Vulnerable Leadership Builds Engagement

Paul Rumsey

Today’s workforce is literally begging for authenticity, respect, transparency and even vulnerability from its leaders. Unfortunately, leaders often have the misperception that they must always be strong and full of answers as the sole decision makers. Expressing any weakness or lack of knowledge, in their mind, could lead toward anarchy or disrespect. That stigma fools nobody except the leader because teams truly know the leader’s strengths and weaknesses.  

This type of disillusioned leader actually creates an unhealthy work culture.

Guarded Culture

Leaders who appear to know it all create a guarded culture in which individuals walk on egg shells. The culture screams, “I have all the answers, so just do what I say.” I heard one senior leader at a Fortune 1000 company tell his team that their job was to make him look good. That mentality is very top down and contrary to a servant leader ‘s mindset. When I heard that comment, I wondered what company or person values he felt that statement emulated. If it’s all about the leader, then employees will be guarded against anything that might challenge the leader’s perspective.

Guarded leaders create distrust from and toward their employees. These leaders often work very long hours, avoid vacations and attend too many meetings because they don’t trust their teams to handle the work. They micro-manage the tasks or require all decisions to be passed through them first. High potential employees will comply for a limited time but will eventually seek a leader and culture that fosters their engagement and professional growth.

Resistant Culture

Innovation plays a key part in helping organizations reach their goals. Leaders who fear vulnerability, though, actually stifle innovation because teams are resistant toward taking a risk on an innovative idea if they fear punishment or ridicule if something goes wrong. Instead of piloting a concept when it is 80% ready (or less), they delay implementation until all aspects are 100% and then pray that nothing goes wrong. 

These leaders’ collaboration in the project design stage wanes because they want to ensure that things are done the way in which they feel comfortable. The sad truth, though, is that they limit the empowerment of their teams to bring innovative solutions that could actually guarantee a quality end result and bolster the leader’s business impact. Instead, teams are resistant to change, innovation or continuous improvement because they are focused on perfection.

Fortunately, some leaders step up to the plate and realize that their effectiveness lies in strong emotional intelligence that is self-aware of their own strengths and limitations. These insightful leaders create a culture of highly engaged teams. 

Safe Culture

When leaders encourage employees to take balanced risks, pilot creative solutions and actually make decisions, their teams will elevate their relationship building skills through collaboration, professional debate and respectful brainstorming.   This vulnerability will provide employees with a safe environment in which to apply best practices to mitigate risks, engage all stakeholders, clarify success criteria and conduct process improvement. The end result will be an engaged team that reaches success together.

Transparent Culture

Transparency builds trust, which in turns increases employee engagement. When leaders are transparent and partner with their teams to solve problems and create new initiatives, they allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of their employees. That vulnerability is actually a sign of courage and strength because weak people hide their opportunity areas, but secure people acknowledge them and use them in a positive way to show compassion, respect and learning agility. Team members will then tend to open up more about their own development needs and will be more open to others’ constructive feedback. Walls go up when transparency disappears.

Action Items for Being Appropriately Vulnerable

  1. Have a 360 assessment done and select 2 key behaviors to focus on in development. Share those with your stakeholder group and ask them for specific actions they want to see you do that will show you are intentional about developing those behaviors.
  2. Look at your team’s engagement scores if you do an annual engagement survey. Admit the areas needing focus and ask your team to identify specific action items that would increase their engagement.
  3. Determine areas that you can empower your team members to make decisions. Coach them on effective decision making and then sponsor (instead of negating) their decisions whenever possible.
  4. Share with your team your annual performance goals and engage them on ways that their work aligns with your goals and the overall strategy.
  5. Admit a mistake quickly.
  6. Look for opportunities to recognize your team members when they take balanced risks and when they have early wins.
  7. When someone provides feedback, make sure that the first thing you say is “Thank you.”
  8. Share with your colleagues and team your own professional development plan.
  9. In your 1:1s with your boss, occasionally ask for feedback on your project leadership effectiveness.
  10. In your 1:1s with your boss, occasionally ask for feedback on your people leadership effectiveness.

Paul Rumsey is the Chief Learning Officer for Parkland Health and Hospital System.