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How Vulnerability in Leadership and Creating Psychological Safety Can Unlock True Potential in the Workforce

How Vulnerability in Leadership and Creating Psychological Safety Can Unlock True Potential in the Workforce

When I stepped into my new role three years ago, I spent a lot of those first months observing and listening. From those observations, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what I needed to do, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

I was feeling pretty good about myself and the impact I could have in my new role when an encounter with a female colleague stopped me right in my tracks.

A new mom who had returned from maternity leave not six months prior - this employee was in my office for a touch-base meeting. Before getting down to business, I asked her how she was doing.

She started to answer with the standard, “I’m great,” providing a few details about baby and how she was adjusting to motherhood. Before she got too far, however, the tears started to well up in her eyes and it was clear that she wasn’t okay. Overwhelmed with the demands of work and life, she confessed that she was at her breaking point and couldn’t figure out how to get it all done – caring for her newborn, herself, and her job.

All of a sudden, she paused, looked carefully at me, and said:

I’m sorry. You must think I am a disaster. You always have it so together and I am a mess.

In my head, I was like:

What???!!! You think I have it together?? I’m the disaster!

Unbeknownst to her – or anyone else really – I was the woman who found herself in a mental health center after the birth of my first child. I was the woman with severe, sometimes debilitating, anxiety. I was the woman who felt like she was constantly failing on all fronts.

[Related: Choose Yourself: The Importance of Stress Management]

But because of the façade I put on, no one knew my struggles. All they saw was what I let them see. As leaders, we have far more visibility than we know. What we say – and do – is magnified and emulated.

By trying to convince the world that I was perfect and had it all together, I was essentially telling our employees that they had to be too! Of course, this was never my intent or my expectation. I know that I’ve never looked at a colleague and thought:

Why are you such a mess? Get it together!

But that’s the impression my façade was giving.

I suddenly realized that as a leader, I couldn’t hide my imperfections – I needed to acknowledge them, talk about them, and yes, celebrate them. It was on that day that I made a conscious decision to be more vulnerable and authentic as a leader.

Don’t get me wrong – being vulnerable isn’t easy. As women, we are hard-wired to hide our imperfections because at work, where we often aren’t starting from an equal place anyway, we fear those imperfections will stand in the way of advancement.

Gen X and Baby Boomer women, in particular, were taught that we had to be ten times smarter and work ten times harder to succeed. That meant never acknowledging that we were struggling with family commitments, that we were overwhelmed, or simply having a bad day.

In short, we all had to be Super Woman.

But Super Woman isn’t real. And neither are these perfect personas we’re building. While these façades may have helped us rise in our own careers, what we didn’t realize in creating them was the incredible disservice we were doing to younger generations of women, who look up to us and model our behavior.

[Related: Millennial Mindset: Get Real About Your Mental Health]

That’s why today I’m modeling behavior that is authentic. Sometimes, I will walk into meetings and say:

Today is hard, and I’m not managing it well.

It is really important for us as leaders to acknowledge and own that we are human too and multidimensional and failing in some places.

The good news, I think, is the pandemic has made authenticity and vulnerability quite a bit easier for all of us. As work has shifted from the office to the home and in-person meetings have been replaced with Zoom video calls, the chaos of our daily lives has been put on full display whether we want it to be or not.

But vulnerability does more than enable employees to be their authentic selves at work. Vulnerability also promotes psychological safety, which is exceedingly important in the workplace today. In fact, a two-year study at Google found that feeling secure enough to contribute was the most common feature, by far, of high-performing teams.

Psychological safety is essentially the feeling that you can speak up and speak out when you feel something is not quite right or when there is an opportunity to do better. The idea of psychological safety was first written about by psychologist William Kahn in 1990, but has since been popularized by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School. In her research, she has found that when employees feel safe, they trust that they can admit mistakes, seek feedback, or even fail without dire consequences.

Unfortunately, it’s often women — and especially women of color — who don’t feel psychologically safe in their workplaces. And sadly, the events of 2020 – namely the pandemic, murders of black men such as George Floyd, and a spate of hate crimes perpetrated against Asian Americans – only made this worse.

This is why it’s even more critical today to give employees of color the confidence that they can speak up and give them the safe space to talk about the things that impact them not only at work, but in their personal lives.

At RBC Wealth Management, once we realized that we needed to do a better job of creating space for employees of color to be heard, we launched a series of listening sessions called Real Chats where employees of color can come together to talk, to grieve, and to support one another.

Some of the feedback – particularly regarding their experience at our firm – was alarming and painful to hear. But we’ve resolved to be vulnerable as leaders, to listen, and, more importantly, to use what we hear to improve.

This is just the beginning. We have a long way to go. But, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that as more leaders let down their guard, allow themselves to be more vulnerable, and lead from an authentic place, ALL employees will feel that they can be too.

[Related: COVID-19 Will Fundamentally Shift Office Culture in the Future. And That Might Be a Good Thing.]

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Shareen Luze is the Senior Director, Human Resources at RBC Wealth Management, where she is responsible for the development and execution of strategic human resources strategies and initiatives for RBC Wealth Management – U.S. She and her team support the RBC Wealth Management – U.S. business through design and execution of HR programs that support employees and give them the tools they need to succeed.

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC

Are you or someone you know struggling? Contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for support.


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