President at GHD Digital.
The first years of this decade have seen a particularly disruptive period in human history. The pandemic, the ensuing economic shock and technological and environmental pressures have converged to shape an uncertain terrain. The World Economic Forum’s “Global Risks Report 2023” paints a sobering picture of what else might still be in store.
It seems likely, then, that the collective vulnerability of the pandemic, experienced by business leaders, employees and customers, might compound further. Although this can bring strength and a sense of togetherness in the face of adversity, when a crisis threatens us, some people become more rigid and locked into their beliefs. This would be the death knell for any organization since we need leaders to be agile and adaptable, as well as open to new ideas and perspectives. Showing vulnerability can help leaders be more receptive to feedback and learn from mistakes, which is essential for navigating through uncertainty and making effective decisions.
When I look back on my own career trajectory, I am conscious that I wasn’t always comfortable with showing vulnerability. Like many of my generation, I was afraid that it might be perceived as a sign of weakness, incompetence or lack of confidence and potentially harm my career prospects. I was also concerned about how others would react if I revealed too much about myself or how it would affect my mental resilience if I presented myself as too vulnerable. I have come to understand that there is a line.
Vulnerability is not about opening your heart to every single problem you have. It’s about sharing information about uncertainties at work that impact you as an individual and as a team to get to a better outcome. And now, with mental health being more widely acknowledged and prioritized in the workplace, we have even greater license to be open.
Leaders who show vulnerability can create psychological safety at work. Acknowledge the challenges and difficulties of the time. In doing so, you can build trust and connection with your team members and stakeholders. In my experience, trust and connection build resilience. Greater team resilience is a strong predictor of increased performance.
There is work to do. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer (download required) showed that trust in business declined from 2022 to 2023. Catalyst surveyed more than 12,000 employees in more than 40 countries around the world and found that only 39% of respondents said, “their manager often or always displayed openness,” and less than one-quarter of respondents said, “their manager was often or always vulnerable.”
The world is changing, and so must we as leaders. Let’s challenge the norm of the corporate world, where how to talk and engage seems to have become standardized to such an extent that it has removed some of the authenticity needed to lead in today’s world. Say “no” to inauthentic and corporate-speak conversations—these don’t inspire. Have courage, and embrace fear. Show vulnerability. Stand in front of others and say, “I don’t know,” “I can’t do it alone” or “I need your help.”
By showing vulnerability, leaders can create a more inclusive, compassionate and resilient workplace culture that will help their organizations thrive. As Mahatma Gandhi is known to have said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
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