Being Vulnerable at Work

As managers, we have a responsibility to be authentic to the people we lead. Sometimes that means sharing your vulnerabilities to make others feel comfortable to share theirs. Being vulnerable in leadership isn’t a new idea by any stretch, there has been loads written on this subject before (I recommend Dare to Lead) - but it is something that I feel we could discuss more of both as managers and reports, as well as the actionable steps we can take to let our guards down and build cultures of trust.

I consider myself a fairly Stoic person. I don’t easily show emotion, positive or negative, and I have always had a fairly ‘logical’ viewpoint on things preferring to reason rather than empathise. On the Myers Briggs personality test, I am right on the cusp of INTJ and INFJ. This is something I put a lot of stock on improving when becoming a manager because the leaders I look up to have that ability to speak candidly and openly, and show their emotional sides. This doesn’t come naturally to me at all.

When people feel trusting enough to be open about what they are struggling with, professionally or personally, it allows for better leadership by being able to work to solve problems together. It enables teams and individuals to take risks without the fear of failure, which encourages greater innovation. Trust also gives us insights to problems within the company that might not have otherwise been visible.

With vulnerability, the key is not to expect quick wins or easy results. This is not something you can go away from this article and action and achieve instant benefits. Vulnerability is a long term game and the value it generates needs to compound over time. Especially if the culture of the team or company has not been welcoming of this in the past. Consistency is key here. One display of vulnerability here and there is not enough to transform a companies culture.

Being open and putting emphasis on building trusting relationships is something that I have already been doing, and I have had good and incredibly consistent feedback about how my reports trust me as a leader - but it pays to keep sharpening this tool and getting a better understanding of how to be more vulnerable and self aware, especially when (as I said at the start) you are the sort of person who has an emotional guard present at all times.

Here are a couple of the things I do to stay vulnerable, and build those trust based relationships with my reports.

Bin the Manager Readme’s

Manager readme’s are a fairly common thing across leadership and something I was introduced to at Monzo. Writing a short page about your working style and you as a person can be a really good way of letting people know you as not just a manager but as a person, and a good way of setting expectations with people who you are reporting to.

This is effective for two reasons:

  1. It lets your reports find out more about you, so they know how they can best work with you and understand your motivations and areas for feedback.
  2. It builds psychological safety and trust and helps show people that they can do something similar and promotes self awareness.

However, from another perspective and in the words of Camille Fournier - “Managers: get the fuck over yourself with this nonsense.”…

I tend to agree. I don’t write them anymore.

I think done really well, a readme can be an effective tool, but if done less well or just badly it can be incredibly self-serving and will likely cause more damage than good. Things can very easily be taken out of context, or misunderstood as an example. Plus, you are relying on people actually reading through your words, which more often than not - people don’t!

Undeniably though, the benefit of the readme is there to see - but I wanted to deliver it in the better way whilst retaining the benefits. To do this, I make use of the 121 format. Taking inspiration from Lara Hogans “Questions for our First 1:1” post, I approach each new report with a list of questions to work through, but I answer the questions myself first.

This allows you to show your vulnerability, by opening the door into your life as leader and letting your guard down, but gives you more control over the information you share with that individual. It allows the report to ask follow up questions and get clarification over anything they are unsure about.

“What was your favourite thing about your last manager” or “What are you most proud of achieving”. It opens the curtain and invites the report in and is much less self-serving than the typical readme drivel: “Only contact me on Slack between 8am and 3pm”.

I have a list for my first 121 questions if you want to give it a try yourself!. (Coming soon).

Speak Openly

Speak openly about your struggles, both at work and in personal life. This results in building deeper and more meaningful relationships, and reports feel more confident to express feelings of burnout, depression or talk openly about struggles. Of course, there are boundaries and I am not for any moment telling you to go in hard by sharing your deepest secrets, of course not. But maybe open up a little bit more than would feel natural!

I had some really honest conversations with each of my reports and my manager when my wife was taken ill in 2020 and I how I managed that situation. My work suffered through that time, however I felt comfortable to be open about how I was dealing with that scenario and my reports and manager helped me through. Not saying that exceptions should be made, but context behind someone not working to their best ability can be the difference between someone being called out for their performance and not. Life is hard, shit happens and we are all human. We are not productivity machines, and being able to feel safe enough to talk about personal things with a manager is so so important.

Whilst some like to keep their home life seperate from their work life (me very much included on that one), this must be appreciated. You cannot force someone to be vulnerable, as well as the fact you can’t force someone to speak about their personal lives. Encouraging more openess about work life however, is also a really effective thing to do.

At Attest, we encourage people to fill out a few questions at the end of each week, asking them how they are feeling, what went well with their work, what didn’t go so well and if there is anything I can help with. It is a great exercise, but it relies very much on there being a culture of honesty and vulnerability first. If you find that your reports are not receptive to the idea to begin with, maybe try asking in your 121 and sharing your own high’s and low’s. Sending a message out on Slack could be a good idea, and a catalyst for making people feel safe enough to follow suit and talk openly as well. It is a quick exercise, that takes very little effort to do, but has a big impact over time.

If you are reading this, whatever level you are at in your career - I challenge you for the next few weeks at least to share with your team/manager/colleague what has gone well and what hasn’t gone well for you this week. Trust me, whilst it gives you clarity to have to think about what you have done and potentially improve upon it next week, it is also an important first step to allowing others to be more vulnerable.

Share your development areas

We invest time as managers into developing our reports, by guiding their careers and offering positive and negative feedback when it is due. This is very often a one way street though, but it doesn’t neccessarily have to be.

Sharing my perceived ‘weaknesses’ or areas of development are something I try to do regularly with my reports. Granted, this is something much more recently thought about and started doing and it took a chunk of confidence to own some of my weaknesses.

This is great to do because not only does it build trust between manager and report, it has the added benefit of allowing effective feedback to come back the other way (if it wasn’t doing so already).

I regularly get feedback about my ‘proactiveness’. Sometimes I can let tasks take too long by wanting to receive feedback from numerous parties when I could have just ‘shipped it’. Equally, I can sit on information I agree with for a while before raising my disagreement at which point it is too late to be useful.

Sharing this information with reports, which I have done, reinforces the fact that even though you are an intimidating leader, you are also a human and no human is perfect! In situations where I could be more proactive or move faster, my reports feel comfortable to flag me up and point out where I could have improved.