8 ways and 5 opportunities to show authentic vulnerability at work without causing yourself (or others) to cringe

8 ways and 5 opportunities to show authentic vulnerability at work without causing yourself (or others) to cringe

by | Mar 31, 2021 | Authentic Relationships

Being authentically vulnerable helps us forge stronger more meaningful connections, and makes us happier and better leaders. Now more than ever it’s important for leaders to role-model their willingness to openly share their concerns, own their imperfections, be agile and place their trust in others’ capabilities.

But ‘opening up’  is easier said than done. It’s hard to be soft didn’t you know?

Being authentically vulnerable is a psychological minefield. Even with the best of intentions it’s easy to come over as fake, forced or fatally flawed.

A word of warning – avoiding the cringe factor

There is little more excruciating than being on the (giving or receiving) end of ‘forced’ vulnerability – where we feel compelled to share something we would rather not as part of an artificially manufactured, simulated and orchestrated management strategy.


2 reasons why being authentically vulnerable is hard

The benefits may be clear, but the reasons why ‘showing our vulnerabilities’ does not come easily to most are more obtuse. Let’s have a crack at explaining them:


1. Ingrained self-protection defence mechanisms

From childhood, we are socialised to hide our worries and weaknesses from others (and sometimes ourselves) as a form of self-protection. By internalising our inferiority complexes, we cover up our struggles and concerns, we pretend we are fine when we are not, and we project in ways that mask our true feelings. These are just some of the strategies we deploy as ‘psychological painkillers’ to numb our fear of being criticised or judged harshly by others, to alleviate our concerns and insecurities about not being good enough, and to avoid the risk of embarrassment or shame.

It’s ingrained in us that being our authentic ‘true self’ is a risky business.

Humans are hardwired to seek approval and cooperation, and we mistakenly believe that by revealing our true selves we may attract others’ disapproval and rejection. As the gap between our private and public worlds widens over time, hiding our vulnerabilities may ultimately become dysfunctional and ironically backfire.

Being persistently invulnerable and inauthentic with the people around us creates a psychological distance which limits the depth of connection people feel to us, and can end up attracting the very criticism we were so highly motivated to avoid in the first place.


2. Confusion

For many people, the concept of ‘vulnerability’ remains an overly abstract concept. We can be bought into the idea of it being a good way to be, convinced of its merits and keen to give it a go – yet remain uncertain about what vulnerability looks like in practical terms within the context of our day-to-day work environment.

If you were being genuinely authentically vulnerable, what would this look like? What would you be saying? Thinking? Feeling? Doing? 

Let’s take a closer look at the essential precursors to being an authentically vulnerable leader.


2 critical conditions to create the right mindset

Being authentically vulnerable can only occur if:

  1. We’re not pretending to feel or think something, and
  2. We’re not succumbing to our insecurities.

In order to show more vulnerability, a person needs to feel and be more vulnerable. If they’re only showing it without simultaneously also feeling and being it, then by definition the vulnerability isn’t authentic – and if vulnerability isn’t authentic then by definition it can’t be vulnerable! (You maybe want to read that one again ?)

An abundance of self-trust and tolerance of accepting emotional risk are the essential precursors to being authentically vulnerable.


8 ways to be a more genuinely vulnerable you

  1. Build trust in yourself – trust that you are good enough as you are; trust that its ok for you to have imperfections and for others to see them; trust that you are adding lots of value and making a useful, respected contribution; and trust that you are much more than your last mistake last bad day/outcome.
  2. Build trust in other people – being vulnerable is to accept, tolerate and live with what we may never know or control.  Accepting that what eventuates is in others’  hands is the litmus test of whether your words match your deeds.
  3. Operate from a position of believing most humans are inherently kind, cooperative, supportive and interested in knowing more of the real you; expect that they will respect and notice the good in you (but accept that they may not).
  4. Observe how you feel and react when you are criticised, challenged or under pressure. Practise asking for help, saying sorry and admitting your mistakes, and believe these are not signs of weakness and are nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, consider these as actions which belong only to those with courage and a strong sense of self.
  5. Build up your risk tolerance by accepting the inevitable uncertainty in human relationships; people are not machines – they are often complex, paradoxical and without guarantee.
  6. Gently remind yourself to let people see more of what ‘the real you’ is feeling and thinking; and accept they may think/feel differently.
  7. Rather than say or do things which are motivated (even subconsciously) to secure others’ approval, try to validate and ‘approve’ of yourself by behaving in ways that align with our values and beliefs. Psychologists call this ‘self-soothing’ – it’s the ability to provide psychological comfort to yourself rather than needing to get an ego boost or reassurance from others.
  8. Rehearse in your mind’s eye what removing your mask will feel like – imagine the relief of showing up for others as your true self, without feeling self-conscious or obliged to conform, of feeling liberated, genuine, sincere, congruent and real.


