Take off the armour: The surprising role of vulnerability in creating resilience

The situation was every leader’s worst nightmare: Archana Patchirajan, founder of an Indian technology startup, had to call her staff into a meeting and give them some devastating news. Due to a stark lack of funds, Archana would have to let them go. She could no longer afford to pay them.

When Archana delivered this message, she fully expected her team of engineers—all of whom were highly qualified and could have easily secured lucrative new positions—to express their regrets, then pack up and go home... But they didn’t. Instead, they told her they wanted to stay and were willing to work for just 50% of their original pay. Humbled and grateful, Archana accepted their offer. Over the next few years the team worked so hard that the company, an internet advertising firm called Hubbl, sold for an astounding $14 million. What’s more, Archana’s team continues to work with her remotely on new projects today, even though many of them are now thousands of miles apart.
To many leaders, such loyalty sounds like a miracle. Upon closer examination, however, it quickly becomes clear that this event cannot be put down to chance or luck. Hubbl’s incredible resiliency was intrinsically tied to how Archana interacted with her team. When a reporter for the Harvard Business Review interviewed various members of her team, each individual spoke of the connection they felt to their leader: “We all work as a family because she treats us as such,” said one. “She knows everyone in the office and has a personal relationship with each one of us,” said another.
The pattern was clear: Archana’s display of vulnerability during the staff meeting (openly admitting the business was imperiled and that she had no solution to offer) was not her first. She had spent years fostering emotional bonds with her team members, allowing them to see her for who she really was, imperfections and all. While she was their leader, she made it clear that she was also their peer, eschewing a strict hierarchy and professional detachment in favour of a “person to person” style of interaction. By showing her weakness, she allowed her team the opportunity to be strong.

From Vulnerability Comes Resilience

According to Brené Brown, an expert on social connection who has interviewed thousands of employees to find out what drives engagement and loyalty at work, Archana’s situation is more the rule than the exception. Strong social connection at work—and the resilience that comes with it—are a direct product of vulnerability.
At first, this may sound counter-intuitive; after all, many of us have been directly or indirectly punished for showing weakness within typically competitive corporate structures. But when an organisation’s culture is transformed to allow for open and authentic communication, as Archana’s team proved, sharing vulnerability can help pull companies back from the very brink of catastrophe. A connected organisation is a resilient organisation.
So, how do we radically alter workplace dynamics to facilitate the sharing of vulnerability? Experts suggest that we begin by casting aside the idea of projecting an “image” at work—we should instead simply be ourselves. When we project an image of infallible mastery that doesn’t align with our authentic selves, we not only make it harder to discuss those problems that need solving, we “confuse” the social instincts of our peers. As Paula Niedenthal, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains, “We are programmed to observe each other’s states so we can more appropriately interact, empathize, or assert our boundaries, whatever the situation may require.” This subconscious process creates what is known as “resonance,” the foundation of connection.
When we project an image of perpetual strength, we in effect prevent genuine resonance, and connection, from ever occurring. Because this practice is so widespread, many of our organisations remain only loosely tied together. As such, when they’re confronted with adversity, they quickly come apart at the seams.

When leaders show vulnerability, on the other hand, employees feel empowered. Their natural instincts—which involve a very strong and very human desire to help—kick in (thanks to resonance). They realise they’re not just another part of a large and impersonal system; they’re valued and valuable individuals who are capable of generating solutions. They begin to see themselves, and their organisations, in a fresh new light: They understand that they matter and they know they can make a difference. When given this opportunity, as Archana’s team demonstrated, most employees will rise to the occasion. As a result, the organisation as a whole becomes stronger and more adaptable.