In her book “Daring Greatly,” which released in 2018, Dr. Brené Brown writes, “Today, we pay a lot of lip service to the idea of ‘bringing your whole self to work’ — yet the organizations that actually allow employees to do that are few and far between.’” For employees to bring their whole selves to work, companies need to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people “feel safe, seen, heard and respected,” Brown writes. Not surprisingly, this starts at the top: Leaders must practice vulnerability so that their team members feel comfortable and encouraged to do the same.

If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic and the additional challenges we’ve faced over the past two years (the rise of remote and hybrid work, an increased awareness of systemic racism and a mental health crisis, to name a few), it’s that it forced organizations to recognize employees as people, first.

In an EY Canada article, Gordon Sandford, partner, digital transformation and future ready workforce at EY Canada, says that the pandemic “served as a transformation accelerator, pushing human-centricity to the heart of the reimagined workplace.” As a result, skills like agility, vulnerability and empathy — which were all emerging as core leadership skills pre-pandemic — are now “becoming a prerequisite” for leaders, the article explains.

Thus, the most successful leaders in today’s “reimagined workplace” will be those who embrace vulnerability. Let’s consider what vulnerability is and how leaders can leverage it for higher-performing (and happier) teams.

What Is Vulnerability?

In the context of leadership development, Kathy Caprino, a Finding Brave™ Growth Expert, executive, speaker and leadership coach, defines vulnerability as a quality or state of being intentionally or unintentionally exposed to risk — of “emotional or physical challenge, uncertainty, alienation, fear, growth and change.”

Vulnerability “includes the willingness to be braver and stronger in ourselves, allowing ourselves to speak, think and operate from our ‘own private hearts’ and mustering the courage to connect with others from that space of openness and trust,’” Caprino says. In turn, vulnerability “allows other people’s private hearts to be shared and respected, with safety and compassion.”

Sam Shriver, Ph.D., executive vice president of thought leadership and training transfer at The Center for Leadership Studies (CLS), views vulnerability “as a product of high emotional intelligence,” which he says is essential for engaging and retaining top talent.

Can Vulnerability Be Learned?

On the surface, vulnerability may seem like an innate personality trait or characteristic. However, in reality, it’s a behavior that “can absolutely be learned through training, environmental modifications and effective motivation,” says Gianna Biscontini, a board-certified behavior analyst, keynote speaker, writer and founder of the employee well-being agency W3RKWELL. Shriver agrees, noting that vulnerability “can not only be learned, but also perfected.”

Ken Matos, director of people science at CultureAmp, says that embracing vulnerability doesn’t have to be daunting for leaders. If you’re being transparent, open and honest, then you’re “doing vulnerability,” he says.

Still not sure where to start? Consider these simple tips:

  • Explore your beliefs around vulnerability: Do you have any biases (whether conscious or unconscious) that may prevent you from embracing vulnerability? Work to recognize and overcome these biases — a common one, that has been widely debunked, is that vulnerability is a weakness rather than a strength — so that you can begin showing up unarmored, as your full self at work.
  • Practice vulnerability with yourself, first, Biscontini suggests. For instance, try taking up a new hobby (i.e., crafting, surfing, bread making, etc.) even if you’re afraid of “failing” at first. Or, consider having a difficult but necessary conversation with a family member or friend.
  • Work on building soft skills like empathy, self-awareness and active listening, all of which are essential components of vulnerability.
  • Consider partnering with an experienced leadership coach or mentor, Biscontini suggests.

The ROI of Being Human

There’s “real business value” in speaking the truth, Matos says. When leaders acknowledge their mistakes and shortcomings, team members feel safe to do the same, which can prevent costly business problems down the line. Being vulnerable “is an investment of sorts in building the bonds of trust” on your team, Shriver says. It sends the message to employees that, “It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers … because I certainly don’t!”

It can also lead to greater (and faster) innovation through improved processes and procedures. Caprino explains, “Vulnerability allows you to recognize when something needs to shift or change, either in yourself, your employees, your leadership or in the organization’s processes.” Being open and honest with yourself, and your team members, will help you “muster the courage” needed to make changes when necessary, Caprino says.

Perhaps the greatest return on investment of practicing vulnerability as a leader is that it allows employees to harness the power of their full selves at work. And when employees feel valued and supported as human beings, there’s no telling what they, and your organization, can achieve.