4 ways leaders can be more vulnerable with their teams

4 ways leaders can be more vulnerable with their teams

Source: Fast Company
Author: Diana Jones

For years, leadership experts have extolled leaders to invest in their people, but this investment has usually been focused on skill-building and introducing new tools and techniques. These processes rarely help build relationships among staff.

The right place for relationship investment is in quite a different territory. When leaders focus on the personal aspect of professional development—building leaders’ capacities for relationships, how to lead groups, and how to create cultures of purposeful participation.

However, most organizations and leaders are making a mistake if they’re asking people to separate their personal and professional development.

Leaders who encourage employees to keep their personal lives separate and private from their professional lives are making a fundamental error. First, leaders (or anyone else) cannot successfully compartmentalize their personal life. They may try to place it in the background of their identity as leader, but personal lives are the first factor in influencing professional identity.

When a leader shares with their team, one of the experiences which drove them to leading others, they are sharing from the personal experience. This experience will have helped shape the personal qualities of their identity as a leader, such as being trusted, insightful, wise, astute, perceptive, or analytic. Their experience may well have been private up until this moment. Sharing their experience either humanizes the leader and creates a professional potency, or not. Both these elements shared in a business setting create the leaders visibility and is their source of authenticity.

Leaders’ relevant sharing of personal and private experience is crucial to the development of human bonds, which in turn facilitate organizational work. Think of Sheryl Sandberg sharing the impact on her of the loss of her husband, or Cori Bush with her victory speech in the November 2020 election. Leaders and staff who know how their personal and private backgrounds are also their motivations and inspirations have a strong sense of themselves and their capacities for vulnerability.

Intimacy, vulnerability, and authenticity are close allies. All three include the capacity to let others know how you think and feel on important matters. All three relate to the relevant degree of personal self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is the information we give about ourselves, and can include both content and feeling. Vulnerable and authentic leaders dramatically increase their visibility through their capacity to create relevant intimacy in their relationships.

To dive deeper into what I define as intimacy, I categorize intimacy into three areas: Private, personal, and professional. Intimacy in work relationships is a process where recipients experience the leader’s authenticity. The leader lets themselves be more known through simple self-disclosure which in turn evokes thoughtful emotional responses. This draws people closer together aligned with their work purpose.

Let me be clear. Both what is shared and how it is shared are crucial to the success of leaders and organizations. Self-disclosure relates to the individual, and describes how this person is in relationship with others.

Intimacy, on the other hand, is reciprocal. Intimacy is developed within a relationship. The leader might act in a way that creates intimacy, but it is only created when the other responds in a way that develops a capacity between the two, or the group. If the other isn’t receptive, or rejects the self-disclosure, discomfort results or the self-disclosure is experienced as inappropriate. Micro-managing and harassment are examples. Yet self-disclosure in groups are where the gems lie. Successful leaders know how to create a relationship environment for employees to warm up to relevant levels of self-disclosure and maintain their working relationships.

Organizations that are going to be successful coming out of this pandemic are the ones with leaders who invest in inviting others to share their experiences to help make positive inter-personal connections. Leaders dependent on set meeting agendas are not going to succeed.

And there is a fourth element to intimacy: Self-disclosure. I’ve found there are three levels of self-disclosure: Simple, deeper, and unguarded. Each person can choose the level they wish to self-disclose. Each level is effective depending on the leaders purpose with the group and participants ease with their personal and private stories. Simple self-disclosure establishes or reaffirms the leader’s relationship with their team i.e I am pleased to see you all here. Deeper self-disclosure includes relevant self-insights, and unguarded is when leaders reveal personal imperfections and risk rejection, to create human connections.

There is a significant need to rebuild cohesion at work, to help staff and leaders form new connections, which is relevant to a business’ success. It comes down to having team members re-introduce themselves to one another along the lines of one or a few of these parameters:

  • The moment I realized I wanted to have an impact in the world was….
  • A family dynamic that has influenced my values is x.
  • An experience I bring that shaped how I approach conflict is x.
  • An experience that helps me maintain my resilience is x.
  • X is a family member who influences me now.
  • One of the most difficult group situations I have been in and what I learned from it was x.
  • I want to leave x type of legacy in my role.

Intimacy at work through sharing personal and private experiences to strengthen professional relationships works better face to face. It is both possible and essential online. Leaders’ abilities to shape relevant invitations for themselves and their teams to share experience is crucial for business success, human connection, and productivity. Being intimate, upfront, personal and productive, is the new normal.


Diana Jones is a leadership advisor, executive coach, and author.


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