At some point you’ve no doubt been told that authenticity and vulnerability are essential qualities of a great leader. Melinda Gates says it. Oprah says it. So does management consultant Peter Sheehan, who claims “the secret killer of innovation is shame.” All of these experts insist that if you want to be effective and innovative at work you have to be honest and open about who you are and what you think.
On the other hand, we all also know there is a limit to this advice. Even just a little time in the business world is enough to reveal that oversharing personal struggles can get you labeled unprofessional and being too open with your worries just breeds useless fear.
“When we broadcast our limitations, we need to be careful to avoid casting doubt on our strengths,” Wharton professor Adam Grant has cautioned. He also warns that too much authenticity can come across “as self-serving and self-absorbed.”
So how do you walk the line between being genuine and open, but not boring or burdening others with your fears and problems? Therapist and star TED speaker Brené Brown just offered a useful and succinct answer.
“Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability.”
Speaking with Grant about this issue on the WorkLife podcast, Brown shares the story of a team of founders she was working with who felt in over their heads at their struggling company. Should they confess their fear they weren’t up to the job to their colleagues? That would be authentic, Brown responded, but also a terrible idea.
Then she hit the founding team with a six-word sentence that usefully sums up her approach to vulnerability: “Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability.”
There are two reasons you might share personal details or risk public failure at work. One is to build trust and connection. You’re sharing your own suggestions or struggles to make others feel safer sharing theirs. But there is another reason you might open up at work — you want to unburden yourself and dump your worries and concerns on others. The first of these motivations is constructive and healthy. The second isn’t and, as Brown’s quote captures, you should put firm boundaries around this second type of authenticity.
She goes on to suggest that before you decide to open up at work ask yourself: “Are you sharing your emotions and your experiences to move your work, connection or relationship forward? Or are you working your s–t out with somebody?”
If it’s the latter, remind yourself that “vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability” and keep your mouth shut. Our loved ones are there to help us bear our emotional burdens. Our colleagues are there to help us accomplish great things together. Make sure professional sharing is always aimed at that second goal and you’ll walk the line between authenticity and self-absorption just fine.