Building trust at work: Vulnerability

So far in this series we’ve talked about a bunch of ways that you can show your team that you’re trustworthy, but we’ve yet to talk about one of the most important: showing that you trust them.

Vulnerability as a leadership principle is a big topic – Brené Brown has a whole book about it – and I won’t pretend to encapsulate it all in one blog post. I also want to be super clear: this isn’t something I consider myself personally good at. In that sense, this blog post is as much a reminder for myself and the ways I want to show up for my teams as it is advice for my fellow mission-driven managers of the world.

How do I know that I’m not good at it? Because generally, when I tell people directly about the things that make me feel unsure or unsteady at work, their reaction is some version of “I would never have guessed that.” And, almost unilaterally, they’re better able to trust me for having seen me display my trust in them. My goal in writing this post is to enable you, and me, to understand what’s at stake in showing that trust – that is, to name the fears that underly our failure to fully show up for our teams. As Brown writes:

The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.

Our vulnerabilities, as managers, are often rooted in a few specific kinds of fear that we have to find the courage to work through. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it represents the conversations I have with fellow-managers most often when we’re feeling uncertain about our work, and starting points for handling these fears.

Fear of losing control.

This is a counterintuitive one for many first-time managers: the loss of direct control that you experience when you move from an individual-contributor role to a manager role is often unexpected and startling. Many of us become managers because we’re exceptionally good at the individual-contribution work that our teams are responsible for, and the moment we become managers, how good or bad we are at our jobs is contingent on other people doing that work we’re so proud of. Agency you may not have consciously felt before you were a manager suddenly appears obvious: other people can just choose not to do it your way! (If this is something you’re up against right now, check out Molly Graham’s metaphor of giving away your Legos as a way to frame this fear.)

Fear of losing influence.

Because as managers, the degree of control we exercise over our team’s work is contingent on our ability to influence others, anything that feels like it can take away that influence is something that can make us afraid to act. That can mean admitting we’ve been wrong or don’t know about something. It can mean not being able to advocate successfully for something our team has asked for. It can mean learning that someone else’s approach to our team’s work is more effective than ours. It can mean anything that we think will reduce our stature in the eyes of our team.

The gag here is that pretending we’re never wrong, that we know everything, that we’re all-powerful doesn’t work. Our teams know that we are human people with human limitations, and occasionally they want to see that for themselves so they know that we know it, too.

Fear of misusing power.

I’m not going to tell you to try to overcome this one. This is an important fear. Listen to what it tells you about what you’re doing. And remember: like all feelings, it is not a fact, but it is data.

It’s especially common among those who are impacted by or see the impact of power structures on societally marginalized groups. Keep this fear healthy, but don’t let it keep you from having the hard conversations your team needs in order to be effective.

Fear of doing it by ourselves (AKA loneliness).

Generally speaking, being a manager comes with fewer built-in peers than other roles on a team. No matter how transparent your team culture, there will be things you can’t talk about with your team members. You need to be able to talk safely with others who at least understand facets of your situation, if not the whole situation. Management coach Lara Hogan suggests building a manager Voltron – a group of people to help you sift through work issues that may or may not include your direct manager (if you have one). If you don’t have a direct manager yourself, it’s even more important to have this kind of group around you. (Side note: I include my therapist in my manager Voltron, and I recommend it highly.)

Okay, now what?

All of this is very easy to type in a blog post and very difficult to name and improve in our everyday work. My own goal is to make sure that when I’m feeling resistant to acting or speaking candidly with my team, that I’m taking a moment to identify whether any of these fears are at play and to what degree I need to work through them.

In our next post we’ll talk about one way to work through some of these fears: creating space for autonomy on your team.

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