They’ve become the holy trinity of modern leadership lingo: transparency, vulnerability, and the big one — authenticity. They sound innocent enough at first; it’s easy to see the value of bringing out more of each one as part of improving your company culture. But without some rules of the road — and being able to role-model for your team what that looks like in real-time — they can quickly undermine the very thing you’re trying to accomplish.
These are very personal words. Your definition of vulnerability comes from your values and a whole life of experiences, the same with authenticity and transparency. Nobody can tell you what they mean for you. But, here are some ideas to help you take whatever your definition is and put it into practice.
We could say that vulnerability is letting people see that something is affecting you without creating the expectation in them that they have to fix it.
There’s a very subtle line between being emotional and asking others to ‘hold’ your emotions for you. But we all know it when we’re in an environment like that. Being emotional means letting people see you’re having a tough day. But if the people on your team are walking-on-eggshells to not set you off, that means you’re not holding it.
To use another example, let’s say you just found out about a relative with a severe illness. It’s human to say something. But it’s unfair to go into detail about the situation because your team can’t do anything with the information. The key is to keep it simple, to name what happened and put a boundary around it at the same time. Here’s what that might sound like:
‘Hey guys, I just found out that one of my relatives is in the hospital. I just wanted you to know that I’m having a rough day in case you sensed something and were worried.’
The key to being vulnerable at work is finding a way to share the essence of what’s going on without going too far into the story. Your colleagues will feel honored that you trusted them enough to share, and inspired by how you manage yourself in challenging moments.
We could say that transparency is naming the things that you see — or you know that others are seeing — but in a way that’s appropriate to the business reality.
Transparency in business means naming what’s going on that you feel impacts the business. It doesn’t mean sharing everything that everyone wants you to share.
It’s up to you decide what is and isn’t relevant for your team to make decisions as they go through their day. Err on the side of more transparency over less. But don’t be pressured into revealing details that you’re not ready, not willing, or don’t see a valid reason for sharing right now. You can always share it tomorrow if you change your mind.
Of the three, transparency is the easiest one to put into practice. When you see things happening in your business that you don’t like, you name them. The key is to do it without emotional charge — which probably means a few deep breaths or stepping outside to get a coffee to settle down first.
People love transparency because it allows them to relax. They know you’re upset — they’re most likely upset with themselves — and naming what happened just takes the unnecessary anguish out of the situation. It brings fresh air into the room so people can grow. The key is to keep it relevant to the business and the tasks at hand.
We could say that authenticity is being real with yourself, and choosing an expression of your inner reality that fits the moment.
‘Just be yourself.’ It might be the world’s worst advice. While it sounds empowering, it’s the opposite, because it has an internal assumption that who you are is a static thing. What makes us human — and what turns an ordinary team into a great one — is our ability to discover who we are through our passion and our mistakes equally. Authenticity doesn’t mean ‘letting your freak flag fly,’ though it might mean that sometimes.
Let’s say a member of your team insulted an important customer and you’re furious. There’s one version of that emotion you’re going to share with them behind closed doors. There’s an entirely different one — or there should be — for the team meeting an hour later to figure out how you’re all going to clean it up. You didn’t ‘sell out’ what you felt in either; you chose the expression that made sense for the audience and the moment.
It’s the absence of that kind of authenticity that the business world is sorely lacking. Your team needs a leader who never stops doing the hard work to find balance in themselves. Your team wants a leader who gets frustrated and is willing to be the ‘bad guy’ sometimes — because they know that’s what leads to real growth professionally and personally. When your team has a leader like that, the problem of ‘getting your team on board’ just isn’t there.
Your team wants to work in an environment that feels human, where they know where they stand, and where they don’t have to put on a happy face to be at work. Having leaders who can role model these — vulnerability, transparency and authenticity — is certainly part of that.
It’s just not fair to anyone to pretend that doing so is easy.