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May 23, 201912:32 PM Live Well, Work Well

with Debra Lafler

How not to do vulnerability at work

(page 1 of 2)

In 2010, the world was captured with intrigue by Brené Brown’s TED Talk, “The power of vulnerability,” where she shared her research on shame. She found that those who thrived in life, or who she called the “whole-hearted,” had a strong sense of love and belonging, believed they were worthy of that love and belonging, and that their connection with others was fostered by a sense of courage, authenticity, and compassion. They also embraced vulnerability.

She went on to write a number of books, has been on the speaking circuit since, now has a Netflix special talk called The Call to Courage, and this year even made a cameo appearance in the film, Wine Country.

Her latest book, Dare to Lead, is a top seller and going viral in the business community. It is about how company leaders can embrace vulnerability, and how they can positively impact their company culture. Later this year, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)’s 2019 Annual Conference is also featuring Brown.

Defining vulnerability

“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” — Brené Brown

Brown explains that vulnerability is showing up and being seen. It is the courageous act of expressing your thoughts and feelings while not knowing if they will be accepted or rejected. This practice is the path to living in a whole-hearted way that fosters connection, relationships, and intimacy.

However, it is not easy, comfortable, or emotionally safe. We may or may not be accepted, understood, agreed with, or appreciated. We may be judged. We may be disagreed with. We may be retaliated against. We may be rejected. That’s why Brown calls it being vulnerable — because we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of any reaction from whom we are sharing our truth, and likely, in practicing being vulnerable, we will get hurt.

She also explains that vulnerability encompasses choosing to do something when you don’t know what the outcome will be. It is things like:

  • Asking someone on a date, not knowing if they will say yes or no;
  • Choosing to not agree with someone, not knowing how they will react;
  • Coming up with a new idea at work, not knowing if it will succeed or fail;
  • Deciding to take a job offer, not knowing if it will be a good fit for you; and
  • Deciding to move to another location, not knowing if you will like it.

Why do it then? Through her research, she has found that it’s necessary for developing interpersonal connection, relationships, and intimacy. It’s also necessary for creativity, innovation, and change.

Vulnerability as a business strategy

While all of the popular attention on the importance of vulnerability offers society an opportunity, it is important to know the time and place for this type of work. Vulnerability is being touted as an employee engagement strategy, as well as a sales tactic. Businesses are being encouraged to allow employees to share their thoughts and feelings, be creative and innovative, and be allowed to take risks and fail, without retaliation. Businesses are also being encouraged to be earnest with prospective or current clients to solidify or deepen relationships.

Doesn’t this sound good? Who doesn’t want employee engagement or more clients? It’s easy, right? No. It’s not easy. Remember, vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” You have to put yourself out there, not knowing the outcome.

When vulnerability is misused 

Vulnerability is necessary for relationships and innovation. However, at work, if a boss or culture doesn’t support vulnerability, employees are not going to open up. The danger of a boss or business trying to use vulnerability as a tactic to try to shortcut relationship building and not understanding it, or doing it poorly, yields the opposite of connection; it sends people running!

Recently, I’ve heard a number of stories of how not to do vulnerability at work, which is why I decided to write this article.

Here’s one specific story from Jane (names changed to protect privacy). Jane recently told me about Jim, a previous boss of hers who was untrustworthy, and how that damaged employee well-being. When employees told him their thoughts, feelings, ideas, or critiques, they were met with criticism, defensiveness, rejection, or re-direction toward the things that he wanted. Anything they said was often used against them. Their issues would be brought up at later dates, reported to human resources, and put into their annual review or performance improvement plans.

This was not an emotionally safe place to work. Employees stopped talking to him and to each other. Many languished. Many found other employment.

Realizing that the team was struggling, Jim then decided to encourage vulnerability as a team-building tactic in a meeting. He asked all the employees to go around the table and share an early childhood hardship that they had to overcome. Aahhh!!!

Brown says, “Share with people who have earned the right to hear your story.” This boss clearly had not earned the right.

Other examples of vulnerability not being supported:

  • Forcing employees to talk about their personal lives or private issues, including:
    • Making employees talk to the boss about them; or
    • Making co-workers talk to each other about them.
  • Asking for someone’s thoughts/feelings and then:
    • Using it against them;
    • Rejecting them;
    • Retaliating against them;
    • Judging them;
    • Gossiping about them; or
    • Stealing their ideas and passing them off as your own.


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About This Blog

Debra Lafler is a Madison-based wellness consultant, coach, and speaker with over 20 years of experience in the field. She currently works as the employee wellness and employee assistance program manager for the Wisconsin State Department of Health Services, and as an adjunct instructor for the University of Wisconsin’s Health and Wellness Management program. She also is available privately to hire as a business consultant, personal coach, or motivational speaker. Debra has a doctorate degree in Divinity & Spiritual Studies from Emerson Theological Institute; a master’s degree in Health & Behavior Studies specializing in Health Education from Columbia University; a bachelor’s degree in Communication, with certificates in Wellness and Coaching from The University of Wisconsin—Parkside; and certificates in Worksite Wellness, Holistic Stress Management, Grief Support, and Yoga. She can be reached at or



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