The power of credible vulnerability

Jun 03, 2019

Credible vulnerability is a powerful and often underused tool that offers significant benefits for those who are both brave and disciplined in its application.

Vulnerability, openness and resilience pepper all leadership conversations at the moment. As leaders, we are encouraged to share our softer side, the impetus being that staff cannot be what they cannot see. We model the behaviours of our organisation’s vision to reap the cited benefits, which include a more resilient culture and talent development.

We define vulnerability as exposure to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. However, recent studies have found that well-placed weakness is humanising, as we judge others less harshly than ourselves. Remember when Jennifer Lawrence tripped when accepting an Oscar? The public loved her all the more for it. Recent psychological studies describe such situations as “a beautiful mess”, where we view vulnerability in others as alluring while seeing it in ourselves as a weakness.

I was inspired by a client who was asked to speak to a leadership development group about their career setbacks; how they experienced them and how they ultimately got past them. While fearing brand damage, this client embraced the task and laid open their experiences and their accountability for them. The participant feedback included “inspiring”, “refreshing”, “changed their perspective” but more important was the change it provoked in my client. Being vulnerable and receiving feedback, acceptance and endorsement liberated my client from any lingering doubts about their culpability for past events. It strengthened their resolve to practice credible vulnerability and their ability to do so in the moment. So in this world of spin, where everyone is playing the upside, really embracing vulnerability is a bit like visiting the Great Barrier Reef – if you snorkel, you can say you have been there, but you only really feel the magic if you dive right in. When used appropriately, such well-timed vulnerability can differentiate you and supercharge your personal and professional development. Sharing your vulnerability will:

  • Remind you of what you have achieved, despite the odds (for example, admitting that you hate public speaking but getting on with it by actively putting yourself in that space). This reminder brings to your forebrain the knowledge that you can learn, progress, change and overcome – particularly now that you know so much more than you knew then;
  • Recalibrate your thoughts by sharing past negative experience, which ‘outs’ your fears and mentally ties up loose ends. When faced with career difficulties, we often spend so much time spinning the upside that there is little time left to reflect on our responsibility and its limits. This rush allows doubts to fester inside. For example, I worked with a highly capable and conscientious colleague who, after a setback early in her career, was told: “You are the type of person who is only good at doing one thing; you don’t show an ability to manage many things at the same time”. While my former colleague defended herself in the moment, this comment echoed deep inside and affected her future choices. Finally retelling it to her team (both the feedback and the context) allowed her to see the situation with fresh eyes and witness the reaction of her team, who recognised the unfairness when the organisational structure failed to support the delivery of multiple projects. It took ten years to make peace with that career setback, and my former colleague achieved it in just 10 minutes;
  • Release you from your fears. The impact on my former colleague was immediate; suddenly she put herself out there, went for more jobs and was promoted twice in the following two years;
  • Resonate with people. Credible vulnerability changes how people respond to you and by laying out your fallibility, you cross the management divide into human land. You grieve; you worry; you don’t have all the answers, and the very act of admission shows strength. Trust is borne and can enhance your ability to influence, lead and inspire change. This is the road to lasting career success. A manager despaired trying to deliver a cross-functional project with two other managers, whose support was lukewarm. In frustration, she exclaimed: “All I want to do is survive each day and go home to my children!” The impact was immediate – the others understood her project ambition as delivery, not empire building, and she released herself from the fear of being misunderstood. She let her team see her “beautiful mess”, and they couldn’t resist it. This trio collaborated in many ways over the years to the benefit of all three, and she became known across the organisation as someone ‘real’ who would do their best for you, which in turn made it easier to get things done; and
  • Provide real-time feedback. I worked with one man who, after every meeting, asked: “How do you think that went?” After listening, he always went on to say: “If there were one piece of feedback I could give myself, I think I could have...” I asked why, and his response was simple – to stop him mulling over it and to see others’ reactions. “If it resonates, I need to do something about it,” he said.

Success criteria

The size of the prize, both personal and professional, is enormous but this strategy is not without risk. So, arm yourself as follows:

  1. Professional credibility comes first. Avoid the ‘pratfall’ factor where weakness is perceived to be evidence of incompetence;
  2. Language should be professional and emotionally measured in line with your culture;
  3. Capitalise on your vulnerability by offering reflection (for example, “At that time, I...” or “Looking back now, I can see that...”;
  4. Employ controlled emotion. People will forget the facts of the story, but will remember the feeling;
  5. Pre-frame the vulnerability to avoid over-identification. For example, “This may or may not resonate with you. Either way, if it makes you think, that’s a good thing”; and
  6. Remain vigilant to the reaction of your audience. You may need to change tack to stay in a credible space. Be ready to do so.
So, given the increasing need and challenge to differentiate ourselves in today’s competitive workplace, credible vulnerability is a powerful and often underused tool that offers significant benefits for those who are both brave and disciplined in its application. Be that person, and you will immediately differentiate yourself, connect with others, and enhance your influence and leadership.
Louise Molloy is Director of Luminosity Consulting & Coaching.