When does vulnerability in leadership become too much?

When does vulnerability in leadership become too much?

Too much of a good thing can have negative consequences. Could this also be true of vulnerability in leadership? There is increasing research and anecdotes about the empathic leader that shows the value in personal humanity and empathy for others. The movement for ‘bring your whole self to work’ has positive intentions to allow people to be their authentic selves, but when does it cross the line? 

People follow those they feel they can trust. Research has found our instinct to trust is first built through showing warmth and then proving capability. Warmth can be developed through connecting and caring for others. It can be deepened by expressing their own emotional and human challenges and shared experience. 

But, when does too much vulnerability risk undermining that trust?

Working with an impassioned leader many years ago, they were emotionally invested in their team and worked hard to ensure the quality of their work and reputation within the organisation.  As an empathetic leader they were great at connecting with their team and picking up on shifts in motivation or mood well before they were raised. They would often share their personal issues, anxiety and fears, encouraging others to do the same. The challenge was, there were no limits to the emotional sharing and they often felt disappointed if the team didn’t reciprocate sharing and provide support and reassurance. 

Their intention was to strengthen the connection and trust within the team. Instead, oversharing, excessive input into tasks, and looking to have their emotional needs met by their team, created anxiety and uncertainty, impacting productivity and the team’s confidence to perform their work autonomously. 

How do you get the balance right?

Strong foundations

Effective leadership can demonstrate authenticity by sharing some of life’s challenges or admitting you don’t have all the answers. It also provides a sense of stability to your team, knowing you can steer them through the challenges. Stability and strong foundations allows others to grow with more confidence to solve problems creatively and take risks.  Oversharing personal issues, fears, and anxiety can leave others wondering if it will all be okay. 

Demonstrating professional boundaries helps build stable foundations allowing others to grow.

It’s not a two way street

When we share vulnerability, an aspect to consider is who am I sharing it with and what is the relationship dynamic? Is it an equal peer relationship or leader-subordinate? Employees are looking for their emotional needs to be met at work relating to belonging, fulfilment and growth but may feel ill-equipped as well as uncomfortable to be involved in their leader’s emotional development. 

Downside of having your emotional needs met

Showing vulnerability is important but taken too far. The instinct to share challenges and feelings is an attempt to have our own emotional needs met. If those emotional needs aren’t met it’s not uncommon for anxiety to build, and as a reaction double down on communication and overseeing tasks. Creating some sense of control is a way of reducing anxiety, leading to unintentional micro management. 

Don’t risk your reputation

Being authentic is essential to build trust and open communication but whatever we share opens us to judgement. But, however, what if bringing your whole self to work puts your professional reputation at risk? Take the situation where a colleague doesn’t want to refer a friend because ‘they know too much about them’. We all have many aspects to our lives and personality, not all are effective in a professional setting. 

A few simple strategies can ensure your team experience you as you intended

Decide who you want to be at work

If your colleagues were asked to describe you, what three words would you like them to use? As our reputation is built on what we do consistently. What daily behaviours support how your colleagues and team to experience you?

Decide where your professional boundaries lie

What aspects of your life do you want to share with your colleagues and team and in how much detail? You can show emotional vulnerability and your humanity without sharing all the personal details of your life. 

Create support outside work

A leader’s role can be lonely. The more senior you become the less peers, development support and confidantes you will have.  Everyone struggles at some point with self confidence and clarity on direction and value. Seek out support whether through mentors, network, coaches or family and friends. 

Above all, striking the balance between human connection and delivering results can mean you not only build prosperous organisations, but also grow a respected reputation, feeding a long productive career.

Andrea has spent over 25 years working with organisations, leaders and employees at every stage of a business and career life cycle. She has created positive impact for organisations through her work with executives, leadership teams, and diverse functional teams within the arts, education, government and media organisations as examples. With over 15 years experience within career development and coaching, her direct knowledge of individuals fears and challenges and insights across a broad spectrum of sectors and organisations, creates a unique understanding of what employees need to thrive.