A man and a woman talk to each other at the office.

Being vulnerable may seem like something to avoid rather than cultivate, especially at work. We often associate vulnerability with exposure, risk and even danger. And work may seem like the last place you should let down your guard.

But while there is some level of risk involved anytime you let others see who you are, those risks can be minimized, managed—and worth it. 

What is vulnerability at work?

Vulnerability is about showing more of yourself as a person rather than putting on a mask that you wear to work like a uniform. 

It doesn’t mean not having boundaries or oversharing, but it does mean not putting on an act. 

If you try to hide your human side and always appear “perfect,” at some point you will start to feel stressed and inauthentic. Your co-workers and boss might pick up on how guarded you are and feel less comfortable being themselves around you.

Some common acts of vulnerability include:

Vulnerability is often mistaken for weakness or fragility. But as vulnerability expert Brene Brown says, “it is actually the root of authentic leadership and meaningful connection. Vulnerability can help us build trust, foster creativity, and engage with our colleagues in a deeper way.”

Benefits of being vulnerable at work

Perhaps the idea of putting yourself out there at work seems terrifying to you. But the potential benefits may outweigh any fears or hesitation.

#1: You get back what you give. 

Say you're worried about a sick child or an elderly parent, or a repair project at home has grown more disruptive than expected. If you let your co-workers know a little of why you may be distracted, stressed or occasionally late, they’ll be more likely to cut you some slack and even offer to help in ways you wouldn’t have thought to ask.

When you open up to your coworkers, they feel included and valued in your life and more at liberty to share their own struggles. If everyone you work with is up front about what’s going on outside the office walls, there’s less room for misunderstanding or judgment—and more potential for working better together.

#2: It makes for an atmosphere of trust. 

If you’re honest and genuine, the people you work with are more likely to trust you. You become collaborators instead of competitors, which means you’re more willing to offer honest feedback and admit your mistakes. 

An atmosphere of trust also makes it more likely that if you have an idea or a suggestion, others will listen.

#3: You build deeper relationships.

Since you may spend more time with the people you work with than almost anyone else, it makes sense that you would want to have some friendships at work. To do that, you have to let people know you. Otherwise, how can your relationship move beyond the superficial?

There's a "happiness" factor to having friends at work. According to a study by Gallup, people who have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged with their job than those who don't. Friendships tell you "you're not alone" and provide essential support during those inevitable times when you're not feeling great about your job.

#4: You make your workday more human

Sometimes it can feel like you have to check your personality, your life and even your humanity at the door when you show up to work. That’s too many hours of your life to feel like you can’t be yourself, or like you’re not really living, just doing time.

The reality is, you're not a robot—and neither are your co-workers.  You're a human being with emotional intelligence and a need for connection. When you allow yourself to be open and vulnerable, you’re acknowledging that work is more than just “strictly business,” and you have a lot more to bring to the table. 

Emotional intelligence, vulnerability and empathy are related. If you’re willing to be vulnerable, you foster a work culture centered around empathy, which can’t help but make your workplace a happier, better functioning, more human environment.

#5: It makes you a better leader

If you’re willing to admit your mistakes and say what you plan to do differently next time, instead of hiding behind rationalizations, the people who report to you will find it easier to respect and trust you. They’ll feel more comfortable allowing themselves to be vulnerable and admit their mistakes, too. It’s an important form of leading by example.

Simon Sinek, author of several books including Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't, believes that leaders who are willing to show their vulnerability create a sense of psychological safety in their teams, which in turn leads to greater teamwork, creativity and success. 

Things to watch out for

There's a fine line between being vulnerable and oversharing. As you start to open up, it’s important to still maintain boundaries and professionalism in the workplace. Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Start slow

Finding the right type and degree of vulnerability to show at work takes some trial and error. You might want to start with small, relatively low-risk ventures, then build on that foundation, learning as you go along. Think of it as dipping your toe in to test the waters, not jumping off the deep end.

Try sharing small personal things about yourself ("I'm really into gardening") or sharing when you could have done something better ("I could have made that presentation more engaging if I had practiced more").  While it might take you out of your comfort zone at first, it shouldn’t feel too big or risky. 

  • Carefully choose what to share

You’re probably not going to want to reveal deeply personal information about your marriage, your most deep-seated fear, or anything that would make you or others feel unsafe.

Only you can say what kind of sharing is right for you or your workplace, but you’ll get a better feel for what works with practice. Experiment with the right type and degree of sharing for your own comfort and that of your co-workers, and do it in a way that feels right for your personality. The point is authenticity, not just disclosure for its own sake.

  • Carefully choose with whom to share

You're not going to want to talk about highly sensitive personal information with the office gossip, or tell your boss's best friend that you’re thinking of looking for a new job. You may also not want to reveal all your concerns or weaknesses with someone who’s highly competitive.

Also, be strategic in what you reveal about yourself to maximize the benefit to your performance, your work relationships, and your goals. Let your common sense guide you.

Diane Fanucchi
Diane Fanucchi is a freelance writer and Smart-Blogger certified content marketing writer. She lives on California’s central coast in a purple apartment. She reads, writes, walks, and eats dark chocolate whenever she can. A true INFP, she spends more time thinking about the way things should be than what others call the “real” world. You can visit her at www.dianefanucchi.naiwe.com or https://writer.me/diane-fanucchi/.