The Line Between Vulnerability and Oversharing

Photo: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Moe Carrick had butterflies in her stomach when she sat down recently with an employee who had just returned to work after having a baby. This was going to be a hard conversation.

Although she was thrilled to have the team member back, Carrick had noticed that during Zoom calls the baby was always in the new mom’s arms. She found herself wondering: Had she come back too soon? Was she ready to take her responsibilities back on? Was she giving her all to the team the way she used to? As a mother of three herself, Carrick felt concern, judgment, and guilt all at the same time.

To Carrick, a leadership consultant and author of Bravespace Workplace: Making Your Company Fit for Human Life, these were all clues that it was time to “rumble with vulnerability” — have a real conversation, even if it’s tough. “My palms were sweating a little bit before that conversation, and I bet hers were too,” says Carrick.

When the two women sat down, the new mom admitted that she had been feeling shame about not doing enough, Carrick recalls: “And I said, ‘You are doing enough. And you may have been feeling shame because I was judging the heck out of you.’”

It was a profoundly uncomfortable admission, but for Carrick, the honesty was worth the discomfort.

Having trained as a facilitator in the researcher Brené Brown’s vulnerability-focused “Dare to Lead” program, she sees vulnerability as a form of bravery: the courage to take on uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

“If I want to work on a team and do amazing things in the world, then I have to find a way to have those people believe in me, trust me, want to follow me into traffic,” Carrick says. “And I don’t think we get that unless we’re willing to be courageous with each other.”

Brown introduced millions to the power of vulnerability in 2010 with her record-breaking TED Talk and then her bestsellers, including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. Leading with vulnerability has lately been championed as a kind of “soft skills” superpower, particularly for women. It is said to increase team output, creativity, and the bottom line, and to empower women to model authenticity, rather than encourage individual women to adopt a stereotypically male focus on ambition, as some argue the “Lean In” movement did.

But for leaders, especially women, the question becomes: What’s the line between vulnerability and oversharing? Indeed, vulnerability as a stance is often misunderstood — and hard to get right.

Is vulnerability really such a “soft” skill?

As vulnerability has become a buzzword in leadership, sometimes the actual labor of the practice gets lost in the shuffle. Instead of feeling the discomfort, some leaders let loose without thinking of the consequences. The result? CEOs cataloging their greatest fears and biggest mistakes at staff meetings that feel more like therapy sessions. This “putting it all out there” approach can backfire.

“My worry is that it can get to the point where it’s just commoditized if people aren’t approaching it in a nuanced fashion,” says Leanne Meyer, the executive director of the Accelerate Leadership Center at Carnegie Mellon University. “That’s not what good leadership is about.”

Other pitfalls of vulnerability include veering into narcissism, being inauthentic, and seeking pity. Vulnerability is a hard concept to grasp, Carrick says. She has had clients proudly tell her they cried multiple times in front of employees. Even worse are the bosses who think vulnerability is making team members cry, she says. “I have to tell them, ‘that’s not really the benchmark we’re going for.’”

And sometimes, vulnerable leadership can go completely off the rails. The raucous and erratic style of Miki Agrawal, CEO of the period-proof underwear brand THINX, led to a spectacular public implosion in 2017. The kind of no-holds-barred openness that she embodied and enforced (“I need smiley faces. I need exclamation points. I need love in your voice”) made many of her employees acutely uncomfortable: Although she denied many of their allegations, including sexual harassment, she did cop to videoconferencing from the toilet and asking to see a female employee’s nipple piercings.

“I did not think it was inappropriate at the time, especially since we had such an open and friendly culture,” Agrawal wrote on Medium, “but I certainly learned that it could be seen that way.”

One dangerous misapplication of vulnerability is when all the emphasis is put on the feelings of the leader, as opposed to the team as a whole. “I think one of the most important lessons to learn about leadership is that ultimately it’s not actually about you,” Meyer says. “It’s about the people who follow you and look to you for guidance, and helping them move in the direction of common purpose.”

Vulnerability is different for women

When it comes to being vulnerable at work, men and women face different challenges. For men, the fear of appearing weak is the biggest barrier, Brown has said, but increasingly men who are open about their emotions are lauded for “getting in touch with their feelings.” Meanwhile, women are more likely to worry about appearing “over-emotional,” and face the classic double-bind: avoiding being too “feminine” and not being taken seriously, while also steering clear of being too strident, and therefore “masculine.”

So many women subvert their anger at work, and when it comes out as tears, they get dinged for it, says Carrick. “Have you ever cried at work and someone says, ‘I’m sorry you’re hurt’?” she asks. “And you’re like: ‘God damn it, I’m not hurt. I’m pissed!’”

These challenges are multiplied for non-White women. “In my early days as a management consultant, I quickly learned the difference in being a woman of color,” says Twanya Hood Hill, VP of People and Culture at Tech Soft 3D. “I had to appear confident, not bossy; strong, but not hard; friendly, but not silly.”

Add to that the reality that women continue to carry disproportionately the burden of all the other parts of our society that matter, particularly the invisible labor both at home and work. Household management, childcare, and care of the elderly are still largely on women.

It’s no wonder women bosses are embracing a movement that encourages them to just be themselves, and be honest about the challenges they face. “I can totally understand why there’s this yearning for authenticity,” says Meyer. “Women are so tired of the feedback. They’re always too much, They’re too soft or too tough. They’re never just right.”

