Feeling Vulnerable? It May Not Be a Bad Thing

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Have you ever avoided asking for help because you felt that it might make you look incompetent? Or have you struggled to tell your colleagues that you made a decision that didn’t work out because of a concern that you’d lose their trust or respect.

When we talk about being vulnerable, it’s often in the context of personal relationships. Being vulnerable is also integral in other areas of life though, including the workplace. Sometimes, yes, it is easier, and it may be more socially or professionally acceptable, to hold back how we feel about something. But, in general, showing vulnerability has some real benefits; science says so. Here’s the kicker — we perceive our own vulnerability differently from how others perceive it.

It makes sense that we would avoid sharing or conveying information about needing help or having made a mistake so that we’re not seen in a negative light. Many of us believe that admitting vulnerability has the potential to make us feel guilt or shame. In reality, however, there are some clear benefits to showing vulnerability both our personal health and our relationships with others. Research shows that people who self-disclose are seen as more liking, trusting, and closer in relationships. People who show vulnerability through self-disclosure also tend to have better mental health.

In contrast, if we hold back information, we fail to open ourselves up to someone who might be able to help us. Reaching out for help has been associated with better learning and skill acquisition, performance, and job satisfaction.

Though we may think that by showing some vulnerability others will think less of us and it may shed some negative light on my personal or professional relationships. But is it true?

That’s exactly what researchers did in a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examining self-other differences in perception of vulnerability across a range of settings from confessing romantic feelings to admitting a mistake. Indeed, it turns out, we tend to overestimate the negative effects of showing vulnerability. In fact, when we show vulnerability, those around us actually can interpret it as a sign of strength and as a desirable behavior.

Why do we perceive our vulnerability in a negative light while others don’t?

Psychologists refer to Construal Level Theory (CLT) which proposes that we can picture future events in our minds, and that events that are closer to our current situation the more concrete we can picture it our minds. The is the notion underlying the concept of psychological distance: psychologically distant things (objects, events) are those that are not present in the here and now (Liberman, Trope, and Stephen, 2007).

Picture your friend describing their future life in a new neighborhood, where they’ll be moving next month. While you’re able to imagine what their future life (an abstract) might look like in their new neighborhood (a second abstract) and from your friends’ perspective (a third abstract). With increased psychological distance, we’re less able to color in the picture with real/actual details and what we have in our minds is more abstract. Psychologists have shown that as psychological distance increases, so does the construal level.

So, in terms of vulnerability, those to whom we’re disclosing information perceive us from a psychological distance, meaning that their mental representation of what we’re going through is relatively abstract. Research has shown that higher levels of abstraction lead to a relatively greater focus on positive information. Those with whom we are vulnerable are more likely than we are to focus on the desirability aspects of showing vulnerability (e.g. “admitting you made a wrong is the right thing to do”).

Meanwhile, when we’re deciding whether or not to perform a vulnerable action, our own levels of abstraction are relatively low and we tend to focus more on the potential negative consequences of our action. In our own minds we are likely to focus relatively more on the feasibility aspects of showing vulnerability and pay attention to what might go wrong instead (e.g. “I might not get a promotion if I admit I forgot that meeting”).

So, when we think about the consequences of showing vulnerability, CLT would imply a relatively low level of abstraction and therefore greater focus on the negative aspects of self-disclosure. But just because our own perceptions are relatively negative, doesn’t mean that this is also how others view our display of vulnerability, which is often in relatively more positive light, and perhaps even beneficial in terms of the image of ourselves we’re projecting.

Google has shown that psychological safety, referring to the feeling of being able to take risks and share ideas openly, is a key driver of successful teams. There are a number of benefits to showing emotions in the workplace (yes, even shedding some tears). Brené Brown, an expert in the area of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and a professor at the University of Houston. Her TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top-five most-viewed TED Talks of all time. Brown notes that vulnerability is fundamental to authentic social connection.

We also know that vulnerability can make the workplace safer. Research by Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely and Stanford professor Debra Meyerson revealed outstanding effects of a company-wide training initiative designed to combat a macho culture on an oil rig. The initiative, focused around topics such as opening employees up to sharing information with one another and asking for help, resulted in an 84 percent reduction in accidents over a 15-year period, a win for all parties involved.

Admit you made a mistake, ask for help when you’re confused or feeling overburdened. Doing so won’t make you look weak or incompetent — in fact, others will be appreciative of your courage and often you’ll not only be opening yourself up to help but also helping your team on the whole.

References:

Collins, N.L., & Miller, L.C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, Nov 116(3), 457-475. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.3.457

Wheeless, L.R., & Grotz, J. (1977). The measurement of trust and its relationship to self-disclosure. Human Communication Research, 3(3), 250-257. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1977.tb00523.x

Sprecher, S., Stanislav, T., & Wondra, JD. (2012). Effects of self-disclosure role on liking, closeness, and other impressions in get-acquainted interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(4), 497-514. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407512459033

Cozby, P.C. (1973). Self-disclosure: A literature review. Psychological Bulletin, 79(2), 73-91. DOI: 10.1037/h0033950

Wood Brooks, A., Gino, F., & Schweitzer, M.E. (2015). Smart people ask for (my) advice: Seeking advice boosts perceptions of competence. Management Science, 61(6), iv-vii, 1197-1471. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2014.2054

Bruk, A, Scholl, S.G., & Bless, H. (2018). Beautiful mess effect: Self–other differences in evaluation of showing vulnerability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 192-205. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000120

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117(2). Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3152826/

Rozovsky, J. (2015, Nov). The five keys to a successful Google team. Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

Slavin, A. (2018). It’s My Job and I’ll Cry If I Want to: The Case for Showing Emotions in the Workplace. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/315865

Brown, B. (2010, June). The power of vulnerability (video file). Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability

Ely, R. J. & Meyerson, D. (2008). Unmasking manly men. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2008/07/unmasking-manly-men