Can I be vulnerable, please?


October 22nd, 2015

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It’s one of those paradoxes. At our most vulnerable we can be at our most compelling and powerful.

vulnerableVulnerability gets some press these days, thanks to the likes of Brene Brown (2010), endorsements for authenticity (Goffee and Jones, 2015), Amy Cuddy’s invitation to Connect then Lead (2013) and an ever growing profile for emotional intelligence (Goleman, D, 2015). I’m encouraged by this invitation to relate with each other in work and life more warmly and courageously as I believe it can encourage many useful things: deeper relationships; more trust; honest conversation and feedback; questions asked and worked with; more motivated people; higher engagement and retention; deeper, quicker learning; more innovation; and, ultimately, more success. Frederick Laloux (2014) sees vulnerability as a key to more soulful work and organisations too – I agree.

Hopefully this will all become a more dominant way of being in organisational life before too long – I believe we are all capable of noticing vulnerability, sharing it and welcoming others to do the same.

But, when I work with leaders, some discover a gap in themselves, their cultures and their organisations: between the espoused ideal, and actually doing it. Most leaders rarely admit vulnerability to themselves, let alone share it with others. I suspect we rarely feel safe enough to take the risk. If you admit tiredness, doubt, worry or not knowing, what judgement might others make? Will you retain credibility and influence? Will you still be seen as trustworthy and reliable? There are other reasons too, I’m sure, but denying our vulnerability only adds to the inhumanity of work and workplaces and, with it I fear, a decline in our creativity and productivity.

So if a challenge of our times is to feel the risk and be vulnerable anyway, how do we do that?

I find it helps to notice the bodily armour we deploy to avoid feeling vulnerable. For example, when my jaw, neck, eyes, shoulders, chest, tummy or pretty much anything else tightens, I have just drawn myself in and away from my feelings and from other people. It’s a common response in humans. I perceive some threat and even if it is not the full fight / flight / freeze response, even a little cortisol will reduce my ability to perceive openly and stay present.

We can protect ourselves of course, but our primitive brain centres overreact to stimuli – your boss frowning is probably no more a threat to your life than the stick you mistake for a snake in the woods. And even if the response is in part legitimate, it doesn’t help us to be our best. Wendy Palmer and Linda Crawford describe neatly how neurophysiology interacts with thoughts and feelings (2014). The point here is that we can tell ourselves the logic any number of times, and even increase our emotional intelligence, but the body’s response is quicker and stronger and embedded deeply in our being. So that is where to begin. Notice yourself tighten, be kind to yourself – the self judgement often attached (cowardly idiot.. etc) is natural and understandable – but then notice you have a choice. Carry on as normal down that familiar path of entrenchment, dishonesty, stoicism, quick wit or whatever your particular version of defence is; or breath deeper, uplift your posture and see if some of that tightening musculature can soften a little. If you can arrest this most fundamental of body responses, then the higher brain functions stay in play and you can start to make more sophisticated choices about what will actually be influential and useful in the heat of the moment.

There’s more that could be said, but I’d prefer to stop and let this ridiculously simple but extremely effective approach sink in. You might even want to practise it.

Threads to follow

  1. Brown, B. 2010. The Power of Vulnerability. TED talk:
  2. Cuddy, A., Kohut, M and Neffinger, J. 2013. Connect then Lead. Harvard Business Review. And the TED talk: Your body language shapes who you are:
  3. Dehnugara, K. 2014. Flawed but Willing.  Within which are many poetic and powerful insights, including:
  4. Dehnugara, K. 2015. Red, hot and agitated. Blog post on the Challenger Spirit site:
  5. Goffee, R. & Jones, G. 2015. Why should anyone be led by you? Harvard Business Review Press.
  6. Goleman. D 2015. Help Young Talent Develop a Professional Mindset. LinkedIn post 13th September, 2015.
  7. Laloux, F. 2014. Reinventing Organisations. Nelson Parker. And in this talk: on 1 hour, he talks about vulnerability.
  8. Palmer, W. and Crawford, L. 2014. Leadership Embodiment – how the way we sit and stand can change the way we think and speak. Create Space.
  9. Pert, C. 1999. Molecules of Emotion – why you feel the way you feel.