Surrounded by domineering voices and an uncertain economy, showing vulnerability can seem counter-intuitive in the current environment. Corine Sheratte looks at why showing a softer side can have benefits for inclusion.
We’re seeing a lot of strong opinions and boisterous actions in the media at present – from Elon Musk’s sweeping lay-offs and fighting talk to the constant wars of words in Parliament. It can feel like a return to the old boys’ club, setting a masculine tone from the top.
As a young career-driven woman, I always believed that the workplace demanded a stone-faced stoicism that equated to the professionalism required to progress in my career.
The common question of ‘How are you?’ would, without fail, instinctively be followed with ‘I’m fine’, to ensure that my colleagues were none the wiser at work, despite personal hardships.
Surely if I fit the mould of how the ‘traditionally successful man’ appeared at the upper echelons of my organisation, I would ultimately get there myself?
Vulnerability at work
The reverberating mantra of ‘fake it until you make it’ became so engrained that I, and many of my peers, failed to recognise the beauty that lies behind the authenticity needed to break down the barriers that have consistently served to inhibit meaningful connection.
Barriers that, if removed or broken down, would help to achieve an inclusive culture where we can all truly say we experience a sense of belonging at work.
As the future of work becomes the present, it is important that we take a moment to reflect on its evolution to date.
Exacerbated by recent life-changing events such as the pandemic, and a greater level of acceptance around speaking openly about our mental health and wellbeing at work, we now see that vulnerability at work is not a weakness – it is strength in character and the root of authenticity that helps to build trusting and sustainable working relationships.
As writer and speaker Brené Brown states: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.
“Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage…People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real bad-asses”.
To be clear, and as can be expected in any structured institution bounded by process and procedure, the workplace expects certain standards.
So should HR teams be encouraging employees to share personal confessions?
I don’t advise spilling all of our darkest secrets, but rather that we constructively advocate for positive cultural change by contributing to a psychologically safe working culture that encourages candid conversation.
A culture where we feel empowered to be honest and challenge the status quo, without fear of career repercussion or humiliation if we make a mistake – and, perhaps more importantly, where mistakes are seen as a catalyst for learning and growth – let’s call it ‘constructive vulnerability’.
While constructive vulnerability at work might seem like a Catch-22 goal in practice, it is important that we get the balance right to ensure it serves as an asset to our people and business.
Achieving this balance can be founded by two fundamental pillars: the power of role modelling and leveraging effective employee resource groups.
While I am of the view that leadership is a practice, not a position, it is often the example set by those in leadership positions that acts as a mechanism for that trickle-down effect. The power of role modelling vulnerable leadership at the top often empowers those lower down the organisation to aspire to more senior positions, without feeling the need to fit a mould in order to get there.
HR and managers could encourage small acts of vulnerable leadership such as sharing your pronouns at the start of meetings or public speaking events, offering a different perspective, or starting team meetings by taking a quick pulse check to account for how everyone is feeling.
The consistent implementation of these practices and behaviours can enable a greater sense of belonging and reduces the likelihood of burnout through repeated attempts to conceal their authentic self, particularly for those who are underrepresented or feel marginalised within a homogenous working environment.
In the absence of visible diversity at senior tiers, demonstrating vulnerable leadership through storytelling helps to facilitate a greater appreciation for intersectional lived experiences, moving us away from any narrow focus on meeting gender or ethnicity related targets alone.
This is especially important when it comes to demonstrating invisible diversity at the top, such as socio-economic diversity or invisible disability. Ultimately, each and every one of us has a story to tell; leveraging an inclusive and authentic culture to do so is critical.
Employee resource groups
Demonstrating top-down vulnerability is crucial, but grass-roots driven vulnerability is equally deserving of starring on its own stage. However, this can be a difficult task for many, so it can be easier to do so as part of a collective voice.
Demonstrating vulnerability at work has a historically bad reputation – one that has been fuelled by toxic masculinity within a patriarchal system.”
Employee resource groups (ERGs) or employee networks tend to be communities of individuals with a common purpose. They can model vulnerable activism by openly standing up for their values and purpose in order to drive progress against their organisation’s D&I agenda.
Leveraging these networks to demonstrate vulnerable activism requires an understanding of the differences between activism within an organisation and activism beyond those set parameters. Establishing appropriate confines to voice collective vulnerability is key and requires a regular look at the ERG’s purpose and vision and the overarching reasons it gets buy-in from leadership in the first place. This makes sure networks can challenge the status quo and effect change by aligning with strategic goals, rather than being a hindrance.
Demonstrating vulnerability at work has a historically bad reputation – one that has been fuelled by toxic masculinity within a patriarchal system, and one that has dominated our workforce for years.
Fortunately for many employers today, they have now come to realise that setting up the right infrastructure to encourage greater levels of vulnerability within an inclusive working environment is key to unlocking greater potential for talent to thrive and to achieve positive and sustainable cultural change.