Embracing vulnerability to unleash greatness
How I learned to put myself out there.
March 2, 2018 11 min read
On February 7, 2015, my son Liam was born. A healthy 9 pounds and 3 ounces of pure joy. But the bliss of having a new baby was quickly replaced by exhaustion, uncertainty and self-doubt. Days turned into weeks, and I couldn't understand why I was having so much trouble figuring out this motherhood thing. I researched everything. Feed on demand or implement a schedule? Breastfeed or formula? Co-sleep or crib? I kept meticulous notes on every moment of the day trying to look for patterns and answers. I was tired and I was defeated.
I couldn't wait to get back to work after maternity leave--now that was a job, I knew I was good at. I was sure it would be the answer to all my problems. Boy was I wrong. About a month after returning to work, things came to a head. Everything I experienced on maternity leave was exponentially worse because now I was also trying to fit in a full-time job and give 100% to both--it just didn't add up. I finally came to terms with what I was actually dealing with: Post-Partum Depression.
I had reached a breaking point, and I knew I needed to talk to my boss. But I was so ashamed. I had a reputation at work for being a strong performer, and on top of that, my boss was someone I looked up to as a "perfect" leader. Certainly, she'd think less of me after sharing this.
I was a nervous wreck preparing for our meeting. I even wrote out a script that danced around the actual post-partum depression piece. But in the end, I decided I just needed to lay it all out there. It was one of the hardest conversations I'd ever have-with a totally unexpected outcome.
She looked me in the eye and said: "I'm so sorry you are going through this. Take whatever time you need. I care about you first and foremost as a human being. And you WILL get through this."
She went on to share the story of her own deeply personal struggle with something similar about 20 years earlier, and even though it was incredibly hard, she got through it. I was shocked. Here was this strong, smart, confident woman who was my definition of a successful leader - sharing an incredibly personal struggle with me. At that moment not only was my recovery launched and supercharged but the way I thought about how I showed up at work changed forever.
Thinking back, I realized I was constantly concerned with how I appeared at work. I told myself it was professionalism, but really it was leaning way too far into creating a false sense of perfection. The problem with what I was doing was that it was holding me back from bringing my whole self to work and shielding me from being open to new ideas because I was afraid of failure.
That's when I started to understand the importance of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is the tool that allows us to take small steps that will ultimately add up in a big way. There are two big benefits to being more vulnerable in the workplace - team members that feel like they can bring more of themselves to work, and a culture that thrives on innovation. Brené Brown, one of the leading minds in the vulnerability field, defines vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure".
When vulnerability isn't welcome, ideas are held back. When our ideas are held back, so is innovation. That's because being innovative requires a culture that embraces failure, and in order for us to feel empowered to fail, vulnerability must be woven into the fabric of our company's DNA. Think about it. If a company's culture is built on being right 100% of the time, how could anything breakthrough ever be developed? And would we really be giving our customers the best solutions?
It's easier said than done though. I was the worst at creating the perception that things were perfect. Brené Brown calls that "armor," and almost all of us are guilty of showing up to work with some kind of armor on each day. Whether it shows up as having to do everything perfectly, pretending to know the answer, or simply holding back our thoughts, it shields us from creating genuine connections and stifles innovation.
Not everyone is going to go through post-partum depression, talk to their boss, and have a complete transformation like I did! My experience taught me that I had some major reassessing to do in how I showed up at work. The degree that each of is vulnerable at work can range from super-personal, to how you interact and what questions you ask.
So how can we be more vulnerable at work? Here are 7 tips
1. Ask questions
I used to think asking questions was a sign of weakness, so I'd hold back in meetings if I didn't understand something. I'd end up causing myself a lot more work trying to find out the answers later.
2. Ask for help
Ask (and accept!) help from others. This is an ongoing thing I have to work on, but I've found people are so willing to help and they want to be asked! If I had just come out and said that I was having a hard time when I returned to work, I would have saved myself a lot of pain and suffering.
3. Take the blame
When something doesn't go as expected, apologize and learn from it. I recently mustered every bit of courage I had to pull a team together to apologize for a project that had flopped, and then talked together about what we learned for next time.
4. Ask for feedback
And be prepared to get it! Earlier this year I told some coworkers I was working on my presentation skills and I wanted their feedback after a big meeting. They told me my presentation was kind of bland. It's never easy to hear what you could do better, but they had some good suggestions that I could put into practice the next time I gave a big presentation.
5. Accept imperfection
This is another one that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. I can't tell you how many times I've agonized over wording an email perfectly only to realize I had spent way too much time on something that probably wasn't going to get looked at closely at all. I've had to force myself to be ok with good enough.
6. Ask how people are doing
Then make sure you're listening to their answers. Whether you lead a team or not, the simple act of showing a genuine care for how someone else is doing, and listening to what they say is so valuable.
7. Practice vulnerability
Find someone you trust and practice going outside of your comfort zone. I recently worked with a leader who was awesome at drawing out ideas on paper. We'd go back and forth until we thought what we had was good enough to put into a formal document. He was several levels more senior than me, and I remember thinking "Wow, I don't need to prepare slides every time I meet with you? We can just…talk? And sketch ideas?" He taught me that I didn't have to have all of the answers and to be comfortable with brainstorming. I try to instill the same values in my team now.
So where am I today?
My son has taught me that, yes, motherhood is a job, but it's one where you can learn as you go and one that I've grown to cherish. I started a support group at work for new moms and lead the local chapter of our Women's Business Resource Group. As a leader, I've been inspired to create environments where people can bring more of themselves to work.
The journey I went through a little more than three years ago, while somewhat of an extreme example, was a true tipping point for me. It caused me to reevaluate how I was showing up at work and understand why it had been so hard for me to be "real" when I encountered struggles of any kind.
It took becoming totally, absolutely, intensely vulnerable to become strong again. And in that experience, I realized that vulnerability isn't weakness. It's courage, and it's strength. And it's actually a key to unleashing the greatness that's within all of us.