Ask many leaders how they'd like to be perceived and they'll probably respond with words like "strong" and "unshakable." In recent years, though, business owners have begun to see the value of humanizing themselves to the employees who work for them. A tough, fierce leader who never shows sign of weakness can actually come across as being cold and unapproachable.
As a result, vulnerability has emerged as an important quality in business leaders. When workers see that their leader has concerns and dreams, they see someone like themselves. They may even see someone they like, which naturally leads them to want to do a better job. Here are a few benefits to showing your vulnerable side to your teams.
Vulnerable leaders are approachable.
An effective leader realizes that leading by fear is counterproductive. Even if you don't feel as though you've instilled such an environment, if your employees are afraid to speak up in meetings for any reason, it's time to rethink your approach. When you show vulnerability, you create a more open culture, giving workers the comfort level they need to speak up.
Some leaders mistakenly think that by simply stating they have an open-door policy, employees will immediately feel at ease. In fact, that comfort level only comes when you make them feel as though what they say has value to you. This means never shooting down anything an employee says without giving thorough consideration, no matter how absurd or off topic.
One case in point is the CEO of Silicon Valley startup TINT. Tim Sae Koo openly blogs about staying sane in Silicon Valley as a CEO, which is an example of how communication can humanize the CEO-employee relationship. Reminding employees that leaders are just human beings like them, who just happen to have a different title and responsibility, can make all the difference.
Vulnerable leaders make mistakes and aren't afraid to admit it.
Most leaders know what it's like to take a certain path with their team or company and realize months down the road that they may have gone in the wrong direction. It takes courage to fess up to mistakes or poor decisions, but the transparency can potentially increase the respect team members have for their managers, supervisors and executives.
Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer, has long been an advocate of transparency and vulnerability. In one of his more recent posts he talked about how his company's experiment in "self-management" didn't live up to expectations. There may have been a temptation to stop being so experimental, or to stop being so open about it, but he resisted that urge.
"Realizing our mistakes doesn't make me want to be less experimental or transparent," Gascoigne said. "If anything, it makes me want to think about how we can retain the experimental nature we have and still feel like we're doing the right thing for people. It's key for us to not say, 'Oh, we can't fail now.' There are risks, but if you take a step back you might realize it's still worth it."
Vulnerable leaders listen.
Your reaction when employees do come to you with input is crucial, as well. Some leaders make the mistake of letting their competitive nature kick in when employees want to participate. The workers don't see it as a competition, though. They simply see a leader who belittles them or refuses to listen to their ideas. Over time, this leads them to be far less forthcoming, which comes at a cost to your organization.
Your goal as a leader should be to inspire your team, possibly even serving as a mentor to professionals who are just beginning a career. When you show vulnerability, you get the opportunity to teach employees who come to you with questions. Your vulnerability will teach them that even talented, experienced professionals have shortcomings and make mistakes, which will encourage them to keep going no matter what happens.
Vulnerable leaders show empathy.
Empathy is an important quality in a leader, yet so few business owners display that one trait. With empathy, a leader exhibits the ability to see things through employees' perspectives, which is a welcome break from the top-down hierarchies that were popular in the past. Leaders have discovered the importance of creating a sharing culture, where leaders work alongside their teams rather than handing down orders. When employees make mistakes, effective managers don't berate them, instead helping them correct their errors and move forward.
Younger workers crave more meaningful work, which makes it more important than ever that leaders relate to them. This goes beyond merely letting them voice their thoughts in meetings. You should also take an interest in their future, showing an interest in their career aspirations and personal endeavors. This will help you escape being perceived as someone who expects your employees to care about you without returning the favor.
Vulnerable leaders validate employee feelings.
Vulnerability can also promote a, "We're all in this together" mentality. When employees feel that way, leaders may find they're more loyal. This is especially true when your business faces a big challenge or bad news. Instead of hiding behind a façade of confidence and positivity, leaders can do better by admitting their own fears. Supplement this with words that emphasize your determination to face those challenges and overcome them and you'll likely find your team is on board with you.
Vulnerability encourages transparency in an organization, which has been linked to improved employee morale. When employees are kept informed, they feel as though they're important to the future growth of the organization, which can keep them from leaving for another company when the opportunity arises.
"There is a growing trend where startup founders will openly share the steps and reasons for a layoff so employees can truly understand all the information and align on the future," says Sae Koo.
A vulnerable leader is one who can motivate and inspire employees. If this increases retention and boosts productivity, the business will benefit in a variety of ways. By being seen as a top-quality leader, a professional can also gain the respect of clients and colleagues, opening up even more career opportunities.