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Welcome to the New Age of Vulnerability

By Diana Dopfel

On a recent webinar about COVID-19 communications, an audience member asked, “how will leaders know when it is ok to go back to business as usual?” If I was to read between the lines, another way to ask this question could have been, “what the heck are we supposed to be telling our people when we have no clue what will happen or when it will happen or how it should happen?”

Looking at jobless claims, small business administration loan applications, stock market gyrations and pandemic models that shift regularly with the latest data, it’s clear that this is a volatile time in which we cannot have all of the answers no matter how hard we try. 

Compound this with the fact that over the past few years the public has more and more looked to business leaders for insights on the inner workings of their businesses – in good times and in bad – and to take a vocal and public stand on issues that align with corporate values, and the pressure is on. With COVID-19, many business leaders have been pushed into an inherently uncomfortable situation – they have to lead their companies through an unprecedented event in which they do not have all of the information, and the information that they do have is swiftly evolving. And they have to do it at a time when the expectations people have for business are extremely high.

Today, employees are urgently looking to their organizational leaders for honest, open and transparent information about what they’re doing to keep them safe, how their businesses are being impacted and what they are going to do to ride out this storm. There is also a desire to see how companies are making a positive impact in their communities. (For more on what employees want from their organizations during COVID-19, see our survey report here.)

Although the below piece on vulnerability was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more relevant now than ever. Maybe some of you saw the 60 Minutes interview with Brené Brown that aired at the end of March or listened to her new #1 ranked podcast Unlocking Us. I’ll be honest, although I’d heard her name and knew she had one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time, I didn’t know much about her research. Turns out it couldn’t be a better time for organizational leaders to embrace what she has learned about having the courage to be vulnerable.  

There is even the potential that the trust and connection you build today with your employees and other stakeholders will last long into the future.  

Defining vulnerability 

Brené Brown is a research professor viewed as the preeminent expert on vulnerability. She defines vulnerability as “daring to show up and be seen” by “walking into the arena with courage and the willingness to engage.” The title of her book on this subject, Daring Greatly, was inspired by the famous Man in the Arena speech by Theodore Roosevelt:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

On top of all of this, Brown says vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,” which, ironically, mirrors how many would describe the world today.   

Anthony K. Tjan adds structure to the concept of vulnerability in his Harvard Business Review article “Vulnerability: The Defining Trait of Great Entrepreneurs.” He introduces the concepts of active vulnerability and passive vulnerability. Active vulnerability is engaging in a proactive and contemplated risk that considers the payoff. Passive vulnerability is reactive and submissive exposure, or the condition of being vulnerable without choosing to be. 

What is important to note is that neither Brown nor Tjan describes vulnerability as weakness. And certainly, Roosevelt’s speech paints a picture of strength through daring and perseverance. Brown’s research shows that when we observe vulnerability in others, we often describe it as courage. “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people,” she says.

In fact, Tjan says that embracing active vulnerability can have so much power in a business setting that it is “the stuff of great entrepreneurs.”

When leaders embrace vulnerability

Although vulnerability might lead to great things, leaders must practice it carefully. 

It is “not about oversharing, it’s not about purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure…[it’s] about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them,” says Brown. She warns that “vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust and disengagement.” 

Tjan builds upon this, saying, “the willingness to be vulnerable isn’t driven by the desire for exposure, but by the possibility of what that exposure might lead to – be it a meaningful role, the possibility to affect change, and, of course, greater financial gain.” 

This example of a business leader embracing vulnerability well should provide some clarity.  

In Harvard Business Review’s “Fire, Snowball, Mask, Movie: How Leaders Spark and Sustain Change,” Peter Fuda and Richard Badham write about a managing director of a large beauty company who was “exhausted by the passive culture in his company.” After receiving 360-degree review feedback that showed that his directive leadership style was a big driver of that culture, he decided to embrace vulnerability and address his top 60 managers at their annual meeting. He acknowledged the shortcomings of his directive leadership and admitted that he didn’t have all the answers. He openly invited his team to help him with leading the company, which gave them the permission and room to step up. After shifting from a directive approach to using open-ended questions to lead, “his team flourished; dependent behaviors gave way to initiative and innovation, and his organization [has] outperformed much larger competitors.” 

Across examples in the literature, when leaders appropriately embrace vulnerability it is connected to greater employee engagement, cultures that become more inclusive and supportive of calculated risk-taking and innovation, and improved performance and financial growth. 

