Why Success Can Come from 'Weakness' at Work
Business + Economy

Why Success Can Come from 'Weakness' at Work

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

You’ve made a mistake on the job – or you know you have a certain weakness when it comes to your work responsibilities. Should you fess up to your boss and to your team – or let it go and try to fix the problem on your own (or just ignore it completely)?

Admitting to your manager that you’ve, in fact, made a mistake or talking openly about your weaknesses isn’t usually something employees think will help them snag a raise or promotion or move ahead in their careers – but psychologist Brené Brown, Ph.D., begs to differ.

Brown challenged common misperceptions about leadership and success during a popular December 2010 TED talk on vulnerability and its importance, which went wildly viral and became one of TED's top ten most-viewed videos, with nearly 6 million views and counting. “Vulnerability is not weakness,” Brown said.  Instead, it’s “our most accurate measurement of courage.” She added that making yourself vulnerable is necessary for creativity, innovation, and advancement in your career. 

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After leading a decade-long study at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work on shame, vulnerability and authenticity, Brown has a new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, in which she discusses how we can live more authentically—and the importance of taking risks and admitting to mistakes in order to achieve goals.

With a culture of fraud and cover-ups prevalent in Washington and Wall Street, the concept has struck a chord with many business leaders. Chip Conley, for example, founder of the Joie de Vivre Hotel chain, believes that managers win their employees’ loyalty by admitting that they don’t always know all the answers – but  are determined to find them. “It’s counterintuitive, but it’s also proven to be accurate: Vulnerability is power and I believe in this power," he told Forbes recently. “Being authentic is the first step to creating trust.”

The Fiscal Times (TFT): Why are these qualities a measure of courage when it comes to professional or career moves?
Brené Brown (BB): I define vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” The willingness to show up and engage in the midst of uncertainty is the heart of leadership and moral courage. The willingness to take risks and put our ideas and concerns on the table even when it leaves us emotionally exposed to criticism and judgment – this is a fundamental element of innovation and creativity.

When you see innovation, you can be sure that someone somewhere had the courage to be vulnerable and put forth an idea that was probably met with criticism and doubt. When you see someone stand up and take ownership of a mistake, that’s vulnerability.

TFT: But how does it help people make allies at work?
BB: When building relationships – with colleagues, friends, and clients – we look for openness and authenticity; we ask ourselves, “Are you who you say you are?” We’re reluctant to trust someone who’s completely armored. Trust and connection work as the glue that holds relationships together, and neither can exist without vulnerability.

TFT: What kind of skills could one develop by being less guarded?
BB: The big two ones are asking for help and setting boundaries. Our culture attaches self-worth to productivity, so we’re often afraid to ask for help or to say “no” when we’re asked to take on too much. Part of embracing vulnerability is finding the courage to say, “I need help,” or “I can’t add one more thing to my plate” – or “No, I’m not going to check my email or texts at night.”

TFT: Should people go out of their way to be like this or take risks when looking for jobs?
BB: When I was interviewing for my first academic position, a senior faculty member gave me a great piece of advice. She said, “When you’re doing your interviews, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re interviewing them, too. If you don’t have questions for them, then you’re not valuing yourself or your work. Also, before you walk out, look at the group and say, ‘If you have any concerns that would prevent you from recommending me for this position, I’d like the opportunity to address them before I leave.’”

I remember thinking, “There’s no way I can say that.” It felt so vulnerable. I barely felt comfortable asking them anything but rote questions about the position. Yet somehow I mustered up the courage to ask some very specific questions about the position and about their expectations. Then I took a deep breath and asked them to put their concerns on the table so I could have the opportunity to respond to them. The interviewers looked shocked, and I felt like I was coming out of my skin.
It was a rough twenty minutes, but also a worthwhile twenty minutes – and  I’m confident that I landed my dream job based on that conversation.

TFT: In what ways might people who feel stuck in a job and are unable to get promoted or a raise present themselves as more human?
BB: What emerged from my research is that people often deal with being stuck by disengaging or blaming. Practicing vulnerability, or what I call “daring greatly,” might mean sitting down with a boss and saying, “Look, I’m feeling stuck. Here’s the job or position that really interests me, and I want some very specific, measurable feedback that tells me what I need to do to achieve this. I want specific goals and a timeline, and I need your help.” If you don’t have a boss who’s  willing or capable of doing this, then it’s a bigger issue. Then you have to find a mentor (inside or outside the organization).

TFT: Can you name five kinds of risks that every professional should take in his/her career?
BB: 1. Get clear on your values and take the risk of living by them and possibly disappointing or pissing off people. Living outside of our values or what I call ‘incongruent living’ is exhausting and unsustainable. Ask yourself: What’s important to you? What makes you come alive? What’s non-negotiable? Where’s your line?

2. Get very clear about your superpowers and your kryptonite [at work]. It feels risky and vulnerable, but success demands that we know what we do really well and what brings us down.

3. Find someone who is doing something that you’d love to do and risk asking them for help, guidance or mentorship.

4. Learn how to give and receive feedback. When done well, there’s nothing more vulnerable and more transformative than giving and receiving feedback. It’s shocking how few leaders and managers have this skill. Similarly …

5. Contribute more than you criticize. In this culture it’s easier and safer to criticize and be cynical. Take the risk of being a contributor.