Vulnerable Leadership: When Leaders Also Found Themselves “Adrift”
Leaders are always seen as resilient, decisive people who lead businesses through times of uncertainty. However, when values are upturned by the unprecedented pandemic, the most effective leaders are those who embrace negative emotions, openly and honestly acknowledge the challenges they face, and invite employees to do the same.
At the end of the day, they are all human
According to a report by Indeed in December 2021, more than 50% of workers were unsure if they would stay in their current positions over the next six months. Business leaders are forced into a never-ending race to not only practically ensure businesses recovery while facing economic and political turmoil, but also effectively retain talents by supporting and managing employees’ total well-being.
However, an interview by Harvard Business Review in 2020 with 30 leaders from a variety of national and multinational companies in the UK and US showed that leaders were struggling to juggle between work and family while handling pressure from both. The negative emotions commonly reported are stress, anxiety, disorientation, and emotional dysregulation. “I’m struggling to keep my emotions in check, and the people closest to me are getting the brunt of it. In addition, I feel I have little grasp on how to navigate the future, much less to lead others.” – one of the leaders shared.
Ms. Nguyễn Thị Thanh Hương – Deputy CEO of Talentnet - explained that leaders often took on 3 different approaches to manage their negative emotions including “heroes” who hide their fears and focus only on the positive aspects; “technocrats” who put aside their emotions and focus only on tactical solutions; and finally “sharers” who embrace their fears, openly communicate with employees and evoke empathy from their team. Although each approach has its pros and cons, Ms. Hương believes that ‘sharers’ will usually be successful in building cohesive, high-performing teams that are resilient in the face of future uncertainties.
“Leaders are often expected to be optimistic, positive, and fearless in facing adversities. It’s not wrong, but it can unintentionally make leaders inconsiderate toward employees’ difficulties. Or worse, it can inadvertently lead to team members suppressing their own challenges and being hesitant to share or talk about their difficulties. Leaders need to take down their "hero" mask because they are just human. Don’t hesitate to talk about your fears and anxieties with employees. Because it will become the catalyst for a sympathetic, empathetic, and sustainable environment in the post-pandemic era.” – Ms. Thanh Hương shared.
Vulnerable leader: Difficult, but not impossible
Due to a widespread assumption that admitting negative emotions is a sign of weakness, many leaders choose to stifle their emotions. Ms. Hương suggests three strategies that help the most reluctant leaders to bravely open up about their fears to employees:
Be proactive in acknowledging the challenges and fears: Self-reflect sessions are one of the first steps for leaders to acknowledge the challenges and fears they are facing. They can then record their emotions by writing journals, or conversating with a loved one. This method helps leaders to effectively recognize and face their fears, therefore building their emotional awareness.
Start small but in the right place and at the right time: Building a caring relationship between leaders and employees doesn’t happen overnight, especially when the leaders have never done this before. Setting aside a certain time and place, for example, the last 5 minutes of the first meeting of the week and starting with admitting minor frustration to slowly close the gap between colleagues, thereby giving the space for negative emotions or challenges to be listened.
Lifting the burden by delegating: Leaders need to be ready to involve others and delegate the work to their teams to overcome various challenges. Contrary to common belief, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Leaders, who can delegate, can empower their employees to become better at problem-solving. Furthermore, leaders can experience a significant improvement in emotions as their work is heavily reduced through delegation. On the other hand, opting for outsourcing services is also an instant solution to help the team reduce the workload, and pressure and be more mentally relieved.
“It can be difficult to admit our fears and anxieties, but in fact, vulnerable leaders can foster deeper relationships with their employees, which improves employee engagement and better retains talents as well as empowers everyone to try their best. The fears that you are facing can later be your strengths given dealt with in the right ways.” Ms. Thanh Hương shared.