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Toxic Vulnerability

Even before reading the news release from the Department of Labor about the California restaurant that hired a fake priest to “extract confessions of workplace ‘sins’”, I’d already been thinking about vulnerability in the workplace. I’ve been thinking about it because of the intimate nature of the word. In the quest to develop connected, trust based relationships at work, have we somehow adopted a sort of toxic vulnerability where we exchange the term “vulnerability” for “be a human”?

Although it seems we’ve made progress understanding the harm of toxic positivity in the workplace (and beyond), as I hear more and more about the importance of vulnerability in the workplace, I’ve become concerned that we’ve traded one bad premise for another. Don’t get me wrong: I think looking for ways to productively and ethically engage with each other at work regardless of our role is essential to success; I just don’t think aspiring for “vulnerability” is the way to do this.

Part of healthy relationships is appropriate boundaries. As a human, I get to choose how much I want to share about “whole me” without undue pressure or high control tactics. Seeking vulnerability at work when another behavior or emotion will do can feel forced or uncomfortable.

I shamefully admit I’ve been the culprit in soliciting such vulnerability. That time I asked “Please share with us something shocking we don’t know about you” as an ice breaker at the sales meeting comes to mind. Surprisingly (thought no one), it was received with cringed looks by some, elation by others, and shaking of heads by the rest. I would have been better served asking “what one thing can we do for you today that will make something in your to do list at work more bearable”. At least that was less open ended and work related!

On the rare occasion I have to call off from work last minute, I should be able to do so by simply saying “I had something urgent come up” or “I’m unwell”. If the implication is that I’ll get in trouble unless I confess or give a lot of detail on the reason why I need to be out whether I want to or not, that’s not an organization that welcomes vulnerability. This is a red flag that leaders in the organization do not trust their employees (or are nosy; neither of which is good). If an employee has attendance or dependability issues, this behavior should be addressed without requiring unnecessary details at every turn. There are exceptions to this if it’s an ADA or FMLA situation. I underlined “rare” above to make the distinction.

I truly believe that through “vulnerability at work” what we are really searching for is a way to communicate that we are all human and that we make some allowances because we all have stuff going on. The thing is, we can just say exactly that! This provides a framework for folks who don’t feel comfortable sharing personal details and allows those who do the freedom to do so, all without feeling coerced.

What are your thoughts on “vulnerability at work”?

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