Despite your efforts to the contrary, being a leader sometimes makes it hard to let your guard down. The pressures of your role mean you sometimes need to withhold confidential information, or put on a good face during tough times. But those necessities can lead to bad habits if you aren’t careful.
As changes inside organizations accelerate, it’s pretty much impossible for one person at the top to have all the answers. Leaders from frontline managers to C-level execs all need to rely on the people around them for knowledge, support, and answers to difficult problems. And while armies of consultants, authors, and emotional-intelligence researchers (like me) have spent recent years chipping away at the myth that vulnerability is a sign of weakness, it still isn’t quite dead yet. Many leaders abstractly support the idea of being vulnerable without quite knowing how (or why) to be more vulnerable in practice.
So to help, here are a few situations where vulnerability can actually lead to better management.
1. WHEN SOMETHING AWKWARD NEEDS CALLING OUT
Ever worked someplace where there’s an elephant in the room that nobody felt comfortable talking about? Tiptoeing around secrets or awkward situations at work can be really stressful. Everyone’s blood-pressure rises trying to figure out ways of avoiding the issue, rather than channeling those feelings into trying to solve it.
Vulnerable leaders know how to preempt this by setting a better example: “Hey, listen, this thing has been bothering me a little, and I’m wondering how you all feel about it.” Sometimes an acknowledgment like that is all it takes to get people to open up about something that seems taboo. If everyone sees that their leaders are able to bring touchy issues up for discussion respectfully, they’ll feel freer to talk about them as well.
2. WHEN YOUR CREATIVITY NEEDS A BOOST
By acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers, leaders open up more room for their team members to give feedback and allow their own ideas to be considered. Sometimes when your team is stuck on a problem or needs to think a bit more creatively, the best thing a manager can do is admit their own mistakes or the limits of their own thinking.
Maybe you’ve made a couple poor decisions recently, or perhaps you’ve just run out of ideas. By confiding in your team about that–or by showing them you’re able to forgive yourself for a recent mess-up–you’ll let them know it’s okay to take risks and try something new and untried, even if it’s unsuccessful. This leads to more ideas coming forward that might have stayed under wraps, ultimately creating a more dynamic, competitive organization.
3. WHEN NOBODY IS COMMUNICATING WELL
It’s up to managers to set the tone for what’s acceptable to talk about and what isn’t. Obviously, this is where transparency comes into play, but it doesn’t stop there (or shouldn’t, anyway). Share information honestly and authentically, but be candid about your own feelings on whatever you’re sharing as well. When that’s the norm, your team members will feel comfortable opening up with each other, keeping the communication channels flowing more smoothly.
If you’re worried that everyone on your team is biting their tongues, set a new example of the type of communication you want to see. A great place to start might be a brief one-on-one meeting with each person on your team. But you can do this in group meetings, too: Start your next team meeting by going around the table with a quick check-in with each person–starting with yourself, to model the type of input you’re looking for.
This can help you get a feel for how everyone on your team is coping with their day-to-day work pressures, in a setting that clues their colleagues into the situation for support. That leads to empathy, which leads to better understanding and better communication.
4. WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO PINPOINT THE SOURCE OF A PROBLEM
People are often afraid of bringing bad news to their managers, because they’re worried the information won’t be well-received. So by the time the leaders find out what’s really going on, a lot of totally avoidable damage might have already been done. But team members who witness their leaders being vulnerable and owning up to their own mistakes are more likely to come forward early on when they drop the ball. If your work culture creates the fear of retribution, there’s no way that can happen.
This works once you’ve already caught wind of an issue, too. Confiding to your team members that you’ve noticed a problem, then acknowledging that you might’ve overlooked something or unwittingly played a hand in it yourself, can encourage your direct reports to do the same. This way you can all get to the root of the issue faster.
5. WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO ENCOURAGE TEAMWORK
Workplaces with buttoned-up, aloof leaders lends people to look for ways to get ahead by currying favor. Backstabbing and information hoarding runs rampant as people try to guess what their higher-ups want for them. If you’re trying to head off that infighting and generate more collaboration, vulnerability is the ticket. Being open and honest about your expectations, priorities, and even anxieties prevents this type of toxic culture from ever taking hold. It tells your team members they won’t score points with you through shady or self-interested means.
6. WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO REDUCE TURNOVER
Research suggests that feeling emotionally invested in your work and workplace–and, in particular, having a good relationship with your boss–is often a deciding factor in whether or not people stay in their jobs. So if people keep quitting, ask yourself if there’s anything about your management style that might need changing. Open, honest, authentic leaders build stronger connections with their team members. They help their employees see the purpose behind the work they do. The simple truth is that people are less likely to jump ship (even for more money or benefits) when they feel their leaders have their best interests at heart.
7. WHEN YOUR WORK CULTURE IS UPTIGHT OR BORING
Workplaces with hidden resentments and limited transparency aren’t just more likely to become toxic–they’re also just not fun places to work. Always having to be on guard about what you share and with whom is a recipe for dreading your time at the office. As a manager, even if you aren’t authorized to share more business-related information with your team member, it’s still in your power to share a little more about yourself. While you’re at it, have a sense of humor–it won’t kill you.
Yes, this does take a little more vulnerability than you may be used to–and dropping the “I’m the boss” mentality you might not even realize you’re bringing with you to work. But if you can lighten up a little in your leadership style, you’ll raise the mood of your workplace, creating an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable being more vulnerable and authentically themselves–and having a little more fun in the process.
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