How to be vulnerable at work without spilling everything, from Brené Brown

Mar 1, 2021

How open should you be with your coworkers?

These days many workplaces are encouraging their employees to be vulnerable and authentic, but opening up at work can feel precarious. If we open up the wrong way, it can sometimes backfire but vulnerability can also bring us closer to other people and make teams stronger. The key, according to author, podcast host and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, is establishing boundaries.

On a special episode of the TED podcast WorkLife, Brené and organizational psychologist Adam Grant talk about what vulnerability in the workplace really means.

Here’s an excerpt from their perspective-shifting conversation: 

Adam Grant: One of the fears that a lot of people carry around is that if they’re vulnerable at the wrong time or with the wrong person, especially if they’re in a more performance-oriented culture at work that they might not be seen as competent. How do I figure out what the appropriate amount of vulnerability is?

Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability.

Brené Brown: So I would say you’ll never succeed in a performative culture if you don’t have some of the things that really are vulnerable, like curiosity. If you pretend like you know everything and you’re not a learner, that house of cards is going to collapse at some point. What I think people are asking is: “How much is too much to share about my feelings?”

And that always leads me to this very simple sentence: Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability.

Are you sharing your emotions and your experiences to move your work, connection or relationship forward? Or are you working your s—t out with somebody? Work is not a place to do that.

I’ll give you an example. I was working with a group of newly funded CEOs from Silicon Valley. One of them came up to me and said, ”I’m going to be vulnerable. I’m going to tell my investors and my employees, ‘We’re in over our head. I don’t know what I’m doing, and we’re bleeding money.”

I said, ”OK, you must have stepped out to go to the bathroom during the part where I said vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability. We always have to interrogate our intention around sharing and question who we’re sharing with and whether it’s the right thing.”

He said, “You don’t think I should do it?”

I said, “I think you’ll never get funding again. And I think you will unfairly put the people who’ve probably left great jobs to follow you over here into a terrible position of fear. If you are literally in over your head, you should absolutely share that with someone. But the question is: Who is the appropriate person to tell?”

Grant: I so appreciate the nuance that you bring to vulnerability — just because vulnerability helps to build trust doesn’t mean you should share everything with all people. And I think that’s such a common misconception.

Some of the most vulnerable and authentic leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with personally disclose very little.

Brown: Look, some of the most vulnerable and authentic leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with — truly authentic and truly vulnerable people — personally disclose very little. And some of the leaders I work with disclose everything, and they are the least authentic and vulnerable people.

Grant: This is totally fascinating. You’re saying that I can be vulnerable without disclosing a ton about my emotions or my life.

Brown: Yes.

Grant: How? I have gotten feedback from people I work with that when there’s something difficult going on in my life, I don’t share much about it. My fear has been that when people know there’s something difficult going on in my life and I didn’t open up about it, they’re going to think that I’m not being honest or authentic with them or that I’m lacking vulnerability. You’re saying there are ways that I can maintain my privacy and still be vulnerable. Tell me more.

Brown: You can say, “I’m really struggling right now. I’ve got some stuff going on and it’s hard, and I wanted y’all to know. And I want you to know what support looks like for me is that I’ll check in with you if I need something or I may take some time off. Support also looks like being able to bring it up with you when it’s helpful for me but not having to field a lot of questions about it. That’s what I need right now.”

Grant: That is incredibly empowering.

For more workplace wisdom from Brené and Adam, listen to their full conversation here. Plus, listen to conversations with Adam and other inspiring individuals like Jane Goodall, Glennon Doyle, Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman on this season’s WorkLife with Adam Grant podcast. 

You can also listen to the full episode with Brené and Adam on — just click below: