Are You Showing Vulnerability?

Showing vulnerability
Showing vulnerability is good?

Showing vulnerability is not something we associate with ‘the successful ones’ or ‘the special ones’.

Quite the opposite.

Successful, special people strut their stuff with pomp and purpose. Think Trumped-up politics, sport or popular reality shows like ‘The Apprentice’. And invariably, you find yourself bridling.

They are the aspiring heroes who haughtily present themselves to their prospective boss or audience with glamour and gloss, slick ‘n’ snappy and wrapped in armadillo-like impermeable confidence…

Showing Vulnerability 

So what is wrong with that? It’s a vicious world out there. How else to stave off disaster than by growling in a way that warns: “You won’t detect my imperfections and so you won’t be able to tear me down”?

Look, there is nothing wrong with following through the maxim that business students are often taught – to stand strong and knowledgeable, with a will of iron and assertiveness to match.

But as ‘The Devil of self-importance‘ highlighted, there’s a fine line between decisiveness and arrogance, pride and pomposity, ebullience and bullying, derring-do and denial. Why you bridle at those sassy TV Apprentice candidates is because you are daunted, maybe even cowed, by their perceived perfection, knowing full well that… you are imperfect.

Well, here’s the rub…. That posing is a Machiavellian façade. A fake. We’re all flawed. Get over it. And when you do, draw on that other maxim: Turn your negatives into positives.

Showing Vulnerability is good

In other words, showing vulnerability is good. Vulnerability is good because like the solo hitchhiker seeking a lift, it draws people, creates empathy and ultimately builds rapport. Don’t hide your dark under a bushel. The broad principles of the benefits of open-handedness in life are well established and espoused by self-styled thinker and life enthusiast Mark Manson. Read his thoughts in The Vulnerability Primer.

But how does it apply to business? Learn the lesson from The Founder’s Circle in San Francisco. It’s an organisation of serial young entrepreneurs described in this wonderful article by Raymond Hull.

Attending one of their meetings, Hull found that “these people were talking as much about failure and challenge as they were about success and accomplishment.”

He was impressed with a number of questions Founder’s Circle members were required to answer, such as –

  • When am I not authentic?
  • What challenges me?
  • Where am I playing small in life right now?
  • What has heart and meaning for me?
  • When was the last time you were you?

And perhaps all of these need a common denominator to fathom a reply – namely, honesty.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the thoughts of Dr Brené Brown, a social worker who studies human connections, as expressed in her speech to a TEDxHouston event.

Titled The Power of Vulnerability, she stresses the need for business people to engage honestly without a sense of shame or perceived failure.

And she argues that engagement cannot happen without vulnerability. “If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line…you are sadly, sadly mistaken,” she says.

Showing Vulnerability podcast

As part of the Startup Survival Podcast series, I interviewed Kyle Hegarty (episode 9, series 3) who shared his story about being vulnerability in business. In this highly revealing interview, Kyle opens up about his history and weaknesses and stresses the importance of letting the light in through the cracks we inevitably have in our personalities. Kyle also references Brene Brown and highlighted the value of her research and writing.

Another Brene Brown admirer is Laren Suval, who in her own blog, ‘The Good Kind of Vulnerability’, says: “Expressing a vulnerable state doesn’t necessarily require disclosing very personal information right away.

“However, by showing people who you are (flaws, quirks and all!) and ‘letting them in’ you’re demonstrating vulnerability in a positive light.”

Indeed there are positive dangers in not being open and hiding behind a perfect corporate mask, according to Don Moore, associate professor of management at the University of California’s Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

He says: “If entrepreneurs think they’re better than others they may be overly optimistic and start things with low chances of success.

“That is probably because most of us go through life watching confident people succeed, whether it’s political candidates winning elections, cancer patients beating their illness or athletes earning medals.

But, he stresses, “there’s so much evidence supporting the correlation between confidence and success it’s easy to make the mistake that confidence causes the success.”

So… to get to that stage of casting aside your mask you have to counter the pervasive and even corrupting macho image attached to business success in which you don’t care who the hell gets knocked over on your way there.

Business is not entitled to divorce itself from emotion as in the disgraceful epithet flashed up on screen in the opening titles of the US version of The Apprentice: It’s Nothing Personal, It’s Just Business.

According to analyst John Alexander of the Business Ethics Quarterly, “this claim is made because most often the decisions that result in adversely affecting people (particularly jobs) are the end results of a mathematical utility calculation made relative to some bottom line issue with the human cost being only one element in that calculation”.

In other words humanity and business are not mutually exclusive. It really is personal. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much it can profit you by simply…being yourself – warts, weaknesses, faults, failures and all.

Key Learning Points: Drop the macho mask. Business is personal. Vulnerability is good and can be very attractive when engaging with others. Honesty breeds respect. Humanity is the bottom line.

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