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20th May 2022
Vulnerability is a strength

“Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous”

Brene Brown

There’s a common misconception that business has to be ‘tough’, that it has to be gritty and cutthroat, and that success is a zero-sum game.

Whilst there is an element of truth to this – after all, businesses are often in direct competition – those who embrace this philosophy run the risk of being consumed by it. Those who view business in this way begin to see competition and conflict wherever they turn, and ultimately risk coming to regard their own workforce through this distorted view.

Sadly, some entrepreneurs still view their workforce as a tool for their own success – as something to be wrestled with to ensure the maximum value from the minimum investment. Dissent is quashed, concerns are brushed aside, and order amongst the rank and file is treasured above all else.

I rejected this ideology, and chose to do the opposite. Where others saw dissent, I saw valuable insight, where they saw employee concerns as a threat to their leadership, I saw them as a challenge to improve my company. Most importantly, where others cultivated an uncompromising persona, I embrace the power of vulnerability.

Vulnerability can be mistakenly viewed as a weakness in men, and in particular, men in business. I disagree. Vulnerability takes guts, determination, and strength.

After the failure of my first business, I decided that my next venture would embrace the value of vulnerability. I knew that to succeed again in such a competitive field, my business would need a team who believed in me, who shared my goals and ambitions, and so I set to work creating an environment where trust among my employees was the ultimate goal.

It certainly wasn’t easy! I had to reshape my way of thinking and restructure the chain of command in such a way that I was always open and accessible to my workers. I sought to understand their concerns and make them a priority in our operations. I encouraged workers to speak to me directly, and even set up a direct hotline to my email address so that anyone in my company – from the directors to the interns – could come to me with their ideas, fears, critiques and concerns.

Four years later, my business had grown from a garden shed start-up to an empire worth £70m.

So why is vulnerability so powerful? How can being open with your employees have a direct correlation with success? The answer is that vulnerability has a powerful ripple effect.

I’m sure many of us can relate to the sensation of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to turn. Many people will have felt that they can’t bring the problems they are experiencing to their superiors. It’s a claustrophobic feeling that leads to stress, which in turn leads to falling performance and burnout, which in turn leads then to wider business problems. Left unaddressed, this negative cycle could cause issues with quality and standard of work, or could damage relationships with stakeholders such as suppliers, partners and clients.

Now, let’s imagine that our hypothetical employee was able to turn to their manager or boss, and explain in an open setting how they have been struggling. A great manager will recognise the issue immediately and will work with others to ensure that the employee in question is given the resources and support required to break out of their rut and continue to deliver excellence.

This will boost the employee’s self-confidence and will allow them to go on to help others who may be struggling within their team. Not only will this ensure the continued delivery of excellent performance, it will have a positive effect on morale – not just for the employee in question, but for all those who work with them.

For vulnerability to work, it has to be used from the top-down. Just as the employee felt comfortable with bringing concerns to a manager, a manager must be able to speak openly to a director, and so on all the way up the ladder.

Vulnerability is a two-way street. You can’t expect your subordinates to be open with you, if you can’t be open with them. It’s vital that leaders share their honest feelings, their concerns and their emotions. You can’t mandate vulnerability; you have to exemplify it.

So, how can we embrace vulnerability? It’s not easy, but with the right mentality, and consistent effort, it will yield outstanding results.

Firstly, prepare to feel uncomfortable. Opening up to others will initially feel frightening, at the very least it will feel a little bit awkward; but once you have – and when your employees open up in return – it will start to become second nature.

Secondly, you have to approach vulnerability with sincerity. People are intuitive, so any faux vulnerability carefully curated to inspire openness will be detected (and rejected) by your employees. Vulnerability isn’t a tool to be used to self-serve, it’s an ethos that can only be shared with others when you’re honest with yourself.

Thirdly, give others permission to be vulnerable. Encourage genuine dialogue beyond the usual boardroom discussions. Try to gently draw out moments of vulnerability and when employees do open up, nurture that trust by taking their concerns and insight seriously. When I was encouraging my workforce to engage with me, I shared my email with all employees with the promise that any dialogue between us would be utterly confidential, I only requested honesty in return.

If you can embrace vulnerability yourself, you will encourage your employees (or colleagues, friends, partner etc.) to engage with you honestly, openly and with the belief that you value their input. The ripple effect of vulnerability means that your business can thrive in an atmosphere that rewards openness. The morale boost will be beyond anything that team-building and away-days can generate.

Vulnerability isn’t a good business person’s hidden weakness. It’s their greatest strength.

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