Is it really possible for every leader to be as vulnerable and authentic as we think they need to be to create a safe space for us to work and play in? And will our people always naturally respond to the efforts of leaders in encouraging 'authenticity' at work?
The short answer is no. If you have managers or employees who are having challenges being as open and ‘real’ as we’d like them to be then in some respects that’s being vulnerable as well. They are letting us know that they either don’t know how to be more authentic, aren't ready for it or that they are unwilling.
As leaders we have a role to play in making it ok for people to relax and engage with what they are doing on a daily basis and who they are doing it with. This article explores how we as leaders can start to shift our approach in making this happen.
Being vulnerable happens differently for all of us...there is no cookie cutter approach
Not knowing ‘how’ to be vulnerable can be remedied through learning and experience. We know that coaching, mentoring and specialist courses in this area can certainly help. However, the unwilling aspect is a bit different. If they are unwilling does it mean we give up on them? No; but the workplace is not a therapists couch, so we can’t dive into the role of counsellor. Yet the reality is, people show up for work each day who are not so open (or completely closed) to the idea of vulnerability. Have they had a bad experience playing with this idea at work before? They opened themselves up and were ridiculed or it was used against them? Or is it their belief system learned from a very young age? Another reason related to this is national culture…in some cultures being more emotionally restrained is considered appropriate, whilst in more collectivist cultures (eg; Asian, eastern European, Middle East) sharing occurs over time as a relationship genuinely develops, because for these groups the door to trust is opened based on ‘who’ you are and not ‘what’ you do. And then there is organisational culture. Is your culture open and supportive of this way of being? There is a whole different article on that alone waiting to be written; but for now we will stick with who we are as leaders and what we can be doing.
Enabling vulnerability means acknowledging and using your potency
As leaders this means that our role is to be thinking about how we create the opportunity for vulnerability to grow. And the solution evolves around psychological safety, which applies to all aspects of work life around the world.
Leaders have a certain potency that comes with their role that can be overlooked. That is, our ability to create a safe place where people feel ok to bring ‘who’ they are into the role and the workplace. I remember when I started my working life, this was an optional and largely unknown aspect of leadership, and if you had a leader who did this then you really had landed on your feet! Today is different. We know more about human development and motivation, and the links between performance, culture, engagement and happiness at work. We also know more about the role that we play as leaders in making it ok for our people to bring as much of themselves to work as possible, and not just a persona shackled by a strong defensive boundary.
How do we make it ok? It’s simple to understand in one respect and at the same time, depending on our own frame of reference, can be difficult to do. We lead by example in making the environment inclusive and non-judgemental. We give people time to colour their role with ‘who’ they are, and we don’t enforce a time limit on the development of trust and engagement. In fact, by expecting that trust or engagement should be occurring by a certain time could be saying more about our personal needs as a leader than it does about the people we are leading.
Unconditional Leadership - The key to vulnerability
Really, the key to this is about being unconditional in your style. Accepting that as a leader you may be creating the opportunity for rapport to build, but it may not be reciprocated, or it could take time before others start to relax and share. Others may be ready for it and it happens quickly and naturally.
But being unconditional in your style is a central pillar to building a psychologically safe and enjoyable place to work. It's easy to understand...not necessarily easy to do...but highly rewarding. For everyone.