Being vulnerable at work is radical. Although vulnerability-based leadership is not the norm, it is exceedingly valuable for businesses and teams looking to grow quickly.
When we know what our co-workers are carrying around, we can more easily see the humanity in one another, step up and ask for help, and lend support instead of seeing each other as obstacles to what we must accomplish. The willingness to expose ourselves — and to risk judgment in the process — offers tremendous upsides in business and is a great way to build trust and create team intimacy.
The benefits of being vulnerable at work
The importance of vulnerability in leadership is clear. When leaders dare to wade into deeper waters and reveal their hidden stories, everyone around them follows suit. Beyond that, workplace vulnerability offers numerous other benefits:
- Speed. Team members who know what’s happening with one another and have learned how to support each other through their vulnerabilities will inherently move faster than a team that keeps personal and professional lives separate.
Heightened engagement. Practicing vulnerability at work increases the overall psychological safety of the workplace. As psychological safety increases, employees can lessen the amount of energy they expend for self-protection, thus reducing many of the subconscious distractions that interfere with being present, focusing, and producing results.
Greater retention. The feeling of psychological safety is not easy to find in most business settings, and employees who benefit from a vulnerable culture know they’ve found something rare. In addition, a more vulnerable culture supports the exploration of workers’ senses of identity. As they watch their skills and capacities develop, workers see the company as a catalyst to their expedited growth, creating a symbiotic relationship that binds the organization and the individuals more deeply.
Increased innovation. When team members support each other through the toughest of life’s challenges, business challenges become simple in comparison. As stress falls away, the doorway to creativity and fun opens wider.
Openness to giving and receiving feedback. Vulnerability requires participants to learn how to offer personal feedback that’s deeply authentic and nonthreatening to recipients. It also teaches participants how to take in the words of others more fully.
How to build trust in a team through vulnerability sessions
Building trust as a leader starts with learning to be comfortable being vulnerable. There’s no doubt that vulnerability is difficult; we open ourselves to the possibility of judgment and discomfort. Leaders need to put guardrails in place at the onset of any vulnerability practice at work. Doing so will not only support the facilitation of vulnerable moments, but it will also mitigate the risk of emotional damage.
When engaging in a new vulnerability practice with your team, set aside 90 minutes for the first session. Make sure everyone understands that participation is voluntary, and then let these steps guide you.
1. Ground the team.
When starting a session, ground your team by reciting the following introduction:
The goal of our time together is to practice being vulnerable at work, with the ultimate goal of increasing this team’s efficiency and enjoyment of our work together. The 90-minute session will be broken into two sections: 60 minutes of vulnerable storytelling, sharing, and reflection followed by 25 minutes of debriefing.
The session will play out as follows:
- To lead by example, I will be the vulnerable party (the VP) during this session. I am going to spend the first 10 to 15 minutes sharing a story that is challenging for me to tell — and that is not work-related. I’m going to share the story around what occurred for me and the impact it had on me physically and emotionally.
- Once I feel like my sharing is complete, other participants will be allowed to ask questions only around areas of confusion. It’s not unusual for the VP — me in this instance — to jump around in the story. I will take a few minutes to respond to questions.
- Next, it will be your turn to offer short reflections if any of you are compelled to share something you heard or saw from me that had an impact on you. Participation at this point will be voluntary. Nobody will be required to share — and I mean that sincerely. If we all sit here in silence for the remainder of the session after I share, I will leave here grateful for your presence while viewing your witnessing of my story as an act of generosity and kindness.
- If anyone decides to offer a reflection, I might offer a short response by again focusing on the impact I felt from something I heard or saw while they shared. We will then sit in silence again to make room for anyone else who would like to offer a reflection.
- When everyone who wishes to speak has had the chance to do so (or when 45 minutes have elapsed), I will take up to 10 minutes to offer a final reflection of what I am taking away from this experience of sharing with you and receiving from you. At 60 minutes, the vulnerability portion of the session will end.
- At this point, we will break for five minutes to stretch our legs and reset the energy in the room.
- Everyone will return from the break, leaving us with 25 minutes to engage in a conversation about how this experience felt. I will then close out the session on time.
2. Read the “three agreements.”
Every vulnerability session should open with a request for three agreements.
Ask one participant to read the first agreement aloud.
The first agreement: A request for presence.
We all understand that the person sharing a story is risking exposing a part of themselves that is hard to share. To show our support, we are each agreeing to make our best effort to remain present and undistracted during this session. If you are able to do so, please say, “I agree.”
