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Aaron SmilingAaron Bruce | Thinking Out Loud

4 Phrases to Help Leaders be More Vulnerable at Work

Psychological safety predicts organizational success. Here are four phrases you can use to to improve psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the feeling that “it’s OK to take risks, to express ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences.” It’s a critically important component of successful company cultures. If people don’t feel safe then they keep their ideas to themselves, they won’t risk pointing out errors or inefficiencies, and they’ll never stick their necks out.

Psychological safety is the foundation of a good company and team culture, and responsibilty for fostering culture falls squarely on the shoulders of a company’s leaders and managers. The most powerful culture building tool we have as leaders is to model the behaviors we want to encourage in others. That means if we want our subordinates to feel safe to admit mistakes to us, they must first see us admit mistakes to them. If we want them to be unafraid to be vulnerable with us, we must first be willing to be vulnerable with them.

I worked with somebody who introduced me to Simon Sinek and taught me about the importance of vulnerability in leadership. The emotional core of leadership is not frequently taught - especially for engineers. So here are four phrases to help new and experienced leaders to be more vulnerable with their subordinates.

I Owe You An Apology

One of the critical differences between leadership positions and IC positions is that your decisions can have direct and lasting impact on the people who you work with. We all know that everyone makes mistakes, but when you make a bad call or you make a promise you can’t keep it will feel all the worse because of the people around you that you let down. If you make a mistake that has direct negative impact on somebody then take the time to apologize. It doesn’t need to be extravagent, but simply admitting that you made a mistake will do a lot to model vulnerability.

I Don’t Know

I happen to believe that admitting when you don’t know something is a critical first step to learning. Ignorance is too frequently seen as a weakness in professional environments. If you want the people you work with to raise their hand and ask for help when they’re stuck then you’d better be willing to do it, too. When you’re dealing with a hard problem, or one of your subordinates asks you a question that you can’t answer, admit that you don’t know and come up with a plan to find the answer. If it’s a particularly hard problem you can ask them to figure out some options and come back to teach you what they learn.

I’m Worried About…

Fear and anxiety are persistent and ever-present in the workplace. Even in its most benign form, we worry all the time. Am I doing a good job? Is my projet going to get cancelled? Is the company healthy?

You want your employees to voice their fears and concerns to you. You can learn a lot about the health of your organization and your product from the fears of the people on the ground who know the most about your product and your customers, but your employees won’t share unless they feel safe to do so. You have to share your fears with them to model this behavior.

This one is tougher than the others. As executives, managers and leaders we’re often privy to more information than our subordinates, and it’s not always appropriate to share that information. Those things can’t be shared, but find the worries that you can share and share them. Are you worried that we won’t make a deadline? Are you worried about how you’re perceived by the people around you? Are you worried about how you handled an awkward situation in a meeting? Examine your fears and share some of them in your next one on one.

I Was Wrong / You Were Right

If you say something wrong then just admit it right away! If you have an idea that winds up being a bad one, just say it out loud. Admitting you’re wrong is the best way to avoid the sunk cost fallacy. In order to spend less time on bad ideas, you have to recognize them and have the courage to admit that it’s not working. Practice saying “I was wrong” out loud to your team every chance that you get so that they know they’re safe to admit they’ve been barking up the wrong tree when it happens to them.

In Closing

Vulnerability doesn’t have to be personal. It doesn’t have to be traumatic. Nobody expects, or wants, you to share details about your personal life or your deepest fears. In a professional setting you can express a professional vulnerability, and improve your company culture as a result.

It’s easy in engineering to dismiss the importance of the emotional component of leadership, but it’s one of the most critical parts of the job. As an engineer it may not come naturally, but like anything else, you’ll get better with practice.