Leading with Vulnerability in the Workplace

Leading with Vulnerability in the Workplace

David Malmborg
May 6, 2022
October 9, 2022

Vulnerability at work can be scary—for employees and company leaders alike.

There are many reasons people don't talk about their struggles at work. Fear of how you're perceived, fear of losing your job, fear of being misunderstood... Or, simply being brought up to hide your struggles, especially at work, and just get the job done.

If we want to make positive progress on mental health at work, we need to be vulnerable and talk about mental health. Read on for some insights into how company leaders can lead with empathy and vulnerability at work.

This blog post summarizes our conversation with Johnny Hanna, Founder and CEO of Homie, and our very own Amelia Wilcox, Founder and CEO of Nivati. You can listen in to the entire conversation here:

What is Empathy?

Emory University defines empathy as the ability to: "a) be affected by and share the emotional state of another b) assess the reasons for the other’s state c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective"

Empathy is a skill that can be developed over time. Empathy at work can look like this:

  • Truly listening to your direct report's concerns during your one-on-one time
  • Asking employees how they are genuinely doing and helping them create a path to feeling better about their responsibilities
  • Picking up on how others are feeling during a meeting

Why is Empathy Important at Work?

Empathy can help build stronger relationships. Empathy helps us show kindness to others and help others in their specific situation.

It also opens the door to leaders being vulnerable themselves.

How to Increase Empathy

Johnny Hanna, Founder and CEO of Homie, shares some habits that help him grow in empathy.

"I was taught to 'man up,' to 'cowboy up'. Not to share my feelings or get curious about myself. Just move on and get the task finished. But I've put a lot more work and effort into getting curious of my emotions and more in touch with how I feel. And naturally, by putting in an effort to do that, I have a lot more curiosity as to how others feel. I think the more I work on myself, I naturally then have a different lens and perception for those that I work with, for those that I interact with. That's how it [empathy] is increased for me."

Taking care of yourself and self-reflection can help you explore emotions more deeply, allowing you to better understand where others are coming from.

Amelia Wilcox, Founder and CEO of Nivati, mentions that using "I feel" statements and reflective listening can also help build empathy.

"I feel" statements are a common way to express how you feel, allowing you to better relate to others. For example: "I feel ___ when ___."

"I've done a lot of therapy personally. My husband and I are in the middle of a pretty intense therapy experience with one of our kids. Part of what we are learning on the parents' side is how our actions and parenting styles contribute to the challenges our child is having. Being affected by, and sharing the emotional state [of others] and understanding comes with validating it," reflects Amelia Wilcox.

Instead of telling others to "toughen up" or trying to fix their problem yourself, approaching the situation with empathy can open the door to better support and psychological safety in the workplace.

How This Ties Into Delegation

Company leaders get stuff done! As a result, it is common for company leaders to want to jump in and solve people's problems.

This is not an effective way to build empathy, foster vulnerability, or scale the company.

Delegation is key to building culture and fostering empathy.

It is powerful to show empathy for where employees are at, and truly listen to them as they work through the challenge. You can support them through the problem instead of solving it for them.

Both Johnny and Amelia struggle with this.

"There's a fire drill. How am I going to react? Am I going to go into control mode and boss everyone around? Or am I going to be more collaborative and work together as a team? If I'm in a funk and haven't been working on myself or have been struggling, I think the natural place that I go to is control and fixing mode." - Johnny Hanna

What Being Vulnerable as a Leader Looks Like

Johnny explains that he stepped away from work today to attend his daughter's school event. Growing up, he was taught that you're being lazy if you're not working.

"If I take off work, I still have shame. As I'm vulnerable, I know some of my other colleagues that take a vacation may have shame about going on vacation, too. I think people could empathize with that, and as I share that, they can then recognize I can empathize with them."

Johnny helps build empathy at work by:

1. working on addressing his shame around taking time off and

2. sharing how he is working on overcoming this challenge with his team.

Employees follow the example of the top. Positive company culture and an empathetic workplace will follow.

Johnny leaves us with a final word of advice: "Find a therapist."

Talking to a therapist can help you reflect and grow: "I've had several therapists, I've had different types of therapy, and all of it has helped me grow as an individual."

Stop stacking benefits. Start being well. Set a Nivati demo


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David Malmborg
David Malmborg