On Aug. 6, my weekly email to all 10,000 Indeed employees began with the expected summary of announcements and updates. But toward the end, I shared something many didn’t expect: that in recent months, I’ve been struggling to manage my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
As Indeed’s Senior Vice President of HR (human resources), I’ve shared personal experiences in all-company emails before. But this time I wanted to go deeper, given both where I am and where we are collectively in this difficult year. The global pandemic, economic downturn and Black Lives Matter protests have underscored for me how leading with vulnerability can actually be a strength.
Vulnerability in leadership is when senior leaders and managers aren’t afraid to show their “weaknesses” to employees. This approach can help build and deepen the trust employees have in you. What’s more, it can start a dialogue about mental health in the workplace — an especially important conversation during these stressful times.
Why I disclosed my OCD — and how others responded
I was diagnosed with OCD about 15 years ago. My husband and close friends know about it, and I’ve also talked about it openly with other leaders and team members at Indeed.
But increasingly, I felt that it was important to disclose my OCD to a wider audience. I hoped that by doing so, I would potentially be able to help others since my job and weekly emails have given me a platform. I wanted to touch on the reality that we are all very fragile, complex beings, and that just because someone is smiling or seems happy does not necessarily mean that everything is wonderful in their world.
Soon after sending the email, I received about 70 replies — more than any of my all-company communications to date (except for those about how we’d all be working from home at the start of the pandemic).
Most responses came from people I didn’t know. One employee said they’d never written to an executive leader before, but wanted to tell me they appreciated how honest and vulnerable I’d been. Several other employees opened up to me about their own mental health challenges — a topic I feel isn’t addressed enough in our workplaces. Someone in our Dublin office even invited me to ping him whenever I needed someone to talk to!
Being vulnerable is part of being a leader
Vulnerability in leadership isn’t a new idea. Noted author and professor Dr. Brené Brown’s 2010 TED Talk on “the power of vulnerability” — viewed nearly 50 million times since then — helped seed and grow the concept.
In 2016, Brown was a keynote speaker at Indeed Interactive, our annual conference, where she spoke about the need for leaders to show vulnerability: “If you don't understand vulnerability, you cannot manage and lead people,” she told the audience. “If you're not showing up vulnerably as a leader, you can’t expect anyone to follow you — period.”
Because of the times we’re in, there has been greater motivation among some leaders to be genuine, transparent and vulnerable. It may not be easy, but when that vulnerability comes from a place of authenticity, the results can be very powerful.
For instance, take a look at this video Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson recorded for employees early in the pandemic, which Forbes praised as an example of a leader being “candid, vulnerable, humble, emotional and hopeful.”
The benefits of vulnerability and leadership
When you demonstrate authentic vulnerability, you’re showing something real of yourself to your employees.
According to a new workplace wellbeing report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services (and sponsored by Indeed), candor and transparency from senior leaders helps build trust among employees.
According to the survey, trust is one of the most elusive, yet most powerful, determinants of workplace wellbeing. When asked about the top drivers of workplace happiness, survey respondents rank “a sense of purpose” first, followed by “trust.”
But the findings don’t just apply to senior leaders. Respondents say that employees who trust their colleagues and bosses are much more likely to bring energy, creativity and drive to their work. In turn, employees have a greater sense of happiness and wellbeing — which can lead to innovation, lower turnover and other business benefits.
How to lead with vulnerability
Displaying vulnerability in leadership isn’t without risk, because so much depends on how it’s handled. For example, suppose you tell team members that, in this unprecedented crisis, you don’t have all the answers right now, but you’re working to get them. It’s an understandable predicament, and your candor would likely give many people comfort. They may even feel more connected to you, since they’re also struggling to figure things out. In this case, vulnerability is a strength.
However, imagine what would happen if you told employees that you don’t know how to do your job right now. Yes, you’re being vulnerable with them, but admitting that you’re without resources during a crisis will only cause alarm and damage your credibility.
So, how does vulnerability in leadership work, exactly? It starts with being sincere, selfless in your intentions and, above all, kind. Your public display of vulnerability should always come from a place of compassion toward yourself and others.
Leading with vulnerability isn’t about doing what you think will drive business value or the bottom line. It’s about demonstrating that you’re a leader, but that you’re also human. You’re not perfect; you have struggles like everyone else. You understand and are genuinely empathetic to the challenges your employees face, particularly during this crisis.
Ultimately, leading with vulnerability brings people together so they can help each other. Ask others how they’re doing, listen carefully to their answers — and answer truthfully when someone asks how you’re doing.
I’ll conclude with the same words I used to end my OCD disclosure: “During this continued period of uncertainty, let's continue to check in with each other and support each other as best we can.”