Textbook leadership advice doesn’t always apply to women who also need to address for bias. In our series, When the Rules Don’t Apply, experts will explore real, nuanced solutions to help women executives navigate their lived experiences as they rise up in leadership.
Women have been portrayed as the sex most prone to weakness, exploitation, and emotional manipulation for eons. (Think Eve, serpent, apple). But for every stereotypical Sleeping Beauty and Snow White — women susceptible to harm and exposed to danger — there is now an empowered woman in the C-Suite with personal agency to spare. And in 2023, she got a surprising memo: vulnerability is not only acceptable, but desirable.
From Senator John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat lauded for transparency about his mental health, to Prince Harry, who described being in touch with his emotions as a “superpower,” (male) leaders are now being celebrated for their vulnerability. As leadership models that prize stoicism fell out of favor in the wake of the pandemic and authentic leadership gained traction, embracing weaknesses became a strength and the era of vulnerable leadership was born.
That’s a good thing. But for women leaders, it’s complicated.
Vulnerability is still often equated with feminine weakness or victimization (think poison apple, cursed spindle).
Research shows that women are under more professional scrutiny, and judged more negatively for exhibiting the same behaviors as men in the workplace. For instance, male displays of emotion are “passionate” while women who show the same emotions are “irrational.” As a result, women tend to have less emotional latitude, and the concern that showing vulnerability will undermine their competence or jeopardize their reputation is very real.
Yet there are ways that women leaders can embrace their softer side — at least in environments where there won’t be reprisals for acknowledging mistakes or limitations. Here’s how to tap into vulnerability in a way that won’t leave you feeling exposed.
Vulnerability is linked to building trust and increasing a sense of connection in the workplace. Emotional exposure and authenticity are more “effective in bringing a team together than maintaining professional distance,” explains Katharine Manning, author of The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job.
“Being able to say, ‘Wow, I really messed that up’ is working to create the psychological safety that our organizations and workplaces really need,” she says.
Psychological safety, or the absence of interpersonal fear on the job, allows employees to feel confident using their skills to better their organization. In psychologically safe workplaces, employees are empowered to speak up or admit a mistake without fear of retaliation or humiliation. Engagement, motivation, and team performance have all been shown to improve when a workplace is psychologically safe — and no less important are the personal benefits it provides.
“Speaking as a lesbian, there’s work involved with not being your authentic self,” Manning says. “When you can let go and be who you are, that relieves some of that emotional burden, and you can be more sincere in your interactions.”
It doesn’t help that workers receive mixed messages about vulnerability, explains Heidi Cox, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Centered Space. On one hand, professionals are “basically instructed” to build a brand and don corporate armor to succeed. On the other, they’re told to be authentic and vulnerable. That can create friction, particularly for women who have had to create a facade in the past to succeed in “a man’s world,” she adds.
Even among leaders who value vulnerability, it’s frequently equated with exposure to attacks or judgment. Shaking the negative connotations is hard, but Cox suggests reframing vulnerability as “a state [of being] that is neither good nor bad.”
Yes, vulnerability is exposure — to new ideas, positive change, and risks that propel us toward growth. For instance, the brain is described as “vulnerable” during pregnancy. “But it’s actually neuroplastic, meaning it’s more capable of bonding, connecting, and nurturing,” she explains.
In the wake of a vulnerable moment, when we’re fixated on the flood of thoughts (‘I can’t believe I shared that! Why did I say that?’) Cox recommends focusing on the helpful feelings that arise as well. “Say, ‘I showed up.’ Maybe there was some discomfort, but I got to connect authentically, and there’s tons of good that came from that.”
Leaders can cultivate vulnerability — without feeling overly exposed — by building it into repeated communications, Manning suggests.
At staff meetings, having participants say whether they are “above the line or below the line allows for an easy, gentle check-in.” Another option is for leaders to rate how they’re feeling on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is great and one is awful.
“It can be a useful way to model vulnerability, e.g., ‘I'm at a two today; it's been a pretty rough week for me. I may need you to remind me if there's something you need me to address.’ That kind of statement shows that it's okay to have hard days, and to ask for help when you do, without the person needing to say, for instance, ‘I just found out my husband has been having an affair,’” Manning says.
That said, if anyone has the guts to be vulnerable in the workplace, it should be those at the top.
“If you can’t show up authentically as a leader, then when can you?” says Cox. “The further you go up the ladder, the more you have no excuse not to show up as yourself.”
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