In 2016, Scholar, author, and public speaker Brené Brown spoke to a crowd of creative entrepreneurs at Brit + Co’s annual Re:Make summit on the power of vulnerability. Her original TED Talk is a must-listen for anyone — but holds especially important lessons for leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners. In these roles, you offer the fruits of your labor to the world and depend on the response you receive to make your living. The rewards can be great, but it takes risking your pride when you put your work out for others to judge. But you can get over that scary feeling, and instead, open yourself up to more genuine experiences. In this article, we’ll explore how Brown’s lessons on vulnerability can help you and your team get there.

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability is often equated with weakness, and is not usually thought of as a skill or something you can learn, practice, and improve upon. Building on this myth is the belief that allowing yourself to be vulnerable makes you susceptible to the threats of others, liable to be taken advantage of, or victim to your insecurities — as a leader, as an individual, and as a team. The truth is that while vulnerability does leave you exposed and certainly can make you uncomfortable, it can also be a pathway to innovation. Vulnerability is a valuable tool of empowerment that takes connections to the next level, opens the door for meaningful conversation, and perhaps counterintuitively, is wonderful for making teams feel secure and supported. And yes, vulnerability is something you can practice and get better at in time.

So why does being vulnerable seem so scary to us?

“If you have a capacity for connection to people, you are vulnerable to experiencing shame.” — Brené Brown

Shame is the part of vulnerability we don’t like to feel. Shame is how we see ourselves through other people’s eyes, and here’s the biggest problem with it: you can feel ashamed without having done anything shameful.

We should all be familiar with the ways we experience shame:

  • Shyness is shame in the presence of a stranger
  • Discouragement is shame about temporary defeat
  • Self-consciousness is shame about performance
  • Inferiority is all-encompassing shame about the self

When we introduce ourselves to people, try something new, or present to others, we risk feeling shame in these ways. Even if we’ve done wonderfully, putting ourselves out there can be painful, and one hard experience can be enough to keep us from trying again. Given that, it’s worth acknowledging how little these various feelings of shyness, discouragement, and self-consciousness serve us, particularly because they’re often unwarranted. This is why it’s so easy to confuse making yourself vulnerable with feeling small, when it can have quite the opposite effect.  

How to teach vulnerability to your team

So how can you and your team benefit from opening yourselves up to risking these feelings? How can you encourage your team to embrace a more vulnerable approach in interacting with each other?

Lead by example

  • Ask for help. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and you shouldn’t have to. Know when to include others and ask for a hand.
  • Be authentic and caring. If people feel comfortable with you, they’re more likely to open up in return.

Treat failures and missteps with warmth

  • Be okay with pain, disappointment, and sadness. Remove their stigma and acknowledge what they do for you; how they serve you and your team. In Brown’s words, “The goal is not to close yourself off from ever feeling pain; that’s how you lose your capacity to take it all in.”

Emphasize creativity over comparison

  • Being original can only happen by being authentic. Brown notes, “Your level of vulnerability completely predicts the originality of your work.”

Practice it daily

  • Commit to vulnerability. “Mark the day in your career where you will make this change, and completely adopt this way of living,” Brown urges. The more you practice, the better you get at recognizing which feelings of smallness are bringing you down and which could be helping build you up.

Let people be themselves

  • Encourage your team to choose belonging over fitting in. Fitting in means assessing what you think people want you to be and changing. The problem with this is that other people don’t know you as well as you know yourself — no one does. Belonging means being true to yourself.

Embracing vulnerability is all about being open to growth and learning. If people feel they can be themselves, they are more likely to thrive, try new things, and feel supported and secure in their roles. You can retain happier employees by giving them a safe space to try new methods and break through to innovation that would have otherwise been stifled by the fear of feeling shy, discouraged, embarrassed, or self-conscious.

Embracing vulnerability is how we get the quiet person in the room to speak up and say, “I have an idea.” It’s how we learn from mistakes rather than brushing them off and hurrying away from them. It’s how we give and receive feedback from an authentic place.

Ask your employees, “What would you try today if you weren’t afraid?” But first, ask yourself the same question. You’ll need to come from a place of openness, of fearlessness, in order to accept their answers. Vulnerability is allowing yourself to be hurt and to use that impact to empower you into doing and being more. Using it to rise rather than staying small, you can be even bigger than before.

Kira Klaas Kira Klaas is a brand marketer who enables customers to learn, share their stories, and be a part of the business community.
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