Vulnerability: The Workplace Superpower Disguised as a Weakness

No matter how much you may want to, you can't be amazing at everything. Enter the most misunderstood workplace superpower around—vulnerability. Here's how to use it to propel yourself to personal and professional success.

Rachel Cooke
7-minute read
Episode #622
The Quick And Dirty

Vulnerability is often misunderstood as a weakness. But it's actually a strength that can fuel your professional success. Some of the key levers to pull are:

  • Humbly say "I dont' know"
  • Boldly ask those around you
  • Fearlessly acknowledge uncertainty
  • Bravely try something new ... and fail

Last year I got a call from Alex, a leader in a consumer products business. He was preparing to make a big change in his organization: new roles, reporting lines, products—a pretty big deal!

“We’ve done a lot of change in the past,” he told me. “Our analysis is always spot on, our products and structures are right. But something always falls apart. We lose productivity, we lose talent, and we lose steam!”

He was looking for a different outcome this time. Luckily, that’s just my jam.

He showed me his change plan, chock full of cells, lines, and boxes. He had thought it all through, just as he’d done every time before.

“Great,” I said. “Now tell me about what you don’t know. What anxieties, questions, and concerns do you have? And what does your team have to say about all of that?”

He stared blankly. Then, he explained that his job was to deliver clarity, confidence, and answers, not questions, uncertainty, and risk.

This, my friends, was our big moment.

Being vulnerable involves being honest about what you don’t know, what scares you, and where you need support from others.

Alex didn't need more intelligence or analysis—that was already working for him. What he needed was vulnerability.

And chances are, in certain moments, so do you. So let’s dive into what vulnerability is, why it serves us, and how you can bring it to life.

What is vulnerability?

In the fourth-most-watched TED Talk of all time (according to TED), researcher Brené Brown describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

But vulnerability is often mistaken for weakness. When we speak of illness, for example, we flag certain populations, like the elderly, as being the most “vulnerable,” the most likely to fall ill.

Real vulnerability is a show of strength, not weakness.

But the brand of vulnerability we’re talking about here has more in common with the Incredible Hulk than elders like, say, Betty White. (Although, don't we all hope Betty White turns out to be invincible?) Real vulnerability is a show of strength, not weakness.

The Brené brand of vulnerability requires courage and confidence. It involves being honest about what you don’t know, what scares you, and where you need support from others.

Why is allowing yourself to be vulnerable at work so powerful?

Showing vulnerability grants you permission to not know everything, to have doubts about your ideas. It lets you ask questions, try something and fail, and invite others to contribute ideas.

And these practices at work, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, create trust, collaboration, innovation, and motivation—all drivers of better business outcomes.

So back to Alex. How did he pave a path to success with vulnerability? And how can you do the same?

When our conversation began, he believed his job was to be a beacon of confidence and knowledge. His role was to provide answers, not seek them. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” didn't sound like a winning strategy to him. But he trusted me and we rolled with it.

We discussed—and mapped out—some strategies he could use to harness his soon-to-be superpower, and it changed the game for him. Here are the areas we focused on.

4 strategies for showing vulnerability

1. Humbly say “I don’t know”

Vulnerability doesn’t equal helplessness. It’s not showing up with a blank stare and no idea. Instead, it's saying “I know some things, but not all.”

After looking at Alex’s change plan I said, “It sounds amazing. But tell me—once this change goes live, how will Finance need to update its dashboards to reflect new metrics? How will Sales and Client Management need to collaborate differently to address new market segments?”

And Alex finally muttered those three magic words: “I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t,” I said.

The wisest ideas harness collective wisdom, the kind that can only be accessed through vulnerability.

No job description I’ve ever read or written has listed “total knowledge of any and all things” as a requirement. Whether you’re a CEO or a junior analyst, your job is to deliver the best ideas and outcomes. But they aren’t all required to come from your mind alone.

And in my experience, the wisest ideas harness collective wisdom, the kind that can only be accessed through vulnerability.

Alex pulled his leadership team together. And as they prepared to hear his confident and fully-formed plan, they stared in astonishment as he delivered the opposite.

