Be Vulnerable. Your Team Will Thank You

be vulnerable

By Yvonne Milosevic

With unemployment at a record 3.6%, today’s professionals can afford to be selective about their jobs. That’s why they’re looking for a work environment where they feel supported, understood, and just plain happy. Leaders need to ditch their heavy-handed management styles where the boss knows everything. The new leadership challenge is learning to be vulnerable with employees. And to do so without appearing weak or losing authority.

Prof. Dan Cable of London Business School says leaders who admit to past failures appear less arrogant and more approachable. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, he offers three specific tips for how to show “confident vulnerability.” Put Cable’s advice into action, and your team will thank you.

Cable’s Tip #1: Normalize learning.

A raft of research spearheaded by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck supports the benefits of having a growth mindset. This means believing you can develop core abilities through dedication and hard work. As a result, people with this mentality are more accepting of their mistakes.

be vulnerable

Talk to your team—and yourself—in a way that acknowledges failure and missteps are a part of learning. “The first step in confident vulnerability is using language (…) that helps us remember that learning comes with practice,” Cable says. “Language lets leaders model that it’s human, and normal, to learn and make mistakes.”

Cable’s Tip #2: Share crucible moments.

For most leaders, their path up the ladder included a fair number of roadblocks. This is precisely the kind of information junior team members need to hear. Leaders who appear to be a shining success may have a gritty—even ugly—backstory. By sharing that journey, others can see how perseverance paid off or how setbacks didn’t derail them.

“Talk to your team about times in your life when you stumbled and got constructive feedback that you needed to improve and adapt,” Cable suggests. Sharing pivotal moments like these “helps you normalize and crystallize vulnerability and learning in your team,” he adds.

Cable’s Tip #3: Show moral humility.

Employees need to feel a sense of purpose and integrity on the job. Likewise, leaders need to model the kind of ethical behavior expected of everyone. Cases like the Ernst & Young cheating scandal confirm it isn’t always easy to maintain impeccable ethics at the office.

To connect with their teams, managers should be vulnerable about times they have faced ethical challenges. Cable advises leaders to show moral humility by sharing their mistakes in solving ethical issues. He also encourages managers to be open to outside input when it comes to finding best practices for solving problems.

“By showing appreciation for the moral strengths of others, and by acknowledging that others have knowledge and skills in solving ethical dilemmas, a leader initiates moral focus and dialogue, but disarms followers’ perceptions of moral superiority,” Cable explains.

Finally, we’ll share this advice for those who want to be vulnerable but fear it will undermine their leadership. Well-known sociologist and author Dr. Brené Brown has written extensively on leadership vulnerability, and she wants to make sure we aren’t mistaking it for blurry boundaries at the office.

Here’s how she explained it to Wharton’s Adam Grant:

“Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability. Are you sharing your emotions, your experiences, to move work, connection, a relationship forward, or are you working your s**t out with somebody? Work is not the place to do that.”

Enough said.