How vulnerability can be a source of strength
Poke around any organization, and you’ll find managers who lead from a place of fear. The ones who assert their authority and shut down opposing points of view. Who rarely let down their guard or admit uncertainty. Maybe you’ve worked for this person in the past — maybe you’ve even been this person in the past.
While these managers see vulnerability as a liability, we believe the opposite is true: Vulnerability can be one of a manager’s greatest sources of strength. It’s a well to draw from when you’re trying to connect with people on your team, work through moments of friction, or explore unknown possibilities.
SYPartners President Tom Andrews often finds himself encouraging new managers to lean into vulnerability — to let down their defenses and be more fundamentally human. We asked him to explain why managers fear vulnerability and what they can do to adopt a “vulnerability as strength” mindset. Here’s some of his advice:
Stop posturing — it masks your humanity and muffles your potential.
“In corporate culture, we want to maintain a sense of control, and we want to avoid being hurt,” Tom says. “If you’re a manager, this instinct is amplified.”
Fear-based management involves a lot of time spent post-rationalizing mistakes and maintaining a veneer of control, even when it’s not there. “You fear the loss of identity if you show any vulnerability,” Tom says. “After all, if you’re exposed to critique, how will you maintain the conceit that you are superior? This might result in avoiding difficult conversations, and staying away from the possibility of mistakes.”
Such an attitude, however, can ultimately hold you back.
“Maintaining a conceit of invulnerability is alienating for others—because it dehumanizes you and makes you simply an idea, not a person,” Tom says. “But, if you lower your shields and choose to be vulnerable, you can see many of your defenses for what they are: conceits that can be barriers to fully engaging in the world. If you are willing to be vulnerable, you have the courage to try new things and test your own conceits. That is a source of power, because it enables you to grow.”
Pay attention to your gut — it’s where fear first takes root.
Lowering your shields is hard because you have to overcome instinctive fears of shame. But Tom says that you can do it successfully if you pay attention to the earliest moment when you start to erect psychic barriers or catch yourself being defensive.
“There’s a moment when you feel a little shift in your gut, a little dissonance between what you’re saying or doing, and what you feel deep down,” he says. “If you can learn to recognize that moment, you can shift your stance.”
He adds: “Don’t be afraid to literally call yourself out. I’ve seen some of the most amazing managers pause mid-stride and say, ‘You know, let me back up here. I’m closing things unnecessarily and not being open. I don’t think I know the answer here.’”
Start admitting what you don’t know — it creates possibility.
Admitting that you don’t have the answers allows for a powerful perspective shift — and also opens up a space for inquiry. And, by giving into the process of questioning, you allow your vulnerability to become a source of creativity and power for the whole team. Ultimately, it helps produce work that is more imaginative and multidimensional.
Tom recommends asking the following questions out loud with your team:
• “What am I missing here?”
• “I know I’ve overlooked something, can you see what it is?”
• “What are we not thinking about? Where are my blind spots?”
Take your cues from the most vulnerable people around — babies.
“The most powerful source of strength a baby has is its utter vulnerability,” Tom says. “Take a moment to wonder at the effect babies have on everyone around them — and how fast they learn and grow.”
Babies and young children grant trust before it’s earned because they don’t know to act any differently, and this acts as a powerful bonding mechanism. Also, their vulnerability and lack of preconceived notions about what’s wrong or right gives them freedom to explore, to ask (or howl, occasionally) for help, and to express their need for the people around them. It also translates into curiosity, wonder, and an amazing ability to keep going in the face of failure.
When you open yourself up to being vulnerable and lower your shields, you tap into a fearless childlike capacity for exploration and immediate connection that still exists beneath all our defenses. This creates a positive ripple effect through the whole team. “Exposing your vulnerability as a manager can draw in team members and help your team bond faster, because they’re not posturing as much,” Tom says. “It can set an example for everyone, symbolically, that it is okay to be vulnerable.”
A team with its shields down can work with more safety, openness, creativity, and insight. And that’s where great ideas come from.