When Vulnerability Goes Wrong

Workplace vulnerability can help create a culture of trust, engagement, and respect. Patrick Lenconi talks extensively about vulnerability being important to forming trust in a healthy organization. 

But have you ever experienced a team member who is a little too vulnerable?  

"I know I didn't do that right. I'm just so dumb!"

When someone beats themselves up to a degree that requires others to prop them up, if expressions of vulnerability cause teammates to question capability, or make them squirm with discomfort or pity, that is vulnerability gone bad.

When employees turn vulnerability into an excuse to deflect criticism or offload responsibilities, it can be harmful to your team and culture. When vulnerability is used to avoid improvement, it is important for you as the leader to address it.

Photo by  Nathan Dumlao  on  Unsplash

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

One possible approach is to ignore their protests of not being capable, and see if there is an underlying issue with them not understanding the value of the work you are expecting them to do. The key in this approach is not to be diverted into talking about their vulnerable statement, and stay on focus as to the importance of the work.

"I'd like to talk with you about the paperwork.
Is now a good time?"

"I don't know why I can't get myself to fill out the report.
I've always been really bad at that."

"How do you see reports as important for your role and for the company?"

"It just seems like it isn't as important as the other things I have to do.
And I've never been good at paperwork."

"How do you think our reports add value for the company?"

"Well, I guess we need it to close out the customer project."

"How do you see closing the customer project as helping the company?"

"Well, I guess then we can bill the customer for the work."

"I agree, that's pretty important for the customer and our company.
What ideas do you have for making sure the report gets done?"

"I can schedule time on my calendar each week to take care of it."

"That sounds like a good plan. Let's check in in a couple of weeks to see how it's going."

Another approach is to address the avoidance directly. Again, it's important not to get caught up in reacting to every put down with a reassurance, but to stay on track with your topic.

"I'd like to talk with you about how we're working together. Is now a good time?"

"I don't know why I can't get myself to create reports.
I've always been really bad at that."

"Your work is really important to the business, and there are a lot of things you do really well. I've noticed that it's hard to talk about how to improve the things that aren't going as well when your first reaction is often to put yourself down."

"Oh, sorry. I'm so bad about putting myself down.
It's a really bad habit I have."

'Are you interested in talking about how we could work together when something isn't going as well as it could?"

"I'm just so self-critical. I think I got that from my dad who was always putting me down.
It was rough growing up in that situation."

"I see. Are you interested in talking about how we could work together when something isn't going as well as it could?" 

"Oh, sure."


Ultimately the purpose of vulnerability in the workplace is to develop and deepen relationships that foster trust and understanding, and increase team performance.  Great team members ask for help when they need it, and don't use vulnerability as an excuse.  

If you find yourself avoiding talking to one of your team members about their performance because they are already beating themselves up, it may be time for you to step into that conversation.