Leading vulnerably through a pandemic

In April, when Rana el Kaliouby came down with a sore throat, headache, and extreme tiredness, the CEO and co-founder of the A.I. startup Affectiva made the decision to tell her team about it and her plan to get a test for Covid-19. “That just opened the door, and people started to share in a very powerful way.”

The question of how vulnerable leaders can be — and should be — became more urgent when the coronavirus pandemic struck, and has continued to be during the protests and reckoning over racial inequality and injustice that have swept the nation since May.

Both crises require leaders to admit they don’t have all the answers and that they can’t predict what the future will bring.

That’s a challenge for even those who have embraced vulnerability, says Amy Jen Su, an executive and author of The Leader You Want to Be: Five Essential Principles for Bringing Out Your Best Self — Every Day. “The questions become: How do I realize that part of leadership maturity is my ability to sit in the discomfort of a decision or situation that could put me in a vulnerable place?” Su says. “And rather than reacting to that with my worst self, how do I recognize it for what it is and respond authentically and constructively in the face of uncertainty, pressure, and even attack?”

As leaders grapple with conversations about systemic racism in the workplace in recent weeks, Carrick says she has fielded many calls from White CEOs saying they want to support the Black Lives Matter movement and create change within their own companies. They’re afraid of doing it wrong and want help, but they also want to act quickly.

Her advice? Choose courage over comfort, and slow down. “As leaders, we want to have the answers more than we want to live in the ambiguity,” Carrick says. “And I think in this area of inclusion and equity, ambiguity rules, and we have to sit in it. This isn’t a problem we can solve through speed and deductive reasoning. It’s the opposite of that. The more we know, the more questions we have.”

Especially during challenging times, vulnerability can be the crucial connective tissue that binds teams to their leaders. “It’s not about being perfect,” says Su. “It’s acknowledging the experience that you and your team are having. It also provides a certain amount of psychological safety for your team where maybe they’re more willing to share news, learn, and try out things. It gives you a better chance to help develop others because they aren’t scared to come to you.”

The vulnerability hangover

Brown calls for “embracing the suck” of vulnerability. That is: Even when vulnerability strikes a chord with an audience, the person baring their soul often feels cringey and awkward. Sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach are among the unpleasant symptoms that signal the body is experiencing vulnerability. This can happen in the moment of self-exposure, or afterward upon reflection, which Brown refers to as a “vulnerability hangover.”

“I don’t think vulnerability has to be uncomfortable, but I think it almost always is,” says Carrick. Having done Brown’s training, she considers vulnerability a personal practice. But even as an expert who looks like she’s got it down, she says, “Underneath, there’s still a wild swirl of emotion, fear, and exposure.”

That’s because of our deep-rooted human desire to be connected with each other, Carrick says. “So when we show up as real, we run the risk of being cut off from the herd,” she explains. “Our body’s response to the fear of social disconnection is the same as the body’s response to physical harm.”

And it’s important to remember that vulnerability is not always the best approach. It’s just one of many tools leaders have at their disposal. “Let’s not swing the pendulum so far that we forget that leadership is also about decision-making and clarity and setting priorities and developing performance management systems,” says Su.

It’s possible to be vulnerable and also strong-willed and decisive, says el Kaliouby, whose memoir, Girl Decoded, was published last month. “I wear my heart on my sleeve, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be assertive or action-oriented,” she says. “These things can coexist. But I find that I have to be extremely explicit about that.”

The decision of what to share and what not to is always a personal one. But for el Kaliouby it starts with a question: What is the intention in sharing? “To me, it’s always about creating deeper connections with my team, building more trust, building loyalty, giving people permission. But just because I’m being vulnerable, that doesn’t mean it’s all Kumbaya. We also need to be productive, pivot to action. We need to find meaning in what we’re doing. Let’s hustle and get stuff done.”

A vulnerability checklist

Is there a risk-free way to be vulnerable at work? Not really. Risk is a part of vulnerability. But here are some tips to consider as you lay your armor down.

Embrace the awkwardness, and anticipate the hangover. As Brown has said: “You have to remember that as long as your intentions are in the right place for what you shared and how you’re sharing, it [vulnerability] is not supposed to be comfortable.”

Draw your own line. Vulnerability requires boundaries, and they’re different for everyone, Brown says. Don’t share anything where your self-worth or healing depends upon the reaction you get back: “My line is I’ll share what’s vulnerable in my life, but I’m not sharing what’s intimate in my life. I’m just not gonna do that, because I’m a private person.”

Consider your audience. Some interactions call for more discretion than others. And use caution with co-workers who you haven’t built trust with, says Su. “Why put yourself in the face of a toxic person who is not going to treat your vulnerability with respect?”

Be kind, especially now. Have compassion for others — and yourself. “Vulnerability is a very close neighbor of self-acceptance,” says Su. “When we can tolerate the discomfort of what makes us vulnerable, we eventually end up embracing whatever part of ourselves feels at risk, which actually makes us stronger.”

Be willing to say hard things. As a leader, this means sharing challenges and setbacks as well as good news, and giving necessary feedback even when it feels uncomfortable. These can be statements as simple as: “I could use your help,” “Thank you for being so patient when I was late for this meeting,” or even just “I don’t know.”

Be yourself. Being brave and revealing what’s meaningful for you can encourage others to do the same, says Carrick. “Vulnerability is when we share something that helps people see us for who we really are.”

Diana is a freelance journalist who’s been published by USA Today, New York Times News Service, Prevention, Parents and more. Visit dianacharkalis.com for more.

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