Why Vulnerable Leaders Breed Strong Teams

July 5, 2024
4 min read

Vulnerability, the “quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally,” has inherently negative connotations, both at a biological and emotional level. Biologically, vulnerability can leave us open to physical attacks by predators; emotionally, vulnerability can allow harmful emotional attacks or rejection by others. Subsequently, “avoiding vulnerability seems to make perfect sense… Don’t give anyone the opportunity to hurt you.” 

However, this vulnerability is essential to building lasting relationships with others (relationships vital for managers to lead direct reports, collaborate with others, and negotiate for organizational resources). “The risks of vulnerability may be high, but the rewards of positive, strong relationships are even higher…Our lives are less stressful when we have people with whom we can relax and be authentic.” Showing mutual vulnerability to one another allows us to forge genuine connections and relationships, and “[h]aving close relationships where we can be vulnerable is actually a way to reduce our overall weakness.” 

In fact, research finds that stronger and more cohesive teams are built from sharing a bit of vulnerability. “Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.” Researchers asked some participants to deliver a short presentation to a silent audience before playing an economic game; those who had this experience were 50 percent more likely to cooperate in the subsequent game. In contrast, participants who did not deliver a short presentation had a significantly lower willingness to cooperate. This indicates that while we may tend to wait to show vulnerability to those we trust, it is actually being vulnerable in front of others and witnessing others’ non-negative responses to it that builds trust.

Rather than viewing our vulnerabilities negatively, we should view them as an opportunity to confide in and consolidate with others. “[P]eople who refuse to acknowledge their vulnerabilities (at least to themselves) don’t make great friends or partners…They don’t trust us enough to risk [being] hurt.” In trying to conceal our vulnerabilities from one another, we are robbing ourselves of meaningful social connections. Ultimately, the only control we have over our vulnerability is whether or not to acknowledge it. “When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable…we can create amazing reciprocal interactions that empower all parties.”

Consider which leader you’d prefer: 

  1. one who never shares their own struggles to hold up a sense of competence or,
  2. one who opens up about what challenges they have encountered in their own job when you encounter a challenge of your own.

Which one would you likely find the courage to share negative news with again?

Which one would you trust more to provide a helping hand when you’re met with another challenge?

With which one might you feel safe to discuss project plan concerns with?

Building trust with those leaders work with is essential to opening the door for clear communication, and while doing so is a continual project, it doesn’t have to be challenging. Admitting to our vulnerabilities can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry,” or “I made a mistake.” In a safe, healthy work environment, admitting to our vulnerability can allow us to grow and learn from our mistakes, as we learn more from failures than successes. Furthermore, owning up to our own insecurities allows others to do the same; “[when] we open up and admit to our vulnerabilities, we give people the opportunity to safely admit to theirs as well…[W]hen we have people we can trust with our deepest vulnerabilities, we increase our ability to be resilient in the face of chance and change.”

To learn more about how to practice vulnerability as a leader, and what Monark can do to help your leaders thrive, see our course on Building Trust and Relationships.


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