Feeling threatened at work? Read this…

Employers are realising that a culture of emotional honesty can build trusting, creative teams, but vulnerability is tricky terrain. Suzanne Scott explores how much sharing is too much


Feeling threatened at work? Read this...

6 minute read

Staring intently at my screen, I try desperately to appear as if I am concentrating. The truth is I have forgotten (again) how to find the document I need to start my first task. Hardly the technical whizz I portrayed in my interview…

As my cheeks redden, I realise I’m going to have to ask for help from my new colleagues (again). I feel excruciatingly vulnerable having to repeatedly ask for guidance, for everything from turning on my PC to using the microwave. Worse still, remembering all this information is that bit more difficult after a bout of insomnia.

Luckily, workplaces have changed since I was last in one 15 years ago. A willingness to be vulnerable is increasingly recognised as positive, with social researcher Brené Brown leading the charge on understanding how and why. Even the leaders of cut-throat and traditionally male-dominated environments talk about the importance of sharing. But showing vulnerability – which Brown defines as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’ – is difficult. It feels horrible and my instinct is to hide my vulnerability, especially at work.

Coach Roxanne Hobbs is a facilitator of Brown’s work. She says this reaction is typical, and why most of us ‘armour up’ by putting on a brave face and hiding our true selves. She also explains that in order to build trusting teams, to innovate, create, be empathetic and have difficult conversations, we need to take off the armour.

She makes me feel better about my frequent requests for assistance from colleagues, too. ‘The thing that builds trust most in teams is when people ask for help.’

So, how do we show vulnerability at work without it backfiring on us?

Think, then think again

Firstly, there is no ‘10-steps checklist’ because everyone’s vulnerability is different and workplace cultures vary. ‘It is important to consciously raise your awareness about what makes you feel vulnerable and why,’ says chartered psychologist Vanessa Moulton. Common triggers might include being honest when something is unfamiliar, sharing personal information, giving your opinion or making a mistake. ‘Pay attention to when you feel uncomfortable or anxious. In context, what makes you feel that way?’

For me, it is having to admit that I don’t know how to do something, have forgotten how or made an error. This manifests as flushed cheeks, a tight chest and a knot in my stomach, as well as a sense of impending doom. I expect myself to perform perfectly.

What I find most difficult about sharing my vulnerability is judging how much is OK to ‘put out there’, and how to do it in a way that isn’t unprofessional. At first, the fear of not being good enough is intense. This, mixed with sleeplessness, leaves me overemotional and wanting to bare my soul. I imagine gathering the team to announce my struggle. I envisage throwing in that I suffer from sleeplessness, have had therapy and it’s all about my perfectionism.

Thank goodness I don’t do that! The experts’ consensus is that a ‘let it all hang out’ strategy at work is not appropriate. ‘The danger of diving in, all guns blazing and oversharing about every detail is that your colleagues may think, ‘Well, she’s a bit of a weirdo!’ says chartered psychologist Fiona Murden, author of Defining You: How To Profile Yourself And Unlock Your Full Potential (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99). ‘That could make you feel humiliated, especially if you’re new. Use your emotional awareness to read how much is appropriate to share and when.’ In short: if your audience looks wide-eyed and lost for words, you’ve overstepped the mark.

An outsider’s insight

Luckily, I am aware that my ability to read the situation had gone to pot. In the grip of my emotions, I call a friend for her perspective. ‘Checking in with someone you trust about when it’s OK to say you’re feeling unconfident is a great idea,’ says Murden. ‘When we’re stressed, we have a distorted view of the world, so it’s hard to know what to share.’

Open up gradually and observe your colleagues’ reactions. Murden advises thinking of it as a dance. ‘You don’t want to walk in and dump everything on the table. Feel your way, tell a little bit about yourself, ask a little about others, so there’s give and take. Chip away gently.’

Reveal and make light

How you put your vulnerability into words is also important, says Murden. Every workplace has a common understanding around communication and, while it can be pushed a bit, it’s not advisable to go completely against the grain. Also, try to deliver your words with some confidence, even if you feel insecure.

While my gut tells me to spill: ‘I thought it would be easy and I’d be perfect but I don’t even know how to switch on my machine’ – it would be better to say: ‘I’m not used to this sort of computer. Can you show me how it works?’ If possible, try to make a joke of it, says Murden; humour relieves tension and bonds people.

Alex Arundale has used humour to great effect in her job as HR director of a software company, where she shows her vulnerability to her team and tries to encourage a culture where they feel comfortable doing the same. At their Monday morning meetings, she asks everyone how their weekend was and how they are feeling. She recently shared that she felt emotional because one of the diamonds had fallen out of her wedding ring. ‘I joked that it was even more depressing because I’d lost it in the supermarket and not on a Caribbean beach,’ she says. ‘It was my way of letting the team know I felt sad but with a bit of humility.’

At these meetings, colleagues share personal news, from barely sleeping because of their wakeful children to feeling overwhelmed by a divorce. ‘It’s a safe environment,’ she says, ‘and it’s amazing to see the team build trust in each other.’

But she cautions against crying in front of your colleagues, which may be a step too far. ‘I say to people who are feeling vulnerable: Pause. Count to 10. Go for a walk. Take an hour out. Think about whether you need to bring up that issue at work.’

The pay-off

When I am feeling at my most emotional, I take Arundale’s advice. I say I have a personal matter to attend to and leave the office briefly for some breathing space. When I pluck up the courage to confide in a colleague, I discover that, while I am expecting myself to function perfectly immediately, she is not! In fact, when I tell her how insecure I feel, an expression of relief spreads across her face. She says she thought I was about to resign because she has not had adequate time to train and support me. We are both anxious! If I hadn’t had the courage to be openly vulnerable, I would not have known. 

Use your body to comfort yourself in vulnerable times

From ‘Physical Intelligence’ by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)

When we feel unsafe or open to attack, serotonin and dopamine (linked to feeling good) drop and cortisol (linked to stress) rises. Therefore, leaning into our vulnerability can feel counterintuitive as we are wired to move away from situations that threaten our social standing. Reassure yourself with two ‘physical intelligence’ techniques:

Sigh of relief: A simple sigh will expel excess carbon dioxide, lower cortisol and bring feelings of gratitude and presence.

Shake it out: To reboot serotonin and dopamine levels, drop forward from the waist, inverting the spine and relaxing the upper body. Take in a deep breath and, on an exhale, shake your shoulders and torso while making an ‘ah’ sound. Repeat until all your tension is gone. Roll up slowly, with your heading straightening last.

Coach Roxanne Hobbs’ pointers

  • Identify what vulnerability feels like in your body. For me, it’s like I’ve had too much caffeine, or a sauna followed by a cold shower. Stay with the feeling, don’t run from it.
  • Reframe it as courage. This helps you accept the feeling.
  • Show yourself compassion.
  • Tell yourself you are going to be all right and the feeling will pass if you give it space.
  • Practise. The more you do it, the more you’ll be able to do it.

Image: Getty