Merriam-Webster defines vulnerable as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded,” or “open to attack or damage.” While these meanings have a negative, reactive connotation, another definition has emerged in the arenas of personal and professional growth. Vulnerability is also the courage to step out of your comfort zone and reveal your authentic self.

That can be an uncomfortable, disconcerting emotion, but also a powerful catalyst to drive innovation and growth.

Opening ourselves to vulnerability in the workplace allows us to find a safe space to share new ideas and create authentic, collaborative relationships with team members.

It also lets us build resiliency, take on additional responsibilities that can lead to opportunities for advancement and determine to which type of environment we are best suited to fuel success and fulfillment.

Vulnerability as a Path to Opportunity

Author and professor Brené Brown has studied and written about vulnerability for decades. She said, “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity. Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.”

#LeadingTheWay Masterclass: The Power of Leadership Vulnerability

Being vulnerable means putting ourselves out there, unprotected and exposed from the risk and fear of criticism for our thoughts, opinions, missteps, and mistakes. It’s not easy. Whether you have just assumed a new role, are embarking on a leadership opportunity, or are working toward a promotion, here are some best practices to not only navigate the vulnerability that may come to the surface, but leverage it:

  • Find a safe environment. A supportive workplace is one where you can express your recommendations, suggestions, and creativity without fear of ridicule or attack, where questions and concerns are encouraged, and mistakes are viewed as an integral part of the process. When you are supported, you are free to share ideas with stakeholders to determine their feasibility and build advocates.
  • Be authentic with your team. In a new role, it’s easy to buy into the stressful and unrealistic expectation that you must know everything right out of the gate. Instead, acknowledge your team members’ ability to deftly perform a daily job that may be unfamiliar to you, then recognize and empower them for their expertise. Admitting what you don’t know and digging deeper brings a fresh perspective that shows the value you bring while demonstrating alliance.
  • Create a wide-reaching network or mentor group. Identifying a support system is crucial to feeling confident and validated. In addition to your boss or colleagues, consider friends and contemporaries inside or outside of your industry. If you are a woman, be observant and open to the opportunity that you may have more synergy with a male mentor, especially if he has held the same role.
  • State your rules of engagement. Everyone can think of environments in which they feel confident and productive and ones that seem stifling and uncomfortable. Show up and read the room, while also honoring your boundaries about what works for you. The most successful organizations will empower employees and give them that latitude.
  • When you are feeling overwhelmed, be methodical. When a project is progressing poorly, dissect what is happening. Team members may be under-resourced, under-qualified or lack motivation, or the technology may be insufficient or incompatible. Logically considering and ruling out reasons, then consulting with a colleague with an equally vested interest, can dissipate feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability.
  • The path to promotion requires a proactive approach. A big misconception is that keeping your head down, working hard and doing a good job are all that are needed to move up the ladder. Promotions are often offered to employees who seek out opportunities to bring something new or of value to the organization. Figure out how you can specifically make things better, easier, or more efficient: volunteer to run a meeting, do project research or create a presentation.
  • Acknowledge when an environment isn’t working - and move on. There is a difference between putting yourself out there and faking it, and inauthenticity is exhausting. And some company cultures are harsh or cutthroat, which can result in stress and anxiety. The interview process should be a two-way conversation to make sure the role and company culture are a mutual fit. Talk to employees to see whether new initiatives are championed - or derided.

Consider the Worst - Case Scenario - Then Let it Go

Even in the most encouraging environments, there will be times when you allow yourself to be vulnerable and it doesn’t go well. It’s going to happen. The important thing is to pull yourself up and remember that it’s one instance. Give yourself 24 hours to process any wounds, then view it as a learning experience and move on. The only way to grow is to embrace what scares you.