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Why leaders who open up get ahead

  • 5 Min Read

What if your biggest strength as a leader was your willingness to be vulnerable? Learn the surprising benefits of authenticity in the workplace, and how HR can cultivate this leadership style and build stronger, more resilient teams.

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Redefining vulnerability in the workplace

Historically, strength and decisiveness have been seen as the hallmarks of effective leadership, while vulnerability has often been viewed as a weakness in professional settings. This outdated view comes from old-fashioned ideas about power and professionalism. But times are changing. Research and shifting societal norms are challenging this notion. Vulnerability, when skillfully employed by leaders, can be a catalyst for building trust and creating a more inclusive and compassionate work environment.

Brené Brown, a renowned research professor at the University of Houston, defines vulnerability as “the willingness to show up and be seen with our authentic selves.” Far from being a sign of weakness, Brown’s research demonstrates that vulnerability is a mark of courage and authenticity.

The “Vulnerable Leader Equation”

Jacob Morgan, author of “Leading with Vulnerability,” introduces the concept of the “Vulnerable Leader Equation.” This approach combines vulnerability with leadership, or connection with competence. It’s important to strike the right balance between being vulnerable and being an effective leader. Vulnerability isn’t about lacking confidence or being negative. It’s about acknowledging challenges while staying focused on moving forward. For HR leaders, this means developing programs and initiatives that encourage leaders to be open about their challenges and demonstrate how they’re addressing these issues and moving forward.

For instance, instead of simply admitting to a mistake, a vulnerable leader might say, “I’m sorry I messed this up, but here’s what I learned and here’s what I’m going to do to ensure this mistake doesn’t happen again in the future.” This approach shows both honesty and a commitment to growth and improvement.

Impact on employee trust and engagement

Recent research underscores the profound impact of vulnerable leadership on employee trust and engagement. According to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023, employees are 5.3 times more likely to trust their leaders if they regularly show vulnerability. Moreover, employees were 7.5 times more likely to trust leaders who genuinely acknowledge their own failures and shortcomings.

Another key benefit of leader vulnerability is the creation of psychological safety within teams. When leaders are open about their own challenges and uncertainties, it creates an environment where team members feel safe to express themselves, share ideas, and even make mistakes without fear of retribution. This psychological safety is crucial for problem-solving within teams. It encourages open dialogue and allows for the free exchange of ideas, ultimately leading to better outcomes for the organization.

For HR leaders, these findings present a compelling case for integrating vulnerability into leadership development programs and organizational culture initiatives. HR can directly contribute to building trust and enhancing employee engagement across the organization by making leaders feel safe to be vulnerable at work.

Why leaders find it hard to open up

Leaders often hesitate to show vulnerability due to a mix of ego and fear. Many feel they must always have the right answers, believing that admitting uncertainty could weaken their authority. This fear is worsened by imposter syndrome, where even highly accomplished leaders doubt their abilities and worry that showing any weakness could lead to their downfall.

There’s also a big difference between how senior leaders view their own vulnerability and how their direct reports see it. While many leaders say they’re open and vulnerable, their direct reports often disagree. This disconnect highlights how difficult it can be for leaders to genuinely embrace vulnerability. The fear of losing trust and respect holds them back.

Several high-profile leaders have demonstrated the power of vulnerability in their leadership styles. Alan Mullaly, credited with saving Ford Motor Company from bankruptcy, is seen as a role model for openness and vulnerability. Similarly, Doug Parker, former CEO of American Airlines, is known for converting vulnerability into a virtue during his tenure.

These leaders understand that showing vulnerability doesn’t diminish their authority or competence. Instead, it enhances their ability to connect with their teams and build trust.

How HR leaders can promote vulnerable leadership

  1. Leverage 360-degree feedback: Include questions about how leaders handle unfamiliar situations, ask for help, and collaborate with others. This data can provide valuable insights into a leader’s openness to vulnerability.
  2. Employ personality assessments: Use sophisticated personality tools to help leaders understand their natural tendencies and how these may impact their ability to show vulnerability.
  3. Implement executive coaching: Work with executive coaches to help leaders develop behaviors that signal humility, inclusion, and authenticity. Coaches can also assist in recognizing how language choices either help or hinder efforts to practice vulnerable leadership.
  4. Integrate vulnerability into leadership competency models: Ensure that the ability to show appropriate vulnerability is recognized and rewarded in leadership assessments and promotion criteria.

As HR leaders, you have a unique opportunity to reshape the leadership landscape within your organizations. You can create more trust-based and high-performing work environments by championing vulnerable leadership. In an era where change is the norm, vulnerable leadership is a strategic imperative.

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