Showing Vulnerability at Work Can Hurt You If You’re the Boss, Science Finds
Sometimes it’s better to keep things to yourself.
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We've heard a lot about the benefits of vulnerability, especially from Bren Brown, whose inspirational TED Talk "The Power of Vulnerability" has been viewed more than 39 million times. As she argues, allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable, and allowing others to see us that way is terrifying, but ultimately liberating and empowering. But a study conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology revealed that showing vulnerability in the workplace can hurt you if you're in a leadership position.
If you're the boss and you tell the people who for for you that you have doubts about your own abilities or are worrying that your company might fail, they're obviously likely to lose faith in you. But, disturbingly, the study showed that you can lose status with your employees even if you admit a weakness that is unrelated to your ability to do your job. And, although some bosses admit weaknesses to employees in an attempt to seem more human and likable, it can have the opposite effect. Research subjects liked leaders who admitted weakness less than those who didn't.
A total of 762 students participated in the study's three parts. In each case, the student was paired with a supposed collaborator (really a member of the research team) who would help them complete a task, communicating with the participant by computer text message. Tasks included guessing the percentage of white and black in an image, comparing the sizes of different shapes and answering trivia questions. None of them were easy.
Participants were told that their collaborators were either their fellow students (i.e., a peer), or that they had an advanced degree from a more elite college (i.e., someone of higher status). Then, in the course of sending messages back and forth during the experiment, the collaborators would reveal something negative about themselves in passing. In the first study, collaborators admitted that they were on academic probation and would have to leave if they couldn't improve their grades. In the second, they said they had just been told by a doctor that they were overweight and should lose 20-30 pounds. In the third, they admitted they were seeing a therapist.
All three studies showed similar results. If the person making the embarrassing admission was supposedly a fellow student--that is, a peer--then admitting a weakness seemed to have little effect. But if the collaborator was supposed to be a grad student from an elite college--someone of higher status--then by admitting a weakness they brought that status down. Not only that, the test subjects became less likely to act on the collaborators' suggestions, and they appeared to like them less as well. When asked if they would like to stay in touch with the collaborator in the future, they were more likely to say no.
It's interesting to note that the participants apparently did not express any of these negative sentiments to their collaborators. That suggests that, in a workplace, a boss could admit a weakness or make an embarrassing revelation to an employee, and never know that the act of doing so has lowered the boss's status in the employee's eyes.
If you're a leader, what does this mean? Unfortunately, that you should probably think twice before admitting a weakness or failing to your team members, even if that failing has nothing at all to do with your company or your job. Brown herself made this point in an interview with Inc.com when she noted, "You don't stand in front of people who work for you and say, 'I don't know what I'm doing and it's all going to hell.'"
Of course, like everyone else you need to say what you're really feeling sometimes. So, Brown advised, carefully select a small group of people with whom you can let down your guard. Just make sure none of them work for you.