There was much, of course, that Alex did know. And we'd get to that. But the intent of this discussion was to focus on what he didn’t. And that set the tone for an open dialog unlike any this team had had before.  

Now your turn. Look at your goals or to-do list. What is one thing whose answer you don’t know completely?

2. Boldly ask those around you

When your armor is up, there’s no room for others to offer ideas. On the other hand, showing humility—admitting you don’t know it all (because, ahem, you don’t)—opens the door to conversation. Remember, vulnerability isn’t the absence of knowledge; it’s the openness to say “Here’s where my knowledge ends and I need yours to begin.”

For Alex, he had rich information at very high levels—targets, numbers, and expected outcomes. But vulnerability allowed him to recognize he had no idea how people’s jobs—their daily experience of work—would change. What questions or anxieties would they have?

Vulnerability isn’t the absence of knowledge. It’s the openness to say 'Here’s where my knowledge ends and I need yours to begin.'

So he asked his team to help him think that through. And their insights were enlightening.

Now it's your turn. Remember that one thing you don't have an answer for? Who can you ask for input?

3. Fearlessly acknowledge uncertainty

By saying “I don’t know” and asking questions, Alex invited insights from his team. But the next level of vulnerability required him to say, “Here are the parts of my plan I’m anxious about.”

Unlocking the team’s ability to proactively problem-solve is another powerful benefit of well-placed vulnerability.

This meant pulling down the mask of confidence. But it unlocked the team’s ability to proactively problem-solve. This is another powerful benefit of well-placed vulnerability.

Only once you let your guard down can you safely say things like “I’m worried the changes in reporting lines will leave customers confused or let down. How can we prevent this from happening?”

Now your turn. What has you feeling anxious or uncertain? Whose wisdom should you tap into?

4. Bravely try something new … and fail

As Brené Brown shares in a Business Insider piece, “Some of the most innovative organizations had ‘failure festivals’ in which leaders could... talk about their mistakes... to share lessons learned.”

Asking for information and ideas was one thing for Alex, but leaning into public failure? That terrified him.

But here’s the thing about failing—it's inevitable. And you have two choices: pretend it didn’t happen and save face or lean in and let it teach you.

Early in my business when I was designing and facilitating executive meetings, my priority was to always seem like the expert who was in control of the situation. But I work with people. And people can be unpredictable.

Sometimes I’d be running a meeting and things weren’t going as I’d planned. People would seem uncomfortable or disengaged. So I’d work hard to hide that, white-knuckling the conversation back on track.

This was the scariest thing I’d ever done. But the team answered my call.

Then one day I took a risk. I stopped mid-meeting and said, “Hey, it feels like engagement has dropped off. Maybe the conversation I designed isn’t the one you need to have right now. What would be most valuable to you in this moment to ensure we achieve our objectives?”

This, people, was the scariest thing I’d ever done. But the team answered my call, and our unscripted meeting delivered.

Expertise comes in many forms. Sometimes, expertise is about what you know. Other times, it’s about knowing what you don’t know and being able to flex.

Workplace vulnerability in action

So how did this apply to Alex?

Remember, he wanted this change to land differently than previous efforts. Enter vulnerability. He asked people around him to help spot past failures, and course-correct this go-around. By asking “What have I done wrong in the past?” he gained some valuable and actionable insights.

A few things he learned from his team:

  • Memos are fine, but they’re not enough. People need live Q&A sessions where they can pose even the “dumb” questions
  • You can focus too much on numbers and data. We want to hear stories of customers interacting with our new strategy
  • We need more training on the new technology

A year has passed since Alex’s call. And I can tell you this change went better than expected.

Approaching any project with this sense of vulnerability can be scary. But I challenge you to experiment with it.

I’ll go first. I have expertise in workplace success. But my experience, like yours, has its limits. So let me ask you, listeners—what's one essential area of workplace success that I haven’t thought to cover? Tweet @qdtmodernmentor or hit me up on LinkedIn to let me know. I can’t wait to hear from you!

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.