4 ways to practise vulnerability at work

Your professional façade might be holding you back.
Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, vice-president of finance at 1st Financial Bank USA and founder and CEO of Origin Evolution LLC in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota.
“I’ve heard so much talk in the past few months about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, vice-president of finance at 1st Financial Bank USA and founder and CEO of Origin Evolution LLC in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota.

For many finance professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively torn down the barrier between work and home life. Things that may have been considered unprofessional before the crisis — screaming children in the background of a conference call, forgoing a suit and tie for a polo shirt, divulging your emotional state during a work meeting — are now part of the post-COVID landscape. And that shift has brought many teams closer than ever.

“I’ve heard it from multiple CPA firms who are saying that their teams are closer now that they’re all working remotely than they were when they were sitting in offices next to each other,” said Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, vice-president of finance at 1st Financial Bank USA and founder and CEO of Origin Evolution LLC in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota. “I think it’s really meaningful for people to get behind that curtain and see one another as human.”

Brené Brown, a Texas-based professor, leadership researcher, and bestselling author, has been touting the benefits of vulnerability in the workplace for several years now, and many business leaders have since recognised the advantages of encouraging team members to bring their whole selves to work. The chaos that is 2020 has arguably expedited the prevalence of vulnerability in professional settings.

Practising vulnerability at work not only helps build stronger professional relationships, but it can also nurture innovation and even retain talent in an organisation.

“That ability to lead and manage with a balance of the head and the heart is going to be a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining talent,” said Doug Sundheim, a leadership and organisational consultant based in New York City. “Younger generations are especially interested in having a workplace that acknowledges them as human beings, not just as economic factors that drive value.”

As with most aspects of company culture, organisational leaders are going to have an outsized influence on how safe team members feel sharing emotional vulnerability in the workplace. But no matter what level you’re at within your organisation, there are plenty of ways to practice vulnerability in a safe and professional way.

Model emotional vulnerability. To create a psychologically safe workplace where people feel comfortable sharing vulnerability, leaders must first express that vulnerability themselves.

“As a leader, you can’t tell people to be vulnerable at work, but you can show it,” said Jacob Morgan, a keynote speaker based in San Francisco and author of The Future Leader: 9 Skills and Mindsets to Succeed in the Next Decade. “You can admit you don’t know something, that you’re scared or stressed out. Let your people see you, not just as a leader at work, but also as a human being outside of work.”

A great venue for leaders to do this is during a virtual town hall or check-in meeting.

“Town halls are a great way to do that because leaders are answering things on the fly,” Stevenson said. “They don’t get a chance to digest it in an email and then craft a response — you get the real deal.”

Many leaders have also created forums without formal agendas so that everyone can share their personal experiences. In the fast-paced nature of daily work, it can be challenging to find time to share emotions, even if you’re comfortable doing so, Sundheim said. Carving out specific “check-in” meetings, with a leader modelling vulnerability, often opens the needed door.

“Being able to be vulnerable and share those things makes it easier for other people to do the same thing,” Stevenson said. “And then you have this safe space where you can talk about just about anything.”

Start small and learn to read the room. If you’re unused to practising vulnerability with colleagues, managers, or clients, it’s best to start small and approach from a place of curiosity.

“I don’t think there are any prescriptive ways to do it except start small, experiment, have some courage, and find your way into bringing your whole self to the office,” Sundheim said. “I think it will pay off for your whole career — in relationships across the organisation, with clients, and everyone you come in contact with.”

Your first curious question might be as simple as asking a colleague how everything right now is affecting them. As you venture deeper, pay close attention to the other person’s reactions and back off if you’ve realised you’re making someone uncomfortable. You can prevent oversharing and unprofessional questions by learning to read the person you’re communicating with.

Stevenson recommends getting an idea of what kind of communicator your colleagues and clients are. For example, how you share aspects of yourself with someone who is an analytical communicator would differ from how you share those same aspects with someone who is more of an empathetic communicator.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. As you learn to walk the tightrope between professional vulnerability and unprofessional oversharing, you’re bound to make a social blunder every once in a while. And that’s OK.

“I’ve heard so much talk in the past few months about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Stevenson said. “You’ve got to be OK with messing up.”

If you realised you’ve made someone uncomfortable, Stevenson recommends acknowledging your gaffe, explaining your intent, and asking them how they prefer to communicate.

“Asking them how they communicate is just another way of showing them that you can be vulnerable,” she said.

Focus on building relationships more than building the business. Practising vulnerability with clients and colleagues can be a great way to form deeper bonds and more powerful business relationships.

“What if in finance we focused on this vulnerable leadership, where we are building relationships more than we’re worried about building the business?” Stevenson asked. “I think what we would find is that as we build those relationships, the business actually is better and stronger, we can collaborate more positively, and the results are more innovative because we completely trust one another.”

Stevenson has been working with business owners to get them assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program over the past few months, and she said incorporating vulnerability into those relationships has made the process better for everyone involved.

“Being able to talk about my experience in the consulting world and how difficult it can be as a business owner to keep good business records, and how frustrating I understand that it is that we’re asking for those things, and being able to relate to them has been super rewarding,” she said. “It goes so much further than it does when we treat people like we’re just getting their business.”

She pointed out that talking about money is uncomfortable for many people, and finance professionals often have to ask their clients difficult and personal questions about what’s in their bank accounts. Incorporating vulnerability into those conversations can help clients feel more comfortable.

“We need to get beyond business and really be in a relationship,” she said. “Now it can be a professional relationship, but it’s a relationship — and it takes a lot of work.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at