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Emotional Vulnerability in the Workplace

Maybe it's just me. But we seem to be getting mixed messages from the culture on what to do with emotion. On one hand, we're supposed to feel our feelings. On the other, sticks and stones may break our bones, know. No mas.

No. Mas.

You'd better toughen up.

But also, feel your feelings.

Don't let it get to you.

Why won't you cry?

Back and forth like a seesaw.

Here's a tricky reality:

It's always easier to be armored than it is to be vulnerable.

And as it turns out, as people, we have an aversion to a specific kind of vulnerability: emotional vulnerability. Given the choice, we prefer to hide behind thick skin – even developing scales, when necessary. (Before anyone panics, yes that's still a metaphor. We haven't entered the Marvel Universe.)

While pursuing my M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I got curious about emotional vulnerability. I had anecdotal evidence that we were all struggling, but I wanted data. So I took to my school's database and found this: Children's and Parents' Perceptions of Vulnerability as Weakness: Associations with Children's Well-Being. If you can access that link, I highly suggest reading it. Fascinating stuff.

Here’s the gist of the 2019 study:

Many parents and children perceived emotional vulnerability as worse than physical vulnerability.

Translation, in a real-world scenario:

It’s worse to cry about being beaten up

than it is to get beaten up

Well. That’s something. Isn’t it?

What does this have to do with you?

Parents might seem to have the most direct application, given the focus of the article. But I think this one's for all of us. Even in the workplace...

How does a lack of emotional vulnerability impact the workplace?

  1. Risk Aversion - People become more motivated by what they don’t want to happen, than what they do. 

  2. Honesty Vacuum - Honesty is only possible when there aren’t consequences. No rocket science here. If it's dangerous for people to be honest, they won't be.

  3. Pressurized Emotion - When emotion does finally make an appearance on the scene, it’s usually…you know…sizable. Almost like it’s a shaken soda can.

  4. Reduced Innovation - It’s hard to be innovative while wearing armor. As an observation. And from personal experience.

Here’s what you can do, as a leader (of yourself, or others) to make room for emotional vulnerability in the workplace:

  1. Expand Your Emotional Literacy - I recommend Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart. It's phenomenal in putting language to the nebulous experience of emotions.

  2. Go First (Even when it’s just you. Go first.) - You may not be the big boss, but leadership is about influence. Not rank. And if you work for one, give yourself the gift, strange as it sounds, of going first. Lead yourself well, and you'll find yourself leading others well when they come.

  3. Encourage Responsible Risk (And don’t lose it when it goes badly.) - Risk is always unnerving. But it's also necessary if you're going to be creative.

A closing question:

What value could our emotions bring to the workplace?


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