“Can you be too vulnerable?”

This is a question that speaks to ‘vulnerability without boundaries’ that I get a lot from leaders who might be guilty of oversharing. The answer might be “yes” but it depends on what you really mean here by being “too vulnerable”. And could the benefits of being too vulnerable actually be creating more damage, more risk?

That’s what I want to come back to but first let’s establish the context here.

When you’re in conversation with someone and you’re talking about the really tough stuff, things that are going wrong, where emotions are running high, where there’s a lot at stake, where trust is fragile, or where the decisions to be made are going to change your business massively, perhaps irreversibly… those tough conversations have the 3 key ingredients for being vulnerable as Brené Brown has defined for us – uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

Your people are watching you, all the time

As leaders, you are a role model and everyone in your team and company is watching you all the time because, while what you say is important, how you say things and what you do provides far more accurate instruction. In other words, your actions are more revealing than your words. For example, you may say creativity and innovation is important but your behaviour actually reveals that you want people to do things your way, because that’s what you reward, that’s what gets publicly acknowledged, or that’s what gets funding.

Brené Brown talks about the benefits to your culture if you, as a leader, can move towards showing vulnerability – for example, “I don’t have all the answers”, “I need your help to get there”, “I made a mistake” – because that sets the example and the conditions for being creative and encouraging innovation. It’s what I call experimentation. If you have a culture that embraces experimentation, then you probably have got lots of evidence of creativity and innovation.

Scary if you are unclear

But that’s not easy to do if you don’t have the skills to navigate those tough conversations, if you don’t know what you stand for, if you don’t know your own values and have little awareness of your blind spots — so, the things you often miss or overlook or do that are actually getting in the way. It’s also really tough to do if you don’t have the conversation skills to understand what’s going on in an exchange, why people are reacting or responding in a certain way, how you might be shutting people down, how you could express yourself in a way that keep people listening to you, or how you can create the trust and safety, how to invite people to speak more freely and think creatively.

And because these things are not easy to do, being vulnerable feels scary. That’s why Brené Brown talks about having courage and having comfort with feeling uncomfortable.

But that’s only part of the picture.

Unless you’re grounded, connected and great at conversations

I would add 3 leadership capabilities that are important to being vulnerable: (1) you need to be grounded with a strong self-awareness, (2) you need to know how to connect emotionally with people, and (3) you need great conversation skills.

Having courage is much easier when you have these 3 things.

Back to the question, “Can you be too vulnerable?”

In all the talk about vulnerability and leadership, we tend to overlook the point at which oversharing is unhelpful — and this is what I want to explore here.

“Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability” — Brené Brown

Brown asks us to think about why we’re sharing and whether it’s productive and appropriate.

That question, “Can you be too vulnerable?” comes up again and again in my conversations with leaders, including founders and entrepreneurs.

What they’re really asking is…

“How much is okay to share?

How much of my worries and issues is okay to share with my team, my direct reports, my peers or my boss even?”

They are worried about over-sharing because they’re not clear on what is valuable and useful to share, as distinct from just offloading because we feel alone and want some relief or sympathy. It’s a tough place to be.

And they are right to be worried because they could be introducing risk that need not be there.

The things leaders worry about in oversharing

Well, they are making difficult decisions all the time.

They’re often feeling conflicted between being a good leader who is liked and making the right business call. They’re looking over the cliff-edge.

“Can I pay everyone this month? Are we going to close enough deals to survive this quarter?”

“If Amanda doesn’t get a promotion this round, will she leave?”
“Zach is a technical genius but he’s killing our culture.”
“James is my friend but he’s underperforming and costing the business a lot of money.”

“Rather than securing funding, I’m being asked to make half my team redundant.”

“There’s evidence that our supplier may be stealing our IP.”

“Thirty percent of our customers are threatening to end their subscriptions and I don’t know how we’re going to replace that revenue.”

These are real worries that keep us awake at night. And often, there are no clean and simple answers. We start doubting ourselves and our judgements, and that causes us stress and anxiety.

So, as a leader who wants to be vulnerable, open and transparent, who wants to be a good leader…

How do you figure out what’s okay to share?

All of it, some of it, or none of it?

Only you can come to the right choice for your situation. But, in addition to thinking about what’s appropriate and productive, I would flip the coin and ask you to think about which option – sharing all, some or none – introduces the most unacceptable risk. That is, risk that will damage your culture or your business in ways you can’t reverse or undo.

Sharing too much might breech trust agreements or it might distract people from doing their best work or damage your culture. That could prove to be a wholly unacceptable risk because collaboration becomes impossible or delivery timelines and contracts are compromised.

Sharing too little, or trying to put an unrealistic or positive spin on things, might also introduce doubt and distrust. Remember, people are watching your actions more than listening to your words. If there are problems, it’s highly likely people already know about it, so denying or falling silent about is seen as deception. People reach their own conclusions and view you as less competent. Is that an unacceptable risk?

What to share and how

As a leader, you’ve got two considerations here:  one is figuring out what you’re going to share, and the second is how will that sharing look.

The what

In figuring out what to share, work out which of your mentors would be helpful, which of your peers you can trust to talk things through with. It might be best that they are people outside your organisation, who are impartial, who can offer different perspectives or share their experiences, and who want to see you thrive.

Getting clear on what you think, working through conflicting thoughts and stress-testing your options – these are all reasons leaders hire executive coaches like me. To have a safe, confidential thinking space, a space to explore and plan their approach, to BE completely vulnerable and know there won’t be a backlash, that they won’t be introducing risk into their business WHILE they’re figuring things out.

The how

When it comes to the second point about how will your sharing look and feel like, consider these questions:

(a) how can you use it to focus your people?

(b) what can you be personally vulnerable about?

In other words, what discomfort are you experiencing that is useful to share and that will not introduce a risk that is unacceptable?

Sharing may still involve uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure but what you choose to share won’t cross a boundary of being inappropriate or unproductive to share.

Time to be intentional and strategic

Leaders Who Coach™ learn to be both intentional and strategic in how they approach their conversations and what they choose to share. They factor in all their stakeholders, from individuals to teams or groups… and don’t forget there may also be contractual and legal aspects in these conversations.

If you are grounded as a leader with a strong self-awareness (like knowing your values and your blind spots), and you’re emotionally connected to your people, working out your approach is much easier. The added bonus is that the focus is less about your courage and more on the impact that sharing certain information will have on others and the business.

If you’ve got great conversation skills, then you’re even more capable at navigating those knots, the emotions, the conflicts and so on in those conversations by listening, asking the useful questions, responding in helpful ways that move the conversation forward, focusing on and sharing the useful aspects of a situation that help people make good decisions, and making sure you’re not inadvertently shutting conversations down.

Being vulnerable is much easier for Leaders Who Coach™

So, being vulnerable and courageous is much easier when you’ve got these 3 capabilities — you’re grounded, you’re emotionally connected to people, and you have great conversation skills.

These capabilities help you read your situation more accurately and also respond appropriately, they help you work out how to be vulnerable in useful ways instead of oversharing and overwhelming the people you’re relying on.

To learn more about Leaders Who Coach™, click here.