How not to do vulnerability at work

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.



How to foster vulnerability at work

Being vulnerable at work does not mean that you have to share your personal and private issues. You surely cannot force other people to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable at work starts with work issues. You can assess if an employer or boss embraces vulnerability by how they answer these questions:

  • Can employees share their thoughts and feelings about work issues freely?
  • Can employees provide criticism or disagreement to things?
  • Can employees be creative or innovative?
  • Can employees make mistakes or fail, without being blamed or shamed?

Vulnerability starts at the top

Leaders must practice what they preach. If they want to encourage vulnerability in their staff, they have to practice it themselves. They have to know what it’s like to speak or act in a state of “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” They need to feel that feeling and know how hard it is. They also need to know how it feels to both be accepted and rejected. They need to know hurt and failure because it’s par for the course of being vulnerable.

Leaders also must be able to assess themselves in their ability to be with someone who is being vulnerable. If an employee shares his or her thoughts or feelings, or has a creative idea, how does the leader react and respond, verbally and nonverbally? If verbally they don’t say anything, but nonverbally they are steaming with rage or judgment, they need to work on themselves.

Appreciation and empathy

If an employee or anyone is courageous enough to express his or her thoughts and feelings — about work or their personal lives — to foster any sort of connection, they must be met with an attitude of appreciation and empathy.

When we meet someone with appreciation, we are showing him or her that we see them, hear them, and value them. We appreciate their courage to show up and be seen, and regardless of our opinion, we appreciate their thoughts, feelings, ideas, or feedback.

When we meet someone with empathy, it is as if we are saying, “I feel you”; or, as the younger generations say, “I get you!” In empathy, we experience another’s feelings as if they were our own, even if we have not had the same experience. We don’t just witness their feelings, we actually feel with them in the moment. If it’s a hardship, we may feel sad or angry with them. If it’s an innovation, we may feel excitement with them. This shared feeling experience deepens connections and it provides an emotional safety net for the other person.


Vulnerability is a hot topic. Brené Brown’s work is being talked about worldwide. In business, it’s showing up in meetings, conferences, and trainings. So, what do we do? Leading by example is first and foremost. We need to understand what vulnerability is and practice it ourselves before we encourage others to engage in it. With our employees, we cannot force them to be vulnerable. However, we can meet them where they are at and build trust with them, so that they feel supported, and if they do choose to be vulnerable with us, we can meet them with appreciation and empathy.

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