There's a new buzzword in business circles that's changing the way many executives engage with their colleagues.
Vulnerable - four syllables that once conjured up images of inter-office hysterics and weeping in the boardroom - apparently now represents courage and the ability to be real.
Vulnerability makes us approachable, human, humble, and honest.
The 'vulnerability' movement was originally sparked by research professor Brené Brown's 2010 talk on the power of being vulnerable, which has since been viewed by more than 13 million people. Brown went on to pen a New York Times bestseller, Daring Greatly, and to appear on CNN and Oprah.
But vulnerability isn't a new concept in the business world. Many an entrepreneur and global leader has had to risk failure, privately or publicly, in order to succeed.
James Dyson famously created more than 5000 prototypes before creating the Dyson vacuum cleaner, while Bill Clinton chose vulnerability on a public stage when 'coming clean' about Monica Lewinksy.
According to business coach and executive mentor Michelle Duval, vulnerability is about being raw, real, unguarded, transparent and open.
“Vulnerability makes us approachable, human, humble, and honest. We also feel vulnerable when we feel we may be criticised, judged, or even verbally attacked, put down, rejected or abandoned,” says Duval.
“But being vulnerable is also one of the keys to being authentic and therefore a key to be trusted by others. It is integral to building honest, deep and meaningful relationships professionally and personally.”
Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly, about the 'snowball effect' of vulnerable leadership. She references research showcased in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, which shows that when a leader is willing to be vulnerable, his or her subordinates can be inspired by their courage.
Taking risks involves a certain level of vulnerability that we might fail, and stops many in the workforce from speaking up for fear of 'being wrong'.
But Duval suggests that when a business chooses to embrace vulnerability it can thrive.
“If a business culture led by the business owner or executive leadership teams places a true value on authentic communication then they will foster an environment that values transparency and vulnerability," says Duval.
“Leaders need to show their own imperfections and less rehearsed selves, they need to publicly praise people who speak boldly from their heart and offer ideas and suggestions that are different, unique, and even not fully formed yet.
"Why? Because they have come from going out on a limb to speak outside the group discussion and when we do this we are left open to judgement and criticism.”
It's important not to confuse vulnerability with oversharing or bringing your personal issues to work. So how do you know when it's appropriate to be vulnerable in business?
The bottom line, according to Duval, is context and relevance. Ask yourself if what you're about to share is relevant to your audience – your client, your colleague, your employer.
When you have made a mistake, being vulnerable and owning up makes you authentic. When you are going through a divorce, a terminal family illness or something else traumatic, being open enough to let your colleagues know what's going on, without oversharing, is also appropriate.
“You know when you've gone too far when you are now talking to your audience like you would to a therapist or even a friend rather than sharing in context,” says Duval. “If you cannot answer the question 'why is this (still) relevant to this person, group, audience?' then you have taken it too far.”
Brené Brown in her book quotes Peter Sheahan, CEO of behavioural change consultancy, ChangeLabs, on what is needed to encourage risk.
He says that leaders no longer need to be 'in charge' or 'know all the answers' and that this style of management and thinking creates fear and risk aversion - in turn killing innovation.
“If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams,” Sheahan says.
“And this, paradoxically perhaps, requires first that they are vulnerable themselves.”