Managers need to be sure about their decisions – but the right level of vulnerability can help make leaders more human, says Matt Chittock
When Lloyds Bank CEO Antonio Horta Osorio took a leave of absence in 2011 due to stress, many commentators in the press seemed stunned. Not that he’d faced such incredible pressure (considered part and parcel of a high-flying role) but because he readily admitted he had a problem in public.
Maybe it’s an enduring symptom of us Brits’ ‘stiff upper lips’ but showing any kind of vulnerability is still considered a serious faux pas in some parts of UK corporate culture. Yet, though we generally still expect our leadership role models to be bullish and buttoned down – step forward Lord Sugar – there’s evidence that, in the right circumstances, sharing a little vulnerability can make you a better manager.
“I think there’s definitely room for leaders to be vulnerable in the right situations,” says Kim Morgan from Barefoot Coaching. “For a start it can be really valuable for your team to know that you’re only human – that you’re not perfect. I think it helps build a better relationship with them and it also normalises other people’s doubts about themselves.”
However, a vital caveat is that allowing yourself to be vulnerable also means having the emotional intelligence to understand when it’s appropriate. For instance, if you’ve been called to head a company at a time of deep crisis it’s probably not smart to share your deepest insecurities with fellow staff and shareholders. Nor is it appropriate to act in ways that will shatter staff’s confidence in you.
“It’s important to understand what we mean by ‘being vulnerable’,” says Anna Golawski from Stratus Coaching. “It doesn’t mean letting your emotions take over and being about to burst into tears every five minutes. In certain situations, I might do that in front of my best friend or partner, but I wouldn’t want to do it at work.
“At its heart, being vulnerable is about showing a bit of your human side to the world. And by doing that you can build the kind of emotional rapport with people that builds engagement and helps improve overall productivity at work.”
So how can managers show vulnerability safely? It could be as simple as admitting that, despite being skilled and professional, you still don’t know all the answers.
Golawski says that some managers have to operate in a climate of risk and uncertainty every single day. But that doesn’t mean fighting through on their own. Having the courage to say ‘I’m not quite sure what to do in this situation’ and asking others for advice can show to staff that they’re not expected to go it alone in stressful times.
“Doing so can really show your strength of character,” she says. “It helps demonstrate that you know what you’re good at and when it’s time to work with other experts as part of a team. It shows you’ve the courage to be yourself rather than trying to be all things to all people.”
Showing your vulnerable side also comes into play if you make a mistake – as most managers will at sometime or other.
“It’s having the vulnerability, and the confidence, to raise the fact that something’s gone wrong with your boss before they find out,” adds Golawski. “It’s not about covering things up and being bullish. It’s about being human and admitting that you’ve made a mistake.”
On a smaller scale, being vulnerable can also mean relaxing the personal force field that many managers put up to get through a stressful day. Morgan says that she regularly facilitates an exercise with senior executive in which they have to listen acutely, and without interruption, to a colleague talking on a topic of their own choice for five minutes.
“It always gets a great response,” she says. “People find that after fourteen years of working together they didn’t realise their colleague felt so strongly about an issue. Vulnerability can mean having the courage to make that disclosure, and sharing a bit of yourself.”
There’s much talk in HR circles of the rise of the ‘authentic leader’ – people who build an honest, ethical and collaborative framework on which to make decisions. Understanding vulnerability is part of the journey to becoming authentic – and it can start with not being afraid to relax a little and introduce a little bit more of ‘you’ into your role.
“I think that when people are true to themselves rather than pretending to be something they’re not, it makes everybody happier at work,” she Golawski. “If we bought more of ourselves into work I think we’d all be a lot more relaxed about getting things done.”