5 opportunities to experiment with being more vulnerable at work

You might want to reflect on the mindset advice above to prepare  your self-awareness and readiness before going headlong into ‘practising vulnerability’. Only proceed to experimenting when you reach the stage of intuitively and sincerely wanting to become a more truthful leader, truer to yourself and a happier person through developing greater trust and tolerance of discomfort.

Similar to the experience of learning any new skill, as you experiment with vulnerability you can expect to move through distinct phases of feeling ‘consciously incompetent’ and ‘consciously competent’ before it starts to feel like second nature.

As you go through this transition, it might feel overly effortful, forced or fake. But so long as your intention is authentic, your desire to develop yourself is genuine and your motivation for doing so is not about self-interest, then have confidence that the necessary psychological maturity will eventually develop, such that the mindset of trust and risk tolerance becomes layered and integrated into every part of who you are.

Here are some practical ideas for what to say, do, think and feel when 5 different opportunities to feel, be and show more vulnerability present themselves:

  1. Letting your guard down.

  2. Owning your weaknesses and bad habits.

  3. Asking for meaningful help.

  4. Saying sorry.

  5. Exercising your independence of mind and self-autonomy.

We can only be truly vulnerable when we are being our authentic selves, remaining faithful to our real selves and acting without feeling self-conscious. The liberated feelings of relief and joy that come from not having to pretend to be something we are not are the upsides of tolerating the risk and discomfort of being vulnerable.

So try these experiments, and make steps toward becoming a happier, better leader. Just remember to always be real – and please don’t try too hard!


Experiment opportunity #1 – let your guard down.

Share something about yourself that might help your team, boss or colleagues to understand you more fully as a person or correct where they may hold an overly positive view of you or your life.



  • “You might not know this about me but…”
  • “Just to let you know, I’m not feeling on my best form today; I have had a difficult week at home, and I am a bit preoccupied and stressed.”
  • “I have some news to share that I haven’t told you before. I’d like you to know this now because I feel _____.”


  • I will stop pretending to others (and myself) that I have everything under control at work when I don’t, or that my life, leadership and work are  going well when they aren’t.


  • It’s okay not to be perfect or to be leading a perfect life.
  • Others might feel a stronger connection with me and me to them, if I am willing to share something a bit deeper or more personal that is an important part of who I am or want to become.
  • As a leader, perhaps my most important job is to ensure my team feels connected with me, that they mean enough to me to want to ‘let them in’ to engage at a deeper level.
  • We can only trust one another when we properly know one other; when we have a strong rapport; and where we mutually understand one another. I will be alert to these opportunities, but I won’t force them.


  • More strongly connected with my team.
  • Relief at correcting misconceptions about me or my life.


Experiment opportunity #2 – own your weaknesses and bad habits

Talk about what you are personally trying to get better at – be open in owning what bothers or frustrates you  about yourself.



  • “I might be your boss / manager and I might have been in this job for a long time, but that doesn’t make me perfect or mean I know everything.”
  • “I’m working on trying to improve, learn or develop _____ which is something where I feel I let you/the team/company/my family/myself down and am hoping to do better in future.”
  • “One of the things I get most fed up with about myself is that I can’t seem to delegate in a timely manner. I leave it until it’s too late and then it’s all too much of a rush for everyone. I feel guilty at the pressure I’m creating for everyone, and I worry that it reflects badly on us as a team. We are always the last to submit anything…”


  • I will acknowledge and openly discuss the critical aspects of how I work which are not as I (or others) would ideally like them to be.


  • There’s nothing to be ashamed of!
  • Like everyone, I am a work in progress.
  • Having skill deficits, potential derailers and dependencies on others in my team makes me human.
  • I won’t be experienced as arrogant or intimidating.
  • Others might find it refreshing or even inspiring to realise I am still trying to improve myself in some key areas.


  • Self-confident and good enough as I am, but interested and excited to be working on myself and developing new mastery/skills.
  • Sense of relief from sharing the burden of knowing I am not as good at everything as some people may think I am.
  • Awkward at my development being in the spotlight and centre of attention but pleased that my people have a more accurate picture of me.


Experiment opportunity #3 – ask for meaningful help.

Ask for practical help or emotional support when you are genuinely feeling at risk of overwhelm. Take some emotional risks by ‘letting others in’.



