My learnings about authenticity & vulnerability in leadership.
As leaders we are supposed to accept our vulnerability, communicate openly about it and show authenticity in our leadership behaviour. Be REAL. In other words, we are supposed to bring feelings, thinking, speaking and acting into harmony.
However, this is what is difficult for many managers. In my own leadership career, I remember several painful learning moments (more on this in the article below). These situations brought me to the conclusion that the personal development journey towards authenticity is certainly never complete.
Authentic leadership communication: Stumbling blocks & opportunities
Why is it hard for leaders to communicate authentically? Our own ego may get in the way, our beliefs may block us, we may lack awareness of our own values, we may be afraid of not being enough and we certainly we do not want to be rejected… just to list a few examples of the obstacles we may face.
The silent inner dialogue is holding us constantly captured – maybe you hear some of the following thoughts: “I cannot tell them how I really feel about it” or “Hey, we are facing a crisis – I have to be the strong one!”. Then we put forth our best effort, performing on the highest level. We do everything possible not to show any weakness, we want to hide what is REAL and to cover up our emotions. We adapt to the environment – whether it feels comfortable or not.
There are people who are doing a great job in hiding their feelings – at least “on the surface”.. There are others who find it more difficult and in the moments of heightened emotion, they feel uncomfortable and may unconsciously send out non-verbal signals with their body language that are the exact opposite of what they are feeling inside. This is called incongruent leadership communication.1 When this discrepancy between what we feel and what we express happens, it is noticeable to those around us and thus influences our own credibility.
Being “REAL” in leadership can be effective and represent a great opportunity – especially when managers are under pressure, stuck in crisis-mode or lead their teams virtually (hybrid or classic). The opportunities can be seen on two levels:
- For yourself: you feel relieved, it is liberating and less stressful
- For your relationships with others: you become more accessible, there is more openness, trust and connection.
Do not cry at work!
Let’s move on to my very personal story. Although it happened quite a few years ago, it is still relevant.
I had been a manager for several years, when I could no longer hold back my emotions in a team meeting.
Our business was in “high season”- we were in the middle of building a new digital business unit. Under immense pressure, I felt overwhelmed, highly stressed and was so concerned that my team felt let down by me. I found myself in a team meeting, speaking to more than 20 employees when it happened… TEARS!
I could no longer hold back my emotions. And I couldn’t believe it. Why ME, who was always strong and full of energy on the outside!
Regretfully, I told my team that I would not be in the office from that day on for 6 weeks due to medical reasons.
I explained that it was crucial for me to take care of my health and what emotions led me to my abrupt absence. In the end, standing there in a visibly emotional and fragile stateI was able to express something along the lines of: “Please continue. Take on responsibility. Work self-organised. I trust you and know you can do it.”
Wow, after this meeting I felt bad. At first, I was very ashamed and scared. How on earth could I cry in a meeting?! I probably have lost all respect and appeared unprofessional . My second thought was about a statement by Sheryl Sandberg2, CEO Facebook, that popped up in my mind:
Take your whole self to work and allow feelings. Sharing feelings leads to deeper connections. Showing them makes us better managers, partners and colleagues. (shortened)
This felt a bit comforting; however, I still doubted that my honesty combined with my emotions should have no consequences for me.
How feelings lead to more closeness
After 6 weeks, I returned. I had new strength and energy; still, I was very nervous. Surprisingly, there was no sign of lost respect. Quite the contrary! I could not have imagined a warmer welcome. During my absence, my team continued working on their projects independently. And that made me so proud.
I received feedback from several employees and their words touch me until today. I have learnt that all team members took my words very seriously before I left for 6 weeks. My honesty and emotions were not perceived as a weakness, but as human and real and many found it quite brave how I communicated . The meeting made me more approachable and finally, no one wanted to disappoint me. In my absence, my team gave their best effort.
A couple of months later, I received a promotion. I started to further mentor and train aspiring junior managers.
The entire experience definitely shaped my current leadership behaviour. I became aware of how much strength and effort I often wasted in hiding my vulnerable side and weaknesses.
At the same time, I learnt that employees open up to me even more when I am also willing to be open myself.
Today, I no longer feel ashamed for my tears. They came out of a deep connection that I had with the people I enjoyed working with every day. I do not want to suggest that managers should have a weekly “crying session”. In leadership, there are also situations where too much emotions, being hyperaware and too sensitive can be absolutely counterproductive.
However, I want to encourage you to give space to AUTHENTICITY in your own leadership style and to be in constant contact with yourself. Even if it is difficult and even if it requires a lot of courage and critical reflection of yourself.
In this sense: Let’s get real and…
To be continued in my blog article next Tuesday. I will talk about a current example of authentic communication in top management and reflect on the topic of internal communication in times of change.
- Miteinander Reden: Kommunikationspsychologie für Führungskräfte, Schulz von Thun
- Lean in – Frauen und der Wille zum Erfolg, Sheryl Sandberg