• Dr. Jeff Doolittle

What Vulnerability Means to Leaders in Difficult Conversations



Have you ever wrestled with the idea of being vulnerable in a difficult conversation? Regardless of leadership level or amount of experience, all leaders struggle with the tension of being vulnerable or not. In difficult conversations, followers want to know their leader cares about them. But, concerns about managing perceptions often keep leaders from showing vulnerability in the workplace. And when leaders are guarded in difficult conversations, it promotes distrust.


Although leaders are expected to convey an image of competence, confidence, and power, followers already know you are not perfect. Being vulnerable as a leader in difficult conversations requires courage. Leaders have to learn to be comfortable without having all the information wanted or needed. Leadership vulnerability involves the willingness to take risks that might end in failure or create the best of what might be in the organization.


The following short video from Simon Sinek expands on the tension leaders face and how to show vulnerability in the workplace as a leader.




Vulnerable Leadership

Practicing vulnerability as a leader involves checking your motivation, vision, and paradigm (MVP) before having a difficult conversation.

  • Motivation. Is your motivation about caring for others first? Or is your motivation to be right? Goals for a conversation matter. Without a positive reason for the conversation, it is less likely the conversation will lead to positive changes.

  • Vision. How do you see the result of the conversation going? Is it the best of what might? Or is your vision a list of all the things that could go wrong? When you see the difficult conversation as a positive step in the journey, it provides a sense of purpose and direction to inspire your best and achieve success.

  • Paradigm. Is your paradigm for the difficult conversation that real transparent conversation will provide the best foundation for a healthy culture and your relationship? Or is your paradigm that it is best to avoid difficult conversations and you need to be guarded to manage your image? When the lens through which you perceive the difficult conversation is off, your results will turn out poorly.



The Power of Vulnerability

Often the word "weakness" is considered a synonym for vulnerability. However, being vulnerable as a leader takes strong leadership and creates a significant amount of leadership power, confidence, and influence in the leader-follower relationship. Vulnerability is a courageous choice.


Leaning into vulnerability in a difficult conversation is best modeled by leaders first. When leaders model vulnerability in a conversation, it establishes trust and safety for followers. A display of vulnerability by the leader encourages followers, in turn, to take risks with being vulnerable. Vulnerability given is vulnerability received, leading to improved communication, productivity, and relationships. Followers want to see that their leader cares for them and is open to learning.


The following link is to The Power of Vulnerability Ted Talk by Brene Brown. This talk is worth the time if you want to learn more about the power of vulnerability in leadership.




Workplace Benefits of Vulnerability in Leadership

In the modern crisis-driven workplace, leaders need empowered followers to take charge. But, taking charge in a crisis can be risky. Vulnerability in the workplace enhances

  • trust,

  • collaboration,

  • innovation,

  • employee retention

  • and a feeling of connection that improves the quality of leader-follower relationships and employee performance.


How to Show Vulnerability in Leadership in a Difficult Conversation

There is no one complete checklist of actions that leaders can use to show vulnerability in every difficult conversation. However, the following list of leadership habits is compiled from proven research on mastering difficult conversations:

  • Being transparent. Keep the conversation genuine, especially when it involves your mistakes. This does not mean sharing personal secrets. It means metaphorically that you invite those you are speaking with into the front door of your house rather than making them stand on the doorstep and talk with you from behind your screen door of image management. Being transparent pertains to both the logical rationale aspects of the conversation as well as your feelings about the other person and the conversation.

  • Putting followers first. It is not about winning or having the best answer but caring so much about followers and the desired outcome of the conversation that you are willing to risk failing. Putting others first doesn't mean thinking less of yourself.

  • Asking for feedback and willing to learn. Vulnerability is about being weak to defend your point of view and desiring to listen and learn something new. When asking for feedback, it is essential to remember that it is a gift given. When delivering a tough message that has not been shared before, it can be best to be direct and to the point and then offer to discuss later. This allows time for the message to be processed analytically and emotionally at their pace before you ask for feedback.

  • Demonstrating selfless love. Selfless love is to will the good of another. As a leader, being vulnerable in a difficult conversation requires showing self-awareness, empathy, and compassion rather than speaking from positional power. Self-awareness improves your communication clarity and ability to understand multiple perspectives. Empathy helps you listen and understand how others are feeling, and compassion inspires actions that are helpful.

  • Taking action. Difficult conversations are costly when neglected. After you check your motivation, vision, and paradigm for effect, you will want to think about the what, where, how, and when for the conversation. Balancing the need to prepare with the need to take action is important. It is easy to get caught in a trap of waiting for more information, leading to procrastination. In the most difficult conversations, you will possibly never have all the information you would like.




Take the Vulnerability in Leadership Quiz

To identify your tendency—to be vulnerable in difficult conversations —take the following free five-question quiz and receive your vulnerability leadership score.


Scores of 75-100 indicate you have a high degree of vulnerability in difficult conversations, 55-75 indicate you have a moderate degree of vulnerability in difficult conversations, and scores of 20-55 indicate you have a low degree of vulnerability in difficult conversations.



After completing this quiz, if you'd like to go to the next level, consider asking others to give you their feedback on how vulnerable you are in difficult conversations using these same questions.


Key Summary Points:

  • Regardless of leadership level or amount of experience, all leaders struggle with the tension of being vulnerable or not.

  • Leadership vulnerability involves the willingness to take risks that might end in failure or create the best of what might be in the organization.

  • Practicing vulnerability as a leader involves checking your motivation, vision, and paradigm (MVP) before having a difficult conversation.

  • Vulnerability is a courageous choice.

  • When leaders model vulnerability in a conversation, it establishes trust and safety for followers.

  • The following list of leadership habits is compiled from proven research on mastering difficult conversations: Be transparent, put followers first, ask for feedback and learn, demonstrate selfless love, and take action.

Visit our executive coaching page to learn more about how we help you achieve your personal or professional goals or partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges.


Getting started is as easy as visiting www.organizationaltalent.com or contacting us via email info@organizationaltalent.com.


Organizational Talent Consulting utilizes proven, simple, and transformational personal and organizational development solutions to help our clients learn, change, and apply tools in ways that benefit their unique needs and corporate culture.



References:


Grenny, J., Patterson, K., McMillan, R., Switzler, A., & Gregory, E. (2021). Crucial conversations. McGraw-Hill Education.


Patterson, K., (2005). Crucial confrontations: Tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior. McGraw-Hill.


TEDTalks: Brene Brown—The power of vulnerability (2010). TED.



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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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