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Allowing Space for Vulnerability at Work

We need to be okay with showing vulnerability and weakness at work. When you don’t, it can backfire in spectacular ways.

I was reading an interesting article that popped up while researching another piece of content. It was about how our ideas about masculinity can harm the workplace. Here’s a quick excerpt:

“It’s not about succeeding at whatever the work mission is, it’s about me winning and me proving I’m the winner by showing these dominant traits,” says Peter Glick, professor of psychology at Lawrence University. “It becomes so much a part of proving you’re the ‘man.’ That becomes the central thing.”

Workplaces that promote “show no weakness” attitudes are usually the ones most susceptible to a culture of competition among its employees, Glick says.

It’s an interesting read but to me, it goes beyond just unhealthy competition and ways of proving that you are worthy of being called a man.

Help: How We Get to the Best Work

In many environments, asking for help can feel foreign. We might associate that with white collar, knowledge-based work where someone may know all the answers or feels like he needs to take on the weight of the work. That’s problematic, too.

In blue collar work though, asking for help or pausing work when something isn’t right has to be repeatedly trained and rewarded in order for the habit to stick. For instance, a man may feel like he needs to push through fatigue but in a manufacturing environment, it can lead to mistakes or even serious injury.

Now, I’m at very little risk of being harmed if I nod off at work but outside of safety concerns, throwing up a hand that you need help is the best thing you can do to product the best work possible. For many, including me, it isn’t always an easy thing to tell people that you can’t do something or that you need help.

That’s less about competition and more about vulnerability. Organizations need to make serious, intentional space for vulnerability.

When “I Don’t Know” Unlocks the Truth

Knowledge work is driven by more than just knowledge. It’s also driven by ego, assertiveness, confidence, and a little—or a lot—of hot air. In the right situation, like in a meeting that requires you to think on your toes, it’s the difference between building and eroding trust.

That can be helpful in a presentation or a sales meeting, but in a collaboration with peers? Or an open consult with a client?

It can be toxic. It can encourage a lack of genuine vulnerability.

It’s really simple in practice. If I’m willing to admit that I don’t know everything (true, unfortunately), it builds credibility. People are more likely to believe me and listen when I do know something to, instead of just assuming that it’s me blowing smoke… yet again.

At times, even if I am unable to utter the words I don’t know, a simple pause of silence and waiting—sometimes very uncomfortably—can help someone else speak up.

Strengthening Our Weaknesses

Finally, vulnerability is good for admitting when we’re not good at something and getting better at it with the help of your team. If you’re the type that gets nervous for a presentation, it is easy to internalize the nerves and stress and just try to power through it.

For example, I had a client presentation that I was nervous about because I wanted to push them outside of their comfort zone. I talked to one of my colleagues about it and essentially said, “I’m nervous about this part of the presentation. We talked about this and you had some good points, so can you chime in there to just support what we’re recommending in your own words?”

Not only was this helpful for me, but it helped the person I was presenting with prepare for that section and know why I’m asking for support. I could’ve pushed through and maybe I would’ve been successful, but I played for a more assured outcome.

If you work in an environment where you can’t do this, you are assured that there will be some major screw ups at some point. Even allowing space is no guarantee that you won’t mess up on occasion.

I’m sure there are some organizations that could also swing the pendulum so far toward vulnerability that there is no room for any sort of gritting it out or overcoming obstacles. In my experience though, the vast majority of organizations are already oriented toward sucking it up and getting shit done. Easing off that stance is probably not going to kill your organization — and you might find that better work and a better workplace is the result.

Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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