The Case for Less Vulnerability

I hate the word ‘vulnerability,’ she says to me.

Meredith Is the Chief Operating Officer of a sprawling global manufacturing enterprise. She climbed the ranks in male-dominated companies and is now the highest-ranking female executive in her field, anywhere. Meredith has been supremely successful and produced results.

And suddenly Meredith is told that she is just a little too buttoned-up. That she needs to “be more vulnerable.”

  • This is where we are after two decades of “Dare to Lead” author and Oprah-celebrity Brene Brown telling managers and leaders that more vulnerability is the key to being a more inspiring leader.
  • This is where we are after more than two decades and legions of books on Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence.
  • This is where we are when your HR leader asks you to “bring your Whole Self to work.”

Emma Goldman’s brilliant article in The New York Times got me thinking about all of this (Goldman, “When Your Boss Is Crying, but You’re the One Being Laid Off,” 8/24/22). After decades of leadership classes where executives are told that to be effective, they need to share more of their feelings and private lives with their teams, it is easy to see why some leaders are increasingly confused about how much sharing is helpful.

Is simply doing a good job not enough?

Take the individual referenced in Goldman’s headline. Braden Wallake, 32, Head of a small Sales and Marketing company, recently had to lay off 2 of his 17 employees. Braden prides himself on being emotionally in-touch.

Moments after he had laid off his 2 employees, Braden started sobbing. He could not imagine hiding this emotional response. He took a photo of his teary-eyed self, posted it on LinkedIn, and added the following commentary:

I just want people to see that not every CEO out there is cold-hearted. I know it isn’t professional to tell my employees that I love them. But from the bottom of my heart, I hope they know how much I do.

The backlash was swift and instant. Over 10,000 comments. Wait a minute, dude – you’re laying off 2 people and it’s all about YOUR emotions?

When is sharing over-sharing? When do your emotions become an exercise in narcissism?

Goldman also tells the tale of Ryan Caldbeck, 43, the former CEO of financial technology company CircleUp. Caldbeck has wrestled with finding the balance between delivering a clean business message and oversharing.

There was a time when I went into work, Caldbeck tells Goldberg, and in a meeting, we were going around the room saying how was your weekend, and I said, ‘Oh, I got in a difficult fight with my wife.’ Everyone’s mouth dropped. I realized I went too far. That wasn’t appropriate. That’s not how you show vulnerability at work.

Nancy Rothbard, a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has studied emotions in the workplace. Her surveys show that many people tend to prefer segmenting their professional and personal lives instead of integrating them. But in the time of “bring your Whole Self to work,” they feel they don’t have a choice.

Is this focus on vulnerability and expressing emotions a primarily American obsession? Brown and Goleman are both esteemed American academics. In Germany, where I was born, we used to joke that Americans will tell you their innermost secrets at the drop of a hat. Are we merely cajoling the rest of the world to fall in line with an American cultural bias?

I like a leader who knows how to be appropriately vulnerable. I believe in showing more of who we are, not less. This is stuff we grapple with in my Executive Coaching practice, all the time. I also have empathy for those leaders who don’t have a great desire to share all that much of their personal lives at work.

Here are some considerations around how much to share in a culture that wants to know all of you:

Your Personal Vulnerability Barometer

Consider Context

There is the simple check-in at a meeting, a la Ryan Cladbeck. There is the hallway chit-chat. There is the more expansive conversation over a business dinner. A $5 question does not warrant a $50 answer. If you can, avoid going “personal heavy” in response to a $5 question. Share the more deeply personal information in a 1-1 conversation, not a light group chat. There will be more psychological safety for you and the person receiving your information.

Conversely, have the courage to have the $50 conversation over a more expansive dinner. Don’t force it. Sense the mood of the group you’re with. If you, however, consistently stick to light banner in a more socially substantive forum or purely workplace topics, you run the risk of being dismissed as a lightweight. The $5 player with no depth.

Consider Impact on Others

If you have an inkling that you’re about to share something personal that feels risky, consider these questions: Will it make others squirm? Will they feel like they need to take care of me? Or will my comment perhaps open the door to greater common ground that has not previously been expressed?

Sometimes I think life is not worth living is a fleeting thought you may have had in recent weeks. There is a lot on your plate. You are experiencing a high level of stress – but you’re certainly not feeling suicidal. Expressing this sentiment will be authentic, yes. It may be best expressed to a loved one who you’re very close to or a mental health professional. At work, it will likely trigger alarm and a high degree of concern, as well as the feeling that nobody can really help you.

Consider your Comfort Level

When we toil in a vulnerability culture, it is easy to compare and despair. Marcia talks so freely about her interests and adventures outside of work. You and everyone else feel like they really know Marcia. Her sharing feels effortless and unforced. Marcia is hugely popular. And you’re NOT Marcia.

Self-expression exists on a continuum, as so many things in life do. If you’re in a comparison mode, you may think of Marcia as a 9 on a scale of 1 -10 when it comes to her level of self-expression and personal vulnerability. You see yourself as perhaps a 4. You’re a little envious of Marcia.

Good news – there is no need for you to be a 9. But if you decide that perhaps you’d like to show up as a 6 or a 7, consider what other parts of you might be Ok to share in a professional setting. You get to decide. You get to do it on your terms. You get to experiment. Once you think of it with this level of intention, you may be surprised at how easy it is to take more social risks that actually feel comfortable.

Consider your Personal Brand

I think of “Personal Brand” as a slightly retro term from a GE culture. Here’s what I like about the term: It invites us to contemplate how we would like to show up around others and how we’d like them to perceive us. It challenges us to make personal choices to this effect. These choices are not about “acting fake” or “being inauthentic.” They are about choice. Personal choice.

Folks at work may see you as dedicated, hard-working, motivated and very athletic. You love to talk about your exercise regimen and your commitment to healthy eating. Great. That’s a compelling personal brand – and likely a little safe. Perhaps you’re also interested in metaphysical literature? Perhaps you’re proud of having overcome different sorts of adversities in your life? Perhaps you’re engaged in powerful community service work that feels like the very opposite of what you do at work?

Wonderful. You don’t NEED to talk about any of that at work. But when you do, your Personal Brand expands. It becomes a more complex brand. And likely a brand that connects with a lot more folks. It’s not a brand that tells everything. It’s a brand with personal boundaries. And it’s a brand you get to own.

Meredith ended up reading Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead.” She found it to be a valuable book.

We dropped the word “vulnerability” from our conversations altogether We decided that it was perhaps not the most helpful word.

But Meredith saw that being more of herself at work, in a contextually helpful way, served her. It took a lot less effort. And it served others. They felt more connected to Meredith.

Sometimes all we have to do is get out of our own way.

Related: A Case for Friendships at Work