Demonstrating vulnerability is difficult at the best of times -- but for the leaders protecting their businesses from the uncertainty of a global pandemic, doing so can feel next to impossible.
Over the last few months, business heads have needed to move their operations into remote workspaces, rethink their products, reroute their supply chains, and navigate a business landscape that has been irrevocably changed by COVID-19. Many have been forced to conduct layoffs and furloughs; others have been pushed into a hiring surge. Team members look to their company heads for direction and reassurance -- they want to know that their leaders are ready and able to lead their team through the crisis. Given the context, why on earth would any leader voluntarily say, “I’m overwhelmed?”
As it turns out, there is a business case for demonstrating vulnerability during a crisis. But before we delve into it, we need to define what the term means in this context. Vulnerability doesn’t equate to weak leadership; instead, it means having the capacity to overcome professional walls and share your uncertainties and emotional responses with others.
As you might imagine, this shift can be incredibly difficult for leaders, especially given that we are often coached to present ourselves as being self-assured, competent, and confident. We believe that in appearing strong, we reassure our staff and maintain better control over our companies during uncertain times. The very idea of letting that curated “public image” crack can seem ill-advised and even frightening. But sometimes, not opening up can have even worse consequences.
“We hide emotions in an attempt to stay in control, look strong, and keep things at arm’s length,” leadership and strategy consultant, Doug Sundheim, writes for the Harvard Business Review. “But in reality, doing so diminishes our control and weakens our capacity to lead — because it hamstrings us. We end up not saying what we mean or meaning what we say. We beat around the bush. And that never connects, compels, or communicates powerfully.”
This can be damaging enough on its own; poor communication can take a detrimental toll on team productivity and engagement, after all. However, lackluster communication isn’t the only problem at hand here. When leaders hide their vulnerability behind curated images of strength, they risk telegraphing toxic inauthenticity to their staffers.
“Just think of how uncomfortable you feel around someone you perceive as ‘taking on airs’ or ‘putting on a show,’” Emma Seppälä, a management expert and Yale faculty member, shared in an article on leadership vulnerability. “We tend to see right through them and feel less connected [...] Rarely do these answers satisfy – because we sense it’s not true.”
If we want to forge real, lasting, and productive connections with your employees, you need to demonstrate your authenticity -- and that means opening yourself up to vulnerability.
“Here’s what may happen if you embrace an authentic and vulnerable stance,” Seppälä continues. “Your staff will see you as a human being; they may feel closer to you; they may be prompted to share advice; and – if you are attached to hierarchy – you may find that your team begins to feel more horizontal. While these types of changes may feel uncomfortable, you may see that [...] the benefits are worth it.”
The benefits Seppälä refers to are significant. Multiple studies have demonstrated that leaders’ emotional competence correlates to high performance, improved employee creativity, fostered more trusting team relationships, and led to greater employee engagement and innovation rates. All of these factors, in turn, can lead to improved business performance and outcomes.
So, how can we apply these lessons to our current COVID-19 context?
Expressing vulnerability during the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean telling your staff that you are uncertain or anxious. Instead, it means welcoming employees into meaningful team conversations and making emotionally-aware conversations a priority.
Take Dan Price, the CEO of the credit card processor Gravity Payments, as an example. Earlier this month, Price’s approach to leading through COVID-19 was used as a case study for empathetic, vulnerable leadership in the Harvard Business Review. After the pandemic began, Gravity Payments’ monthly revenue fell by half. The company’s sudden loss left Price with an unenviable choice: layoffs or continued financial losses.
But Price chose a somewhat different route. For four straight days, he and his COO met with employees to gather input on the problem. Ultimately, they decided to reduce salaries instead of laying people off -- and did so in a rather unusual way. Rather than cutting pay by a fixed amount, Price asked employees to privately say how much they would be willing to forego each pay period. His open, emotionally-attuned leadership established a culture of trust and ensured that he didn’t lose good people to bad circumstances.
At the end of the day, vulnerability is about letting people in and authentically connecting with your employees. As Sundheim reflects in his writing, “It’s a paradoxical tension that leaders must manage: providing direction, guidance, and reassurance while acknowledging that the path ahead isn’t clear. Doing one thing without the other doesn’t work. Both are needed to help people find the clarity and strength to move forward.”
Authenticity is important -- now, more than ever. Though it might seem counterintuitive, revealing the emotions behind your curated persona may be what helps you and your business persist through this crisis and emerge, even stronger, on the other side.