In 2018, we switched accounting firms. I solicited opinions on the move from my top advisors beforehand and did my due diligence, but the move was a disaster. We got incorrect financial statements, missed payroll and created confusion for our customers. It would have been easy to pass the blame, make excuses or dump the problem on someone else. I didn’t. As the company’s leader, the final decision had been mine.
At an all-hands meeting, I owned it. I made it clear that the ill-fated decision had been mine alone and that I recognized it had caused chaos for our teams, customers and vendors. I apologized and shared my ideas for rectifying the situation. Then I asked for my team’s help and suggestions and expressed my confidence that by working together, we’d not only survive but prosper in the wake of the crisis. And we did.
It can be challenging for leaders to acknowledge mistakes and admit uncertainty. We don’t want to look weak or frighten our teams. These are excellent instincts, but if you want to set and achieve bold goals, inspire your teams and continue learning throughout your career, the ability to be simultaneously vulnerable and confident may be the stand-out skill you don’t know you’re missing.
What vulnerability is
According to Brene Brown, whose 2010 TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is still one of the most viewed in the world, vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” In my experience working with experienced leaders and first-time managers alike, it’s the emotional exposure piece that causes the most discomfort. While learning to operate under conditions of uncertainty and mastering the art of risk-taking are routinely covered in business books, vulnerability is given only lip service.
In emerging leaders, early wins can lead to self-satisfaction, which all but inevitably leads to stagnation. More experienced leaders often believe they are (or should be) above making mistakes by virtue of their years of expertise. It’s easy, especially after years of success, to see yourself as an expert, to feel as if you have arrived and know it all.
Worse, as we get older, we all tend to get more cautious, worrying about what people think of us, which closes us off to new learning and possibilities. A leader who is unwilling to risk mistakes or admit incomplete knowledge will revert to old methods instead of testing new approaches or asking for input from quality team members.
I often mentor first-time managers whose reluctance to be vulnerable stems from a slightly different place. They’re concerned that admitting they don’t know it all will make them seem like they’re “not the right fit” for their new role. But almost everyone who has direct reports who look to them for vision, guidance and direction will occasionally worry that vulnerability will demonstrate a lack of confidence. They’re getting the equation reversed. Confidence doesn’t equate to a lack of vulnerability. Vulnerability is the precondition of confidence.
The value of vulnerability
No matter what social media tries to tell you, true confidence doesn’t come from what you wear or drive or how many comments and likes your posts get. It comes from setting ambitious goals, striving toward them, and reaching them more than you miss. If you can’t be vulnerable enough to make some risky attempts, you’ll struggle to take pride in your too-easy successes.
Additionally, people who share their goals are more likely to keep their commitments. If the anxiety of vulnerability keeps you from sharing your plans, you miss out on the support of a community to cheer you on and hold you accountable. This applies to personal goals and professional goals. I share my own goals with my team — my goals for the quarter and some of my personal ones — and I’ve found that this demonstrates my commitment to my goals and to the process of goal setting and inspires the people I lead to do the same.
Vulnerability is also crucial for learning. People can’t learn if they don’t feel it’s safe to admit what they don’t know or ask for help when it’s needed. We deliberately engineer the conditions for psychological safety in all our learning environments. (Psychological safety and its centrality to the effectiveness of teams was first identified at Google by their People Analytics team. Put simply, they found that teams are more effective when people feel safe enough to be vulnerable.)
We’ve found that creating psychological safety — particularly in our communication, leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion courses — not only increases participants’ engagement with and retention of the material, it also often improves the interpersonal relationships of teams who take the class together. You also can only turn setbacks or mistakes into opportunities for learning if you are confident enough to vulnerably acknowledge them. Not only is perfection impossible, only imperfection is credible. If you try to hide the truth from your teams out of ego or fear, you’ll be seen as inauthentic, breed distrust and model unproductive behavior.
Organizationally, leaders and their teams can reap good lessons from bad outcomes if the leaders can admit they made a mistake without undermining their authority. The trick is to hit the vulnerability sweet spot by learning how to share the right amount at the right time in the right way.
Balancing vulnerability and confidence
When I stood up at the all-hands after our accounting firm debacle, I knew that trying to gloss over the problem would undermine my team’s confidence in me and erode their trust. On the other hand, I wasn’t hashing the issue out with a group of peers. I needed to lead. So I carefully chose what, when and how I shared my news and my plans.
What to share
Confident vulnerability is relevant and clear. It doesn’t obscure the facts, but it doesn’t overshare intimate details or get lost in the weeds. It acknowledges the present and discusses the future without losing time in the past. My teams didn’t need a case-by-case account of the problems the switch had caused or how I reached the initial decision. They needed to know I understood the cause of the problem and the scope of its outcome, so I covered those points thoroughly but quickly and moved on to the lessons I’d learned, what I would have done differently and how we’d avoid making a similar mistake in the future.
A bold vision is inspiring. Coupled with a realistic game plan, it inspires confidence. Optimism is an enormous confidence booster. Winston Churchill’s ability to balance a realistic assessment of a grim situation with an unwavering faith in a positive outcome led his nation through one of its most challenging periods. Leaders who are courageous enough to express their vulnerability and optimism are seen as honest, confident and humble, which increases their teams’ confidence in them and their collective future.
When to share
Admit your mistakes and be vulnerable when the issue directly affects your team. Doing so shows that you take their concerns seriously and are at least as invested as they are in a positive outcome. Pick your moment carefully and prepare. Confident vulnerability is premeditated. It’s not reactionary or impulsive. Leaders, like parents, need to manage their emotions and not give in to panic or despair in front of the people who look to them for leadership.
Process your emotions about the situation before you talk candidly with your teams but don’t wait until it has been resolved. Talk to your teams as soon as you can express honest confidence in your ability to learn from and solve the matter at hand. Then ask for their ideas and support. If you’ve hit the vulnerability sweet spot, your team will be eager to take part in the recovery.
How to share
Approach such discussions with a sense of humor and ease. Be genuine and concise in your apology, but don’t over-apologize. Once is enough. And don’t beat yourself up. It’s manipulative and turns you into a victim. A good apology is specific about the mistake and its negative results; it owns them and moves on. It’s brief. It doesn’t wallow. Remember, you aren’t the subject of your apology.
Keeping your focus on your team in such situations shows vulnerability and confidence and creates a psychologically safe environment for them to participate fully in learning from the situation.
Vulnerability is inherently uncomfortable, but leaders who are willing to get out of their comfort zones set and achieve bolder goals, inspire their teams and convert every setback or mistake into an opportunity not just for learning but for practicing confident vulnerability. This, in turn, builds trust, promotes psychological safety, and advances a culture of openness, improvement and learning.
Damon Lembi is the author of “The Learn-It-All Leader: Mindset, Traits, and Tools.” He is CEO of Learnit, a learning and development organization that has upskilled more than 1.8 million professionals over the past 30 years.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.