The Power of Vulnerability: a way to have better relationships at work

being vulnerable can help you have better workplace relationships

Someone once said to me that if you want someone to like you, ask for their help. It’s a great way to begin a relationship, and it’s also very relevant in the office.

In today’s world of work, leaders do better when they are understanding and vulnerable, as it can bring them closer to the people they work with, and lead to enhanced productivity and better results. Vulnerability – with the right boundaries – as a strength in the workplace was an idea made famous by author and researcher, Brené Brown.

But how to be vulnerable? Here’s a way to start: someone once said to me that if you want someone to like you, ask for their help.

If you haven’t heard that before, consider this: let’s say you’ve recently moved into a new area where you don’t know anybody, but you just had a fridge delivered and need some help to get it manhandled into your kitchen.

You could knock on a neighbour’s door, and ask them for help. The question is, do you?

The truth is most people will say yes if you ask them, even taking our British reserve into account.

And funnily enough, being helped is a good way to make friends.

Think about it. The moment you help someone and co-operate with them, you’re invested in their future success. So if you help a neighbour bring in a new fridge, you want it to work, and by helping them move in, you want them to settle in and be happy in their new home.

Once you’re invested, you naturally feel a warmth towards them.

So to get people to like you, ask them for help.

It’s a great way to begin a relationship.

The Power of Vulnerability – how to have better relationships at work

There’s something in asking for help that’s also relevant in the office. And it’s to do with the power of vulnerability.

Being vulnerable can be one of the quickest ways to resolve a possible conflict at work. I’m not talking about physical violence, but so often people shy away from having difficult conversations in the workplace.

We all have ‘what if’ scenarios in our heads, such as, “What if I say this, and they go nuts?” or, “What if I say that, and they start to cry?” or “What if I say this, and it starts a chain of events that ends in them leaving the organisation… and they lose their home?!”

These ‘what if’ scenarios of imagined outcomes that never actually happen, are what stop you from saying what you need to.

But seriously, if you begin a tricky conversation by saying, “Look, I could really use some help with X, Y, or Z”, and you engage people from a position of really wanting to sort it out, and it’s not about pandering or flattering them, it’s a genuine need for help… then the vulnerability draws people to you, and engages them in a dialogue.

And what you’ll find is that they’ll try and help you resolve the situation.

If you say, “I am finding this situation really difficult, I am struggling and I don’t know how to begin to talk about it with you, and frankly I’m a bit unsure how to mention it,” that will probably get you a lot further than shouting and waving your arms about explaining how angry you are.

Because if you go on the attack, it will force them to be defensive, or to attack you back.

The moment you become vulnerable, or admit that you’re wrong, it’s disarming and it could diffuse a conflict scenario.

The same applies to mistakes.

How many times have you tried to wriggle out of something you did, or put a good spin on something you messed up? How many times have you been like a teenager caught in the act, and come up with a small lie or a half-invented story of how this and that happened, hoping then you might get away with it?

None of that is about taking responsibility.

How much more compelling is it, when someone says, “Yes, I am really sorry, I made a mistake, I took some decisions and they didn’t work out in the way I thought they would.”

“I’m sorry I did that, and I’d like to make it up to you.”

It’s how the best customer service people work.

That is WAY more powerful than denying it was a problem or passing the buck, or in any way making it difficult.

So next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, why don’t you begin with vulnerability.

Here’s an example
I recently had a conversation with a senior leader in an organisation. He was a pretty macho alpha male, with a lot of confidence, a lot of bravado, and a little bit of swagger. This man had an old school expectation about the way he should operate.

When I asked him about areas of vulnerability or concerns, he quickly dismissed the question and gave me short shrift, telling me that he had all those bases covered: “it’s not an issue,” he said.

But what I experienced when I spoke to him is that he was putting on another layer of armour. What I heard is the clamp of metal plates closing. The visor coming down.

Rather than admit he might might have any problems, or countenance any possibility of personal weakness, he just had it covered, he said.

And I’m thinking: can I work with this guy? I’m not going to be able to whilst he’s wearing that visor… I can’t even see his eyes! (metaphorically speaking).

Maybe he’ll go away and think about some of the things he feels he needs to be protected from, and maybe it will encourage him to engage with some of it.

It was frustrating for me. I saw a lot of potential in working with this person, but it is not easy to work with someone if they are not prepared to open up. There’s nothing to work on.

Is that a lost opportunity?

What really struck me was how, if in that moment, instead of putting on the visor, he had stopped, and paused, and reflected, and taken the helmet off, and looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re right, I’m not really sure, sometimes I have doubts,” well then he would have made an ally out of me immediately.

He would have had all of my efforts at his beck and call, and a lot of resource to support him.

(What is most interesting about this is how often I see people wearing their armour.)

Here’s another example
I did some work with a woman who I thought was wonderful, super charming, and really articulate. We ran a workshop together that we had jointly organised.

But all through the workshop she was really stilted.

I kept wondering, “Where is that light, bubbly, fresh person that I thought was going to be here?”

Basically she was nervous. She put on her armour, and came across as unapproachable and reserved. It was a stress thing. In her vulnerability she’d put on armour.

On the one hand, she was so nervous that arguably if there had been no armour, there would have been no workshop!

On the other hand, I’ve seen one person start a presentation by saying, “I should say before I begin: I’m not used to speaking in public, it is officially the scariest thing anyone can do, it’s worse than divorce apparently, and I’m really terrified. I think I might cry, so I’m saying, be nice otherwise I might leave.”

When they did that, the audience became really generous, and gave lots of encouragement.

So if you believe that vulnerability is a weakness, think again. It may not work in every scenario but often we won’t even try it because we’re so frightened of that side of things.

So why not give it a try.

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