What Holds People Back From Being Vulnerable At Work?

We looked back at SHIFT’s Align reports since the pandemic started to understand how the employee experience changed during this time of upheaval. Across teams who used SHIFT’s Align tool between April-June, we saw a spike in teams who said they struggled to be vulnerable in front of their colleagues. 

Gina Kim
/
July 24, 2020

We looked back at SHIFT’s Align reports since the pandemic started to understand how the employee experience changed during this time of upheaval. Across teams who used SHIFT’s Align tool between April-June, we saw a spike in teams who said they struggled to be vulnerable in front of their colleagues. 

Perhaps this isn’t surprising; most people tend to hide their weaknesses and vulnerabilities in day-to-day interactions. But why were so many employees citing their struggle to be vulnerable now, more so than in the past? And why does this feel more important in this particular moment? 

The vulnerabilities they were holding back were expansive - some said they didn’t talk about their diminished work productivity, spiking stress levels, or personal issues that were colliding with work more than ever. Ultimately, most people have been dealing with some form of extreme stress throughout the pandemic, yet few have openly shared their problems with their managers or teams. 

Why does being vulnerable at work matter?

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve all experienced a lot of big changes. From Zoom fatigue to homeschooling to deep feelings of isolation, people are under an enormous amount of stress - and they bring that with them when they log-on to work. These stresses, especially when unspoken, contribute to rising team conflicts as people communicate less and rarely share how they’re feeling in virtual settings.

Those rising tensions have far reaching repercussions - productivity declines, project delays, tense meetings and falling employee retention and morale are all collateral damage. 

What can you do? 

“Over the past couple years I’ve had hundreds of calls with team managers, and from what I’ve seen, a team’s performance is heavily determined by the manager. Team members look to their managers as the norm-setter, and when a manager displays willingness to both share vulnerabilities as well as listen to and accept input without becoming defensive, that’s when teammates feel safe with each other and people to perform at their best. Supporting managers to create those moments with their teams is one of the things I love most about what I do”. 
- Russell Morrison, Client Solutions - Learning & Insights Specialist 


If you’re a manager who wants your team to have candid conversations and become vulnerable with one another, here are some tips from our Client Success team: 

  1. Publicly role model being vulnerable 

Share your struggles or mistakes with your team. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but it will help people see that it’s okay, even encouraged, to share their feelings and vulnerabilities. 

  1. Build psychological safety & trust

Psychological safety, a shared belief that the team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking, plays a big role in people’s willingness to be vulnerable. It’s also what Google found to be the #1 characteristic shared by most effective teams. When teams are open about how they’re feeling, you’ll start to establish shared expectations about how to behave. They’ll be more likely to engage in healthy debate and respond to others’ points of view, knowing they won’t be repercussions.

  1. Provide safe channels for sharing feelings

One client told me “Most information at my company never stays confidential. Information always gets out. I don’t know if that is an HR leak or people just don’t know how to stop gossiping, but private information rarely remains private.” This deters people being vulnerable as they fear it will become public fodder. Whether being invited to share feelings anonymously or in a small but trusted setting, your team members need to believe it’s up to them to decide who they share what information and feelings with.

  1. Show empathy and follow-up

After hearing how your team is really doing, their struggles and stressors, show empathy for how they’re feeling. Sometimes your job is simply to listen, other times it’s to put better supports in place, while other times it means taking action to make changes that better work for your team. Regardless, be clear about your next steps and follow through. Their trust in you will follow. And when possible and appropriate, encourage these conversations at a team level. When teams understand what one another are going through, they’ll become more empathetic and more actively support one another - making team support networks a shared responsibility, not just your own.

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