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Watch Out for These Vulnerability Killers

By Glenn Lyday


By now you’ve likely heard all about the importance of vulnerability.  It’s the foundational behavior in Patrick Lencioni’s framework, and research from the likes of Brene Brown and Google continues to pile up and reinforce its significance.  Vulnerability is the ability to acknowledge a mistake, to admit a weakness, to ask for help when you need it, even to put a crazy idea out there. And to know that you can do any of that without fear of judgment.  Vulnerability truly is the not-so-secret ingredient that allows teams to perform at an epic level.

I just wish more leaders understood how frequently their own actions end up killing vulnerability.

While most leaders we work with want a high level of openness and honesty on their teams, many end up unintentionally undermining vulnerability.  They may recognize their critical role by going first and setting the tone and expectation of vulnerability, but unfortunately, I’ve observed that that’s not enough. Because, very often, these undermining moves that can get in the way:


#1: Confusing “being supportive”… with “being efficient”


Quick, someone on your team comes to you with a project they’re really struggling with, what do you do?  The natural tendency is to be efficient in solving the problem and say, “Thank you so much for being so vulnerable!  Now let me take that away from you and give it to someone else more capable.”  Of course, you want to solve this problem efficiently, but reassigning ownership tends to discourage vulnerability. You’ve likely taken away something that your team member enjoyed, or at least wanted to be successful at.  Now they won’t have that chance.

Instead of optimizing for short-term efficiency, be supportive.  Ask how you can help, and don’t assume that changing owners is the answer. I worked with a CEO recently who had someone on the team who was having some real challenges with leading her customer support department effectively, particularly in its attempt to modernize with new technology. After struggling a bit, she came clean about her situation at a team meeting. Instead of jumping in to takeover or give the project to someone else, the CEO’s response was, “You still own this.  What can we all do to help?” This led the executive team to an amazing conversation that allowed them to all pitch in with their input and expertise, while still giving her the encouragement to keep going.


#2: Fostering a spirit of competition … internally

I get it.  You’re a leader with a competitive spirit.  You want to crush your competitors. You eat a big bowl of kick-ass for breakfast every morning, and you want people on your team to have that same attitude. But push that competitiveness too far, and that same spirit could become the enemy of great collaboration. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is encouraging the team to solely focus on individual goals, individual owners, and individual achievement.  If your team feels they’re competing against each other, they will likely have a hard time being open and honest with you and with the rest of the team about their challenges.

I recently worked with a CEO client who recognized this tendency in himself.  He had hired a new head of marketing who was extremely talented with an incredible background. The CEO focused so much on that talent and background that the new head of marketing suddenly could do no wrong. And, as luck should have it, marketing got a huge budget increase the next quarter.  The rest of the team felt the need to compete, and before long every team member’s mistakes, imperfections, and vulnerabilities began to be concealed.

Soon enough, that CEO recognized the need to communicate and reward shared goals a whole lot more than individual performance. Keep the team focused on winning together, and the internal competitiveness will turn back towards crushing your external competitors once again.


#3:  Setting clear expectations … and not telling anyone

Lack of clarity around what the leader expects is one of the biggest detractors to vulnerability on a team. Lack of clarity invites fear into the party, and fear brings along his best friend defensiveness.

I began working with an executive team several months ago that had seen so much turnover that folks within the organization had started to call the team “the walking dead.”  As the organization grew, the CEO found that some executives just weren’t cutting it.  Of course, these things happen, but the rest of the team had no idea until they showed up at the next staff meeting and someone would say, “Hey, has anyone seen Pete?”

Instead, be transparent, explicit, and clear.  On a truly great team, everyone knows exactly where they stand at any particular point in time.  In fact, the very best leaders that I’ve worked with have been able to actually improve trust and vulnerability with their teams by consistently holding them accountable to their expectations.  Sometimes that requires giving them what we call the“kind truth.” It’s easy to be nice, but sometimes being kind means being honest.


Even great leaders will occasionally slip up and negatively impact vulnerability on their teams.  It happens.  We’re human.  But, interestingly enough, so are the rest of your teammates.  Encourage vulnerability and you’ll be sure to get the most of each and every one of them.