In addition to these benefits, vulnerability has proven an important tool for leaders to improve connections and build trust. 

Amy JC Cuddy, Matthey Kohut and John Neffinger write in Harvard Business Review that “trust increases information sharing, openness, fluidity, and cooperation… Trust also facilitates the exchange and acceptance of ideas…and boosts the quantity and quality of the ideas that are produced within an organization.” 

In reality, these characteristics of vulnerability, trust and connectedness are all interrelated, and have the potential to boost both an organization’s internal functioning and its external success. 

When companies embrace vulnerability

For individuals, the risk of vulnerability is relatively small in scale. A leader may risk their reputation, face questions about their expertise or legitimacy, or suffer a loss of respect. If their approach to using vulnerability significantly conflicts with the image people have in their mind of them, it can cause confusion and erode trust. 

In the worst case, if a leader’s actions are dramatically out of sync with company culture and/or their manager’s or team’s expectations, it may impact their ability to stay at and/or thrive in a job.

However, when we consider the risks of a company embracing vulnerability at an organization level, we have to think much larger scale.

For an organization – with its leaders speaking about business strategy – admitting that they don’t know something or do not have all of the answers brings with it the potential for damage to reputation, yes, and the potential for financial impact if investors question the company’s planning and/or ability to do the job. Customers, shareholders and/or suppliers may find the company’s new willingness to “show up and be seen” off-putting. Or they may find that, with new insight into the company, they have a clash of values that they did not realize existed. Such concerns can move markets and fundamentally change how a business operates. 

Yet, in part due to the rapid pace of change, more and more investors are expecting leaders to layout a business’s path forward even when the path might not be totally clear. Company risks may no longer just be visible in the dense lines of a recent 10-K. This will be particularly true in the times of COVID-19, when the best that many organizations can do is define the risk and outline different scenarios of what might happen and how they would respond. 

This takes a degree of vulnerability and must be done carefully and responsibly by weighing the pros and cons of being more forthcoming with information and determining how (and when) to acknowledge what is known vs. what is unknown. In some situations, and particularly when it is the absolute truth as it often is today, it is ok to say that you don’t have all of the answers and are still gathering and assessing information. In other situations, it may be better to hold back and say nothing until a later time. 

I respect that it is challenging for many business leaders to shift from discussing only what is certain today (typically financial information) vs. the more intangible things that also contribute to a business’s success – like why you stand for what you do and where you may be heading in the future. But more and more, it is what stakeholders want. For example, I recently worked with a client who only began embracing vulnerability after members of his board, including his lead investor, told him he needed to start doing so. If that’s not sufficient motivation to dare to show up, be seen and engage, I don’t know what is. 

Although there were resistance and hesitation at first, the management team worked together to determine how far to go with sharing information. It required talking openly as a team about upcoming pivotal decisions that would impact the future of the company, how the data to inform those decisions was being gathered, when they’d have the necessary data and how they would use the data to determine how to move forward. There were real stakes involved, so they worked together to decide how much information they would share, when and in what way, and were careful to set appropriate expectations among existing and prospective investors, and not go too far. In the end, investors praised them for their transparency. 

The fact is that our surroundings are changing at a more rapid pace today than ever before, and, as a result of this, companies often do not have all of the answers at the time they need to act. Today’s environment is tailor-made for vulnerability. Businesses, governments and publics are more and more needing to work together through open and honest dialogue to determine not only how to communicate about individual business ventures but also how to best embrace and respond to our swiftly changing world – influenced by new technologies, growing skills gaps, challenging geopolitical climates, changing sustainability expectations, and now a challenged economy and global pandemic.    

So, we ask ourselves, when can a company admit to not having all the answers? When is the right time to speak up? How can you know if it is appropriate to invite stakeholders to contribute their own insights to approaching a problem? How will such vulnerable actions be received, and how will they differ from what is expected? Will they surprise and delight or lead people to question your competence? And if leaders are to be admired for embracing vulnerability as part of their leadership style, what does that mean for a corporate brand and a corporate communications infrastructure?

When a company embraces vulnerability, it must be with a calculated approach that carefully assesses the risks. Once vulnerability is embraced, there may be no going back.   

See Part 2 of this series, to be published this summer, for perspectives from business and communications leaders we’ve worked with on how they are embracing – or avoiding – vulnerability today, and the approach they are taking to assessing the risks. 

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