  • “There’s something I am finding too hard to resolve by myself, that I am worried / upset about and I’d be very grateful if you could spend some time with me to help work things through.”
  • “I have too much going on, and some things I’m really struggling with. I would find it really helpful to hear how you would suggest tackling things, if you were in my shoes because I really don’t feel I am coping well.”
  • “I’m overloaded and totally stuck on an issue that I don’t know how to fix or get myself out of – would you help me please?”
  • “Can I pick your brains please, there’s a situation I’m finding difficult where your advice would help me a lot.”


  • When I feel under too much pressure, I will be open in reaching out to the collective wisdom within my team and network, rather than trying to soldier on, or use control, power or political posturing to resolve things by myself.
  • Trust my colleagues by sharing something that is worrying or upsetting me. Confide I am struggling with something that I am finding personally hard to manage; and ask for their guidance, advice and input.
  • Trust others will react positively.
  • Allow others to show me empathy, support, care, concern and understanding and let them help me. Be willing to seek and accept help from those who I feel care about me. I won’t ask for help if it’s just me going through the motions, or if it’s not going to be meaningful to me, or if my motivation is simply to make the other person feel useful.


  • It’s ok for me to ask for help, even though I am the one that is usually offering it.
  • It’s impossible for one person to have all the necessary skills, personal qualities and experiences required to be successful all of the time.
  • Everyone needs a helping hand every now and then, even the great and the good!
  • People who ‘know it all’ often cause others to feel superfluous or inferior. This will help me show my team/colleagues how much I need, value and trust them.
  • I’m struggling and I need to let the people close to me know because I can’t do all this by myself.


  • Initially apprehensive and uncertain; I will be taking an emotional risk because there is the possibility of rejection or a drop in the other person / team’s regard for me. Followed by relief at having another person’s support.


Experiment opportunity #4 – say sorry and mean it.

Admit, apologise and empathise when you have been in the wrong.



  • “Last week when I said/did ______, I got it wrong. What I wish I had said / done is ______, and if I could rewind the clocks I would.”
  • “I realise now that my thinking wasn’t clear or helpful, I was overly confident, I didn’t involve you as much as I should have, I’m sorry.”
  • “I sent you an email which I deeply regret; it was inappropriate and inflammatory, and I would like to apologise.”
  • “I was wrong and your suggestion / response would have been much better, I wish I had listened to you, I’m sorry.”
  • “I’m sorry, I feel very bad about the impact of ______ on you, I wish it was different. How can I help put things right between us?”


  • Reflect on how I respond and react in situations where I feel inadequate or exposed, where I am accused of being in the wrong.
  • Quickly acknowledge and sincerely apologise. Own it.
  • Do not react defensively by justifying or making excuses or by trying to turn the blame onto someone else. Don’t hide or divert blame.
  • Imagine how it feels to have been on the receiving end and impacted by the consequences of your decision/actions.


  • Trust is built when there is a strong sense of accountability to one another, and I feel obligated to own this.
  • This is a situation where it takes strength to own weakness. I can and will ‘own up’ and willingly apologise.
  • I know and accept I was in the wrong and while I regret that, it’s also okay, because no-one is infallible, and I won’t get it right all of the time. I will try to learn and not make the same mistake twice.


  • Calm, grounded and centred.
  • Un-defensive and accepting.
  • Relief and happiness at it being openly understood and acknowledged. Happy to be moving forward constructively.


Experiment opportunity #5 – exercise your independence.  

Even when you may fear being a lone voice or ridicule from others, have the courage of your convictions to stand up for what you believe in, express your free will and behave in line with your values.



  • “I have a different view, and here’s how I see it…”
  • “I don’t agree with you, my position seems at odds with everyone else’s. Let me explain my view…”
  • “I don’t want to do this, I don’t feel comfortable and I would rather not even if this means I disappoint you or leave myself open to criticism.”


  • I will be upfront, visible and transparent around sharing my honest thoughts and actions.
  • I will exercise my freedom of mind and freedom of choice to speak up and out, to express my independent, autonomous views, feelings and needs; and to choose a response that is faithful to these.
  • I will have the guts to speak my truth from my head and my heart, without hiding behind other people or things.
  • I will not privately think one thing and publicly say/do another. I will muster the courage to say what I mean and mean what I say.
  • I am prepared to stand exposed to negative judgement or criticism by others rather than succumb to peer pressure or group think.


  • I want to avoid compromising my personal principles and values. It is important to me to be true to myself and what is dear to me.
  • Despite feeling uncomfortable, awkward, unsafe, insecure or uncertain about what the consequences or reactions will be, I am going to tolerate those risks and exposures because I will have been true to myself.


  • Initially – uncomfortable, exposed, awkward, uncertain, ill at ease or insecure.
  • Later – at peace, relief or even deep joy because I have behaved in line with my values and in so doing have experienced authentic vulnerability.

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