Why It’s Time to Take Off Your Workplace Armor

Vulnerability is an asset — not a liability

You’ve probably had those days where you want to crawl into a hole and disappear.

Maybe you’re dealing with something serious, like a family tragedy or a personal financial crisis. Or maybe it’s just a series of small frustrations, like getting stuck in traffic on the way to an important meeting or having an argument with your spouse.

Whatever the case may be, everyone struggles — but admitting you’re struggling at work? It’s unthinkable for most people.

And here’s why: we’ve been raised in a culture where you’re expected to be tough as nails. Where the only acceptable answer to “How’s everything going?” is “Couldn’t be better!” Where you’re supposed to have all the answers, all the time — and if you don’t, you’d better make it look like you do.

But the truth is, sometimes, things could be better. And there’s not a single person on this planet — including the most successful executives in the world — that have all the answers, all the time.

Vulnerability has traditionally been viewed as a weakness in the workplace, and the thought of being exposed — flaws, imperfections, challenges, and all— is, for most people, completely terrifying.

But the conversation about vulnerability in our culture is starting to change. And as it turns out, being vulnerable at work isn’t a liability — it’s an asset.

Vulnerability: what the heck is it?

In her book, Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, author and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

At work, this can translate in a number of different ways. It could be letting your team know when you’re feeling overwhelmed with a project and need a break. It might be admitting to your employees that you don’t have a solution to a pressing problem. It may be apologizing when you make a mistake or when you snap at a coworker after a long day.

Being vulnerable is the ability to show people you’re not perfect, you make mistakes, and you don’t have all the answers. In other words, it’s showing people that you’re human.

And that can be seriously uncomfortable for a lot of people.

Why it’s time to lose the armor

The thought of being exposed at work is enough to keep most people up at night. So, as an act of self-preservation, many try to protect themselves from the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure by suiting up in “workplace armor.”

What does that look like?

It’s getting caught up in perfectionism and not letting yourself — or anyone on your team — make mistakes.

It’s keeping ideas to yourself because you don’t know what other people will think. It’s not taking risks because you’re afraid they won’t pay off.

It’s failing to bring your whole, real, and let’s face it, sometimes messy self to work every day.

And while this “workplace armor” might keep you from feeling exposed and vulnerable, it lacks courage and authenticity — and it’s definitely not doing anything good for your business.

That’s because if you want to innovate and push the boundaries of what’s possible in your industry, you need a corporate culture that lets people know it’s okay to fail. If you want your team to reach their highest potential, they need the space and permission to share ideas and try new things. If you want to keep your best people, they need to feel heard, valued, and seen — and none of that exists without the first step of vulnerability.

In the words of Dr. Brené Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

What vulnerability in the workplace looks like IRL

During her presentation at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, Kristen Przano, Sr. Manager at Capital One Garage Innovation Center, shared her insights on why vulnerability in the workplace is so important.

To illustrate why, Przano shared the very personal example of when she first returned to work after giving birth to her son. Initially, she threw herself back into her job, putting in long hours to show her boss and coworkers she could easily balance work responsibilities and parenthood. But in reality, she was struggling with postpartum depression. “I felt like I had lost myself. I was trying to give 100 percent at work and at home and it just didn’t add up,” Przano said.

After months of struggle, Przano finally got the courage to open up with her boss. “I held my breath, went to her office and on what was one of the most difficult days of my life, told her what I was experiencing.” And for Przano, her boss’s response was a game changer. Not only did she offer support, but she also opened up about similar personal struggle — which created a deep sense of connection that ignited Przano’s road to recovery.

That moment was the catalyst to Przano’s healing journey, and today she’s thriving at work — and it’s all thanks to vulnerability.

How to incorporate vulnerability in the workplace

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. And truth and courage aren’t always comfortable.”

Clearly, embracing vulnerability in the workplace and allowing yourself to be seen — in all your imperfect glory — is a must for building a thriving corporate culture. But how, exactly, do you do that?

Thankfully, Przano’s SXSW talk also focused on how leaders can create an environment that supports vulnerability and growth from the top down.

Here are a few tips for putting vulnerability into practice:

Admit what you don’t know — and ask for help when you need it.

No one has all the answers. Remember, not even Batman can do it alone (that’s what Robin is for!). If you need help, ask for it. When you show you’re not afraid to ask for help, it allows other people to do the same.

Take accountability when things go wrong.

When something goes wrong, it’s easy to point fingers and assign blame. Taking accountability and owning up to your part in things allows you to learn from the experience and use it as a platform for growth. It also encourages your team to do the same. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s new CEO, recently rolled out a new ad campaign that openly acknowledges the company’s recent issues while taking responsibility for fixing them and delivering a better service in the future.

Accept imperfection.

No one is perfect, and if you expect your team to be perfect, you’re going to be disappointed — and potentially push them away. If you want to inspire the best in your people, you need to have realistic expectations. A good rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule: if people are delivering 80 percent of the time, then that’s a success.

Develop awareness.

If you’re new to the vulnerability game, it’s going to feel really uncomfortable at first. It helps to develop an awareness for how vulnerability feels. Where do you feel it in your body? What are some of your fears around it? Observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions around vulnerability without being judgemental or feeling like you have to change anything. The more aware you are of your discomfort around vulnerability, the easier it will be to overcome it.

Find someone you trust and practice.

There’s an old joke about the way to get to Carnegie Hall: ”practice, practice, practice.” And it’s the same way with vulnerability. Find someone you trust at work and practice opening up. The more you practice, the easier it will get — and the more comfortable you’ll be practicing vulnerability across the board.

Don’t shy away from the tough conversations.

Part of embracing vulnerability is having open and honest conversations, even when it’s uncomfortable. Don’t shy away from talking about the tough stuff. It’s often the hardest conversations that tend to lead to the most growth. Take Matt Cooper, General Counsel at Capital One, for example. Cooper recognizes talking about the tough subjects (including the #MeToo movement) is important, so he’s willing to push past his fear and discomfort. “I know this is a very big topic and because it’s a very big topic it’s one that is hard to talk about. And because it is hard to talk about I have a little bit of fear in talking about it in the right way,” he admitted.

Be authentic.

When you show up as your authentic self, you give other people the permission to do the same. “Don’t ever try to be anything you’re not. People prefer leaders with flaws because it makes leadership attainable to the rest of us,” says Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit, who regularly blogs about vulnerability and shares his past failures (including losing $40M in a bad investment) to show his followers that everyone makes mistakes — executives included.

Taking the plunge

Vulnerability in the workplace can feel uncomfortable. As Dr. Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable.”

But once you push past the discomfort, being vulnerable at work opens up the door to creativity, innovation, and more authentic connections with your team — which is more than worth the effort.


How do you feel about vulnerability in the workplace? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Written by Deanna deBara on June 4, 2018.