If anyone has a work or life situation that might require your attention at any point in the next 90 minutes, please let the group know now. For example, if you have a child or parent at the hospital, it would be completely understandable that you might need to check your phone for status updates — or that you might even need to leave at some point during the session. Now is the time to set our expectations with one another to reduce the likelihood that any of us creates a false narrative about someone who doesn’t seem present.
Following that, ask another participant to read the second agreement.
The second agreement: Suspension of judgment.
As human beings, we’re wired for judgment. It’s part of our protective mechanism. However, our judgment of each others’ stories can be hurtful to someone who is risking exposure. Together, we are going to agree to try our best to suspend our judgment. Please join me in saying, “I agree.”
Finally, ask yet another participant to read the third agreement to the group.
The third agreement: No fixing or solving.
We are not here to solve each other’s challenges or to fix what is broken in one another. In fact, jumping in to fix the situation presented is more likely to erode trust than it is a way to build trust in a team.
Through this process, we will learn how to avoid the inclination to rescue one another and, instead, to support one another in sourcing whatever we need from inside of ourselves. Do you agree to let go of the need to fix or solve so that you can simply focus on remaining present and listening to the vulnerable party? Please say it with me one last time: “I agree.”
3. Get vulnerable.
With the agreements out of the way, it’s time to begin the activity. Ask another participant to read this section, directing his or her attention toward you.
Now it’s time for our experiential introduction to vulnerability-based trust. As you begin sharing your story, please remember that the anxiety of the situation might suddenly intensify. Focus on the important details of what happened and the impact it had on you physically and emotionally (and/or spiritually). Try to speak with “I” statements to keep yourself centered on your experience.
Attempt to keep your initial sharing between three minutes and 10 minutes. Any less, and you might not offer enough for us to feel an impact. Any more, and you might overwhelm us with more than we can absorb.
Lastly, give yourself permission to not be great at this. Vulnerability is inherently messy. If it wasn’t messy, it wouldn’t be vulnerability.
At this time, take a breath and then share your story with the group.
4. Reflect with the group.
Please ask a participant to read the following statement directly to you:
You have just demonstrated vulnerability-based leadership by offering your willingness to take the leap first. Take a breath. You survived!
Please ask the same participant to read the following to the group:
In a moment, if anyone would like to offer a reflection of what they heard — and the impact it had on them — it will be our VPs turn to listen. A few reminders before we begin:
- No fixing, no solving, and please try to continue suspending your judgment — both around what was shared and also around any reflections that are offered.
- When speaking, please do not direct your reflection to the entire room. Look at and speak directly to our VP.
- Please do not feel the need to comment on everything our VP shared. Reflecting on one or two things that were said or a gesture that was made (and the impact it had on you) will be of greater service to our VP than a laundry list of reactions.
- Please, only one speaker at a time. Once someone begins their reflection, let’s all focus on remaining present and listening until they let us know they are complete.
Please ask another participant to read the following directly to you:
As a reminder to you, our VP, this is not a conversation or question-and-answer session. It’s your time to listen and take in the impact your words had on us. You do not need to explain yourself, justify any of your decisions or actions, or put a pretty bow on your story.
To the group, read the following:
At this point, I will ask everyone to join me in silence as we make space for anyone who is compelled to offer a reflection.
5. Perform a final reflection.
Once everyone who wishes to has offered a reflection (or when you are about 45 minutes into the session), the final reflection is reserved for you, the VP. This is your opportunity to let the group know how their reflections and listening affected you.
6. Close the session.
At the end of the session, it’s important to express gratitude for your team’s willingness to listen. Remind people that vulnerability hangovers are real. Encourage them to take care of themselves by eating well over the next 24 hours, moving their bodies when they can, and resting properly.
It’s also vital to encourage everyone to move on with their days. If the session was effective and brought the group closer, people will feel inclined to stay in the warmth of that established connection. Although this is understandable, people must move on. Without a sense of closure, the connection tends to dissipate into awkwardness. Avoid this by noting a firm ending and encouraging people to change locations, taking those good feelings with them.
For any established culture, being vulnerable at work is a shift that will require time, resources, and outside expertise to be handled effectively. However, the benefits of being vulnerable with our colleagues are truly bountiful.
Is vulnerability in the workplace challenging? You bet. Is it worth it? I hope you’ll take the time to answer that question for yourself.