The Boardroom series: women’s vulnerability – do we really need to man up?

Man up” used to be a phrase commonly heard, and accepted in boardrooms, workplaces, and social settings. I have spoken to countless male CEO’s who have described the “macho culture” of the boardroom, how this impacted them, and often inhibited them from looking after their own mental health when they most needed to. I am pleased to say that increased awareness of the importance of talking about mental health and efforts made to challenge stigma around men’s mental health, has led to a change so that this is becoming less common in many countries. While this is a journey, and we have a long way to go, we are making progress. In fact, it is now often seen as a sign of strength for a man to speak openly about his mental health or ill-health.

While the work of charities, such as CALM, Mates in Mind and MQ, as well as individuals and businesses who are prioritising conversations on the topic, continue to address stigma and contribute to the positive changes we are seeing, there is another topic which is often overlooked. That is the stigma of women speaking about their mental health in the workplace and, specifically, the stigma of women in leadership and director roles doing so.

As I have become more involved with the City Women Network over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to speak to more and more female leaders who describe to me the sense that when men speak openly about how they are feeling, they are hailed as role models. In contrast, when women do the same, they feel they are viewed in a more negative light and fear that they are seen as not being “up to the job”. People report how, as a woman, the expression of any emotional distress (in or out of the workplace) is often assumed to be the result of hormones, rather than simply being human. In these moments, often women are told they are “being emotional”, with an inference that this is negative rather than normal.

When we fear that we may be judged negatively, or treated differently, for expressing how we feel, we feel vulnerable. This is common for both men and women and is associated with feeling that there is an element of risk in us disclosing our true sentiments, as we don’t know the outcome of that judgement – it is out of our control. (Read more from Brené Brown if you want to understand more on this concept).

To avoid feeling vulnerable, employees, and particularly leaders, commonly try to “put on a brave face” or hide how they are feeling. The outcome of this cycle of stigma and silence is that these people are also less likely to access the available support they need to help them manage their challenges. Instead, they try to push through alone or ignore issues until they become a crisis. In the interim, it is likely that that person’s performance and productivity is reduced, they have been less able to communicate effectively, their physical ill-health will have been jeopardised and they are less satisfied by their work. In turn, this is often the cause of unnecessary staff turnover and, of course, the financial cost of these outcomes is higher for more senior people in the organisation.

Furthermore, and arguably more importantly, we are missing the opportunity to benefit from the potential positive impact of embracing vulnerability in the boardroom and the wider workplace.

A lesson on vulnerability / Vulnerability, Trust, Courage & Safety

According to researcher Brené Brown, to practice vulnerability in the workplace requires risking exposing our emotions when we have no control over the outcome of doing so. As Dr Brown often explains in her work, this is the ultimate act of courage, a word which, derived from the Latin word “cor”, originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” If we think back to pre-historic times, to risk being excluded from our community could have left us isolated from the pack and been a risk to our physical survival, hence, it is a scary prospect. Thousands of years on, there is rarely a threat to our existence, but none the less the feeling of fear can be just as real.

However, as we have evolved, we have also learned that there are many benefits of vulnerability, particularly in the workplace.

1.    Without vulnerability, we can never truly practice compassion for others

The root meaning of “compassion” is to “suffer with”. This means that to have compassion for someone we have to be able to connect with that person and understand their pain as an equal. That does not mean that we need to have had the exact same experiences as that person. Instead, it does require us to accept that we too have been through hard times, and that all humans go through ups and down, so that we can understand the other person’s hardship without judgement. It can help to contrast this idea with the idea of ‘pity’ where we might see someone in pain but feel so different from them that we cannot imagine how they might feel or what that experience might be like. If we are never willing to share our emotional ups and downs, whether that be asking for help or just expressing our emotions, we can never truly connect with someone who is sharing those emotions with us. Whether it be consciously or sub-consciously, our lack of willingness to act courageously by sharing our feelings indicates that we see doing so as a sign of weakness, or we perceive it negatively in some way. We close ourselves off to true connection with others.

2.    Without vulnerability, we can add stress to others’ experiences

While we often think that always showing a front of positivity, resilience and perfect composure is helpful to others as it gives a sense of security, this is not always the case. In fact, exuding a sense of unwavering perfection and balance, can often make others who are suffering judge themselves more negatively by comparing themselves to their seemingly superhuman peers. If you imagine a situation where you say something in a meeting which you feel embarrassed about or did not get the reaction you wanted, what’s more powerful to hear afterwards “I am so sorry for you, that was so embarrassing” or “I real feel for you, I know I have done that before”. Sharing a sense of fallibility and vulnerability to the emotional rollercoaster of life can often reduce the stress felt by those around us and create a more psychologically safe environment for everyone. That does not mean we need to always express our deepest secrets or inner fears, it does however require us to stop saying “I’m fine” when emotionally we feel far from being so. We are all fine, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with any one of us, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel sad some days, or angry at times, or inspired, happy or any other emotion.

3.    Without vulnerability, we miss the opportunity for building trust

Research shows that demonstrating vulnerability enables people around us to trust us more. This is particularly relevant for leaders who want, and arguably need, their teams to trust them in order to be most effective in their leadership roles. While there is a balance of how much we share and practice vulnerability as leaders, as the work of Herminia Ibarra, Alexander Romney, Daniel Holland, and many other researchers explore, the consistent message we see is that practising some level of vulnerability increases trust levels between employees and leaders as well as between leaders themselves. Not only do we feel more connected to people who demonstrate a more human, imperfect side to themselves, but also, when someone says they feel one way, but their behaviours or demeanour contradict these words, we don’t believe the words, instead we trust the actions and our intuition. In these moments, we start to create stories of why the person is not being honest, we usually imagine much worse situations and often worry more than we would if we knew the other person’s reality. The individual who is ‘putting on a brave face’ so as not to worry others is often more worrying than the person who is honest about their feelings and expresses these.

A final thought

The main thing we can do to address stigma is to notice our own reactions and judgements of other’s expressions of emotions, as well as reflecting on how comfortable we feel about expressing our emotions and demonstrating vulnerability. As I wrote this, I started to reflect on my own practice of vulnerability (and it is an on-going practice for us all). I realised that while I am generally very open about my mental health journey to date and personal challenges in certain areas of my life, I am very reluctant to admit to even my closest family and friends when I am taking on too much work or feeling negatively stressed by my work. My interpretation of this awareness is that, as a researcher, consultant, and trainer in the field of resilience, burnout prevention and workplace wellbeing, I have a preconception that I ‘should’ always have great boundaries around my work life and always be able to manage pressure with composure. And, quite simply, that is not the case – I am human after all – and I doubt my friends and family expect me to be more than that.

As a result, I have started to make that a priority, to be more honest with my partner, friends, and clients, when I am feeling overwhelmed, to practice vulnerability as a daily habit. As with all aspects of mental fitness, it requires on-going action, and there is very rarely an end point, we can always do a little more. So, I invite you to reflect on your own habits, where are you comfortable to demonstrate vulnerability and where are you reluctant to do so? And ask yourself, what is driving that? Is that fear imagined or real?

You may or may not see opportunities to start practicing vulnerability to create a safer more trusting community in your workplace. Either way, I would love to hear your thoughts below.

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