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Embracing Vulnerability: Leaders in Difficult Conversations

Have you ever wrestled with the idea of being vulnerable in a 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 you care about them. But, concerns about managing perceptions often keep leaders from showing vulnerability. And when a leader is guarded in a difficult conversation, it promotes distrust. Although leaders are expected to convey an image of competence, confidence, and power, followers already know you are not perfect. Leaders have to learn to be comfortable without having all the information wanted or needed in difficult conversations. Being vulnerable requires courage and produces trust. If you find yourself accidentally avoiding vulnerability in difficult conversations, here are five proven strategies that will move you closer to your goal.

Why Leadership Vulnerability Matters in the Workplace

In a fast-paced digital workplace, leaders need empowered followers to take charge. But taking charge in a crisis can be risky. However, a recent study revealed that only 30% of employees see a reason to say something when they see something is wrong, and only 30% believe their opinion counts.

Vulnerability in the workplace is found to enhance:

  • trust

  • collaboration

  • innovation

  • employee retention

  • psychological safety

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

The Power of Vulnerability

As a leader, vulnerability involves taking risks that might end in failure or create the best of what might be in the organization. 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. Vulnerability is a courageous choice.

In this short video, Simon Sinek expands on the tension leaders face and how to show vulnerability in the workplace as a leader.

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 by 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.

Here is a Ted Talk by Brene Brown discussing The Power of Vulnerability:

Are You Being Vulnerable in Difficult Conversations?

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

  • a score of 75-100 indicates you have a high degree of vulnerability in difficult conversations

  • a score of 55-75 indicates you have a moderate degree of vulnerability in difficult conversations

  • a score of 20-55 indicates 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.

How to Be Vulnerable in a Difficult Conversation

While there is no one complete checklist of actions you can take to show vulnerability. The following five strategies are compiled from proven research on mastering difficult conversations:

Vulnerability Strategy #1: Be transparent

Keep the conversation open and genuine. 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.

Vulnerability Strategy #2: Put others first

Entering a difficult conversation with the motivation to win or give the best answer will not lead to good outcomes. Putting others first doesn't mean thinking less of yourself. It means starting with the intent to understand before being understood. Listen for what they need from the conversation.

Vulnerability Strategy #3: Demonstrate selfless love

Selfless love is to will the good of the other person. Demonstrating selfless love in a difficult conversation involves being self-aware and showing 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.

Vulnerability Strategy #4: Take action

Difficult conversations are costly when neglected. Consider the what, where, how, and when of the conversation. Balance the need to prepare with the need to take action. It is easy to get caught in a trap of waiting for more information, leading to procrastination.

Vulnerability Strategy #5: Ask for feedback

Vulnerability is about being weak to defend your point of view and desiring to learn something new. When asking for feedback in a difficult conversation, it is helpful to remember that it is a gift given. You can not address what you can not hear. If you are delivering a very tough message that has not been shared before, it can be best to be direct and to the point and then offer to discuss it later. This allows time for the message to be processed analytically and emotionally at their pace before you ask for feedback.

What is your leadership vulnerability challenge?

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.

  • Vulnerability is a courageous choice.

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

  • Be transparent, put followers first, demonstrate selfless love, take action, and ask for feedback.


Edelman. (2023). Edelman trust barometer: Navigating a polarized world.

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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I hope you enjoy reading this blog post.

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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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