As defined by Brene Brown through her research, vulnerability is inherent in life--we cannot avoid "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure." Our choice is how we "own and engage with our vulnerability." (1)
"To be vulnerable with others" means choosing to say what we really think and feel. It is about engaging in open, honest, and transparent communication. This means taking risks: of showing imperfection; of being wrong; of losing popularity; of losing status.
In organizations, an "open and trusting environment" has been linked with financial performance--"fostering trust among managers and employees so that they are open to sharing information, providing and receiving honest feedback, and having difficult conversations." These are factors which enhance an organization's ability to "align, execute, and renew." (2)
Vulnerability does not mean "letting it all hang out" or emotional catharsis. (1) It demands appropriate openness that does not provoke defensiveness and withdrawal but builds partnership.
An organization will likely have a difficult time establishing group norms for safe conversation unless leaders "go first"--that is, unless leaders are active participants. Taking the lead in being vulnerable is hard to do but "the best cure for the fear of being burned is opening yourself up to being burned. Sometimes it's even okay to get burned because you realize it's not fatal." (3)
How safe is it to be vulnerable in your workplace? One indication is the way leaders talk. Listen for statements like: "I don't know; I need help; I am not sure but I feel we need to take the risk; It failed but I learned a lot; I made a mistake; I apologize; My idea may be completely off-base but I want your reactions; What can I do better next time?; I played a part in that." (1)
These statements may seem like weakness but this kind of vulnerability actually "sounds like truth and feels like courage...Truth and courage may not be comfortable but they are not weakness." (1)
(1) Brown, Brene Daring Greatly, Gotham Books, 2012
(2) De Smet, Aaron et al The Missing Link: Connecting Organizational and Financial Performance McKinsey and
Co., February 2007 (downloaded at McKinsey.com)
(3) Lencioni, Patrick The Five Temptations of a CEO Jossey-Bass, 1998