Having healthy and strong relationships are important in organizations, not only external relationships, but also internal ones with teammates and colleagues. However, building these good working relationships isn’t easy, especially when complicated by the stress of a pandemic and the drawn out uncertainty.
Relationships at work have two aspects, transactional and relational.1 At the most basic level, work relationships can at times be transactional, in that two people are interacting to meet an objective or end goal. For example, a colleague might interact with you to obtain a piece of information they need to complete their task.
Moving beyond this transactional, outcome-oriented aspect, relational interactions focus on the person you are communicating with and the quality of that exchange. Having good relations is important to building an environment where people can flourish. As humans, we are hardwired to seek out social connection. In fact, recent research finds that the yearning we feel to be connected when isolated, activates areas in the brain that are similar to that of physical hunger.2
As we spend a majority of our time, and therefore our lives, at work, it is important that we experience high-quality relationships.3 Research has found that “[a]t their very best, interactions can be a source of enrichment and vitality that helps and encourages individuals, groups, and organizations as a whole to thrive...Conversely, negative workplace interactions have the potential to be a source of psychological distress, depletion, and dysfunction.”3 Poor interpersonal relationships can negatively impact culture, and as a result, increase workplace stress.4 In contrast, when we have positive interactions, characterized by cooperation, trust, and fairness, the reward center of the brain activates, and encourages more positive future interactions.5 That’s why as leaders, it is incredibly important to foster these positive relations within your team and organization.
When we began the COVID-lockdown, it became apparent to our team that leaders were going to need to really lean into the discomfort they might have around managing crisis. If you previously were able to guard yourself behind professional attire and demeanor, and a more formal, “walk around the office” leadership style, the pandemic has stripped everything back, forcing vulnerability and authenticity on leaders, from video conferencing on kitchen tables, to scaled back personal grooming, to working around children’s needs. Our perspective is that this is a much needed shift for those stuck in traditional, “command and control” leadership styles. The deepened bonds and relationships that will come from increased leadership vulnerability will likely enhance organizational trust, strengthen creativity and innovation, and improve communication. This isn’t to say that there isn’t still a “line” and professional tone that needs to be maintained with employees, it just means that we can no longer hide parts of our lives and perpetuate boundaries that we maybe once thought contributed to “healthy work relationships.
Here are some suggestions research suggests leaders can explore to increase how they show up as authentic and vulnerable leaders:
Strive for authenticity. Although there are many different definitions of authenticity, at its core, it is about getting in touch with your internal “best self”, or “aspects of who you are that are healthy, creative, and growth-oriented, and make you feel most connected to yourself and others.”6 It’s about being able to see and acknowledge all the different pieces of yourself, both your strengths and flaws.
Strive to be more authentic in your working relationships by communicating genuinely, and allowing aspects of your true self to come through. For example, leaders have had to get comfortable communicating with teams and organizations through video conferencing.7 “Much of this has been more informal than is typical, with leaders appearing in casual clothes and in their living rooms, dens, or home offices.” We look at this as a potential silver lining of this challenging time, as working from home has afforded employees with a rare glimpse into their colleagues' personal lives. It can come through in the small details, such as what type of art someone chooses to decorate their home with, family members that may accidentally walk into the video frame, or pets making noise in the background. All these details provide signals about who we are, and forces us to be more real and transparent about our situations, and thus who we are as people. This forced authenticity blurs the lines behind who we are at work, versus who we are at home, and allows us to appreciate why the two don’t necessarily have to be distinct from one another in order to thrive in both aspects of our lives.
Practice vulnerability. Vulnerability, which can sometimes be conflated with weakness or neediness, is actually quite the opposite. In her wildly popular 2010 TED talk,8 and subsequent best-selling novels, researcher Brene Brown brought the importance of vulnerability to the forefront of our attention. Upon conducting thousands of interviews intended to investigate what drives human social connection, she discovered that it was in fact, vulnerability. She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,9 and argues that it is at the core of all human emotions. Using “soft” words like “worthiness” and “belonging,” in her now famous 2010 Tedx Talk,10 Brown made the compelling case that these “cringey words might save us.”11 “‘To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen,’ she said, was the only way we could connect.”11 In other words, vulnerability is having the courage to accept that there are no guarantees, practicing gratitude and joy, and believing that you are enough. An inability to lean into vulnerability can limit us in our ability to fully experience love, belonging, joy, trust, creativity, and ultimately, life.
In leadership, being authentic and showing vulnerability can seem counterintuitive to the lauded (and expected) displays of confidence and unwavering certainty that have historically defined a great leader. However, many are now recognizing that vulnerability in the context of work, and in particular leadership, can lead to a number of positive outcomes.12 It has been argued that vulnerability is a necessary condition for creativity and innovation, and that when you demonstrate vulnerability as a leader, “[your] team members are more likely to take risks, to try something new, [and] to deal with the discomfort of failure being an option. Vulnerability can create space for ‘productive failure.’”13
For many of us, the pandemic has been utterly catastrophic while also totally mundane all at once, and yet for leaders, you still have to show up, and give your employees the same leadership they have become accustomed to in the workplace. The pandemic, while laying us all equally bare and stripping down the facade of leadership, has exposed the very things that contribute to building and sustaining the most successful relationships. Our view is that leaders need to turn towards the once perceived “weaknesses” of authenticity and vulnerability, and build on these new found strengths in our post-pandemic world, which almost certainly will be more compassionate and starving for human connection than the one we came from before.
1. Fisher-Yoshida., B. (n.d.) 5 Ways to Develop More Meaningful Relationships at Work: Balanced and beneficial working relationships are more satisfactory. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/beth-fisher-yoshida/5-ways-to-develop-more-meaningful-relationships-at-work.html
2. Kaufman., S, B. (2020). Forced Social Isolation Causes Neural Craving Similar to Hunger: New research highlights the profound effect of severe social isolation on the brain. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/forced-social-isolation-causes-neural-craving-similar-to-hunger/
3. Houston., E. (2019). The Importance of Positive Relationships in the Workplace. Positive Psychology. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/positive-relationships-workplace/
4. Stoewen, D. L. (2016). Wellness at work: Building healthy workplaces. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 57(11), 1188.
5. Geue, P. E. (2018). Positive practices in the workplace: Impact on team climate, work engagement, and task performance. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 54(3), 272-301.
6. Kaufman., S, B. (2020). Authenticity under Fire: Researchers are calling into question authenticity as a scientifically viable concept. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/authenticity-under-fire/
7. Baumgarten., J. & Metcalf., D. (2020). Meet Your New CEO… on Video: Recently Appointed Executives Share Their Perspectives. SpencerStuart. Retrieved from https://www.spencerstuart.com/research-and-insight/meet-your-new-ceo-on-video
8. TED. (2011, January 3). The power of vulnerability | Brené Brown [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o
9. Schawbel., D. (2013). Brene Brown: How Vulnerability Can Make Our Lives Better. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2013/04/21/brene-brown-how-vulnerability-can-make-our-lives-better/?sh=4db7c40736c7
10. Brown., B. (2011, January). The power of vulnerability [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en
11. Hepola., S. (2020). How the Pandemic Turned Brené Brown Into America’s Therapist. Texas Monthly. Retrieved from https://www.texasmonthly.com/news-politics/pandemic-turned-brene-brown-americas-therapist/
12. Seppälä., E. (2014). What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/12/what-bosses-gain-by-being-vulnerable
13. Sime., C. (2019). Could A Little Vulnerability Be The Key To Better Leadership? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carleysime/2019/03/27/could-a-little-vulnerability-be-the-key-to-better-leadership/?sh=3231452b783e