“Vulnerability” is a polarizing word. Some people can open up to just about anyone without restraint, while others would sooner get a root canal than share their feelings.

In business, vulnerability is important, particularly among leaders. Consider this: Often, while working with clients, I discover that convictions or fears hold workers back from leading and collaborating. Overcoming these obstacles requires a fundamental shift in thinking.

As a leader, you have to help people process what’s driving their ineffective behaviors in order to correct them — and you can’t do that without some level of openness. This doesn’t mean you have to start sharing your life’s story, but it does mean you need to break free from the fears that keep you aloof.

Lack of Trust Breeds Lack of Trust

Fear is the root cause of a lack of vulnerability, and fear can be caused by various things:

  • Office politics: Messy office politics would cause anyone to clam up, but at some point, you have to remove yourself from a toxic culture.
  • Inexperience: You might suffer from imposter syndrome. In other words, if I admit a mistake, people will discover that I don’t belong here.
  • Lack of exposure: Whether your parents or past managers struggled with vulnerability, it is hard to do what you haven’t seen others do.
  • Lack of confidence: As humans, we’re all concerned about what others think of us, but you can’t let outside opinions determine your self-worth.

The problem is, if you don’t trust your employees enough to be vulnerable, you send a signal that they can’t trust you. So the cycle perpetuates. As a result, employees will be:

  • Less engaged.
  • Less likely to reach their full potential.
  • Less likely to view you as a manager who leads with humility.
  • Less likely to share real issues with you.

5 Ways to Increase Your Vulnerability

Can you manage people without showing vulnerability? Maybe. But you won’t empower them to contribute at their highest levels. Use these exercises to build a culture of openness:

  1. Discuss your weaknesses. Open up about a weakness you possess and share action steps you’ve taken to address it. For example, I don’t enjoy or excel at completing meticulous paperwork, so when I do one of these tasks, I give myself a reward. Additionally, ask your employees for ideas on how to overcome your weakness. Show you don’t know it all — and use their suggestions.
  2. Share a past challenge or failure. How did you overcome it? You might be surprised by how much you inspire people with your resiliency. Once, when I led an organizational change, a minority partner sabotaged my efforts. I was really hurt and upset that employees had been misled as a result. Moving forward, I decided to interview all key leaders before taking on similar projects.
  3. Run toward your fears. Fears remind us of our humanity, so don’t be afraid to share your biggest fears. Personally, when I walk into a large room of people I don’t know, I’m flooded with dread that stems all the way back to high school. I have to pull hard on my Woo strength to get through the first 10 minutes. Then, I start to feel better.
  4. Admit mistakes — and own them as yours. We all make mistakes, and it’s important for employees to understand that you’re not perfect. When a creative program failed miserably in my department, I owned the mistake as mine in support of my leader’s efforts. In doing so, I was able to build trust with my employees, even though I took a hit with some of my peers.
  5. Delegate. Show your employees that you trust them enough to complete projects that will ultimately have your name attached to them. When I tapped my ministry partner to write sections of our small group curriculum, I gave him ownership over an important task and demonstrated that I felt confident in his abilities.

Peeling Back the Layers

Still don’t believe me? Here is what David Isaacks, a former Marine and CEO of the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital, had to say about vulnerability in an email to his employees (link has full text):

I feel that humility is an underrated leadership quality. Almost 2 1/2 years ago, I came to work nervous. I felt disconnected from our leadership teams because I was the new guy. However, I felt that, director or not, people needed to know my journey ― to include not only my strengthens, but also my weaknesses. In other words, they needed to know my vulnerabilities. That nerve-wracking morning a few years ago, I presented my journey line to more than 30 members of my hospital’s leadership team. It was full of failures, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Most of all, however, it allowed me to connect with my employees.”

It’s rare to find leaders who feel comfortable ditching their “work personas.” Many think they need to be unemotional or reserved at the office in order to show that they’re capable. But employees don’t want their leaders to be robots. It may not feel natural to show vulnerability at work, but in doing so, you’ll build trust among workers and help them reach their fullest potentials.

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    Loriana Sekarski is founder and president of BONSAI, a consulting company that transforms leaders (and businesses) into the best version of themselves. As a leadership coach, Loriana teaches leaders how to hone soft skills, spur workplace engagement, and achieve untapped levels of potential. Outside of BONSAI, Loriana serves as an adjunct professor at Washington University’s graduate student program. Additionally, she's fine-tuning her passion project, TakeFlight, a division of BONSAI that launches organizations, churches, and marriages to boldly live out their purpose by leveraging their strengths to achieve their God-given destiny. TakeFlight has just developed Revealing Hidden Shackles, an innovative curriculum that examines domestic violence within the Christian community.