaders
4 Ways to Unmask Vulnerability and Become a Stronger Leader
The Best Leaders Are Vulnerable
Yes, Being Vulnerable Is Terrifying—But Here's Why It's So Worth It
4 Powerful Things Leaders Should Know About Vulnerability
The Leadership Power of Vulnerability

Examples Where You Could Show Vulnerability

Obviously, you should use your own judgment and sensitivity about when to be vulnerable. For example, you might not be vulnerable with others who are extremely upset or angry. You might not be if the situation is very likely to bring harm to yourself or someone else.

Notice that the following examples also imply the courage and the authenticity that it takes to be vulnerable.

  • If you are wrong about something, then say so.
  • If you are struggling with something, then admit it.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed, then admit it.
  • If you made a mistake, then admit it.
  • If you have an idea that might not work, then share it.
  • If you see someone doing something that might be unethical, then say so.
  • If you see someone doing something that clearly is unethical, then assert that.

What If Being Vulnerable Backfires?

Vulnerability is a mainstream topic in literature, especially about leadership in the workplace. Like any other popular topic, it can be overdone. It can cause an increasing number of skeptics and cynics to grow tired of even hearing the word.

Vulnerability can backfire if it is not a natural act associated with a genuine occasion for being vulnerable -- if it appears to be an act done merely as practice or duty.

Authenticity is the key ingredient for showing true vulnerability. It can backfire if vulnerability is all you talk about, or something that you continually brag about. Others can quickly sense that you are not being authentic.

There will be those who, when you are being truly vulnerable, will conclude that you are being weak. Or, they will conclude that you are merely practicing the latest fad. Then it helps to ask yourself: How much are those people truly a benefit to my life and work? They should not be a hindrance to your being whom you truly are.

When Vulnerability Backfires: How to Move on With Grace and Courage
When Vulnerability Backfires
When ‘Being Real’ Backfires
Vulnerability Vs. Over-sharing: Where to Draw the Line?
Being Vulnerable at Work Can Backfire
Stop Trying to Be “Vulnerable.” Do This Instead (Two Types of Vulnerability)

Also consider

Authenticity
Building Trust
Empathy
Emotional Intelligence
Forgiveness
Handling Difficult People
How to Improve Yourself
Motivating Yourself
Personal Wellness
Self-Awareness
Self-Confidence


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