New LIVE Event: The Future of Emotional Intelligence
Learn More

Vulnerability and Psychological Safety at Work

December 4, 2023

Vulnerability and Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological safety is a culture of rewarded vulnerability. The same way that fish have water, humans have culture. You can’t just step out of culture and dry yourself off with a towel. You’re in it, and it’s in you. Culture is a complicated blend of values, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and customs. But at the end of the day, it all comes out in the way we interact.

Broken interactions between humans punish our innate vulnerabilities. Teams build psychological safety when they monitor their interactions and model and reward acts of vulnerability with their team members.

What is Vulnerability?

Before we get right into the thick of it, let’s make sure you know what we mean when we say vulnerability. Vulnerability is an inherently human experience (meaning that every person experiences vulnerability, although they might experience it differently than you do). Every time you do something that exposes your insecurity, makes you feel uncertain, or otherwise pushes you out of your comfort zone, you’re committing an act of vulnerability. 

Threat Detection

It’s natural to want to avoid vulnerable situations, especially if our most vulnerable moments are consistently mocked, penalized, or shamed. As a form of protection, we live our lives in a constant state of threat detection. Our heads are on a swivel, eyes peeled for moments when we could be hurt. 

The Fear Response

Those negative interactions, which we call acts of punished vulnerability, bring out a natural fear response. It makes sense that in environments where we think we could get hurt we hide and try to fly under the radar. Essentially, we’re in survival mode. We remember past experiences where people have punished us for being vulnerable and make mental notes to avoid those people, or those situations, in the future. We avoid disruption, throw ourselves into executive function, and do everything in our power to keep the boat steady and sailing. We even edit and modify our authentic selves to become someone that can’t be punished for who we are. 

The Performance Response

But what happens when our acts of vulnerability are rewarded instead of punished? Those positive interactions draw out a performance response in us and we move towards innovation. Why? Because we’re finally allowed to thrive. 

Where Our Vulnerabilities Collide

There are some acts of vulnerability that feel more vulnerable to us than others. We call this The Ladder of Vulnerability, and you have a ladder that’s unique to you. That means that what’s vulnerable for you might be no big deal for someone else. The opposite is also true: What you expect to be easy for a member of your team may be debilitatingly difficult for them.

Our vulnerabilities are shaped by past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, fears, and even our goals. They affect how we behave and perform, how we think and feel, and how we interact with others. We can’t entirely avoid the parts of life that make us feel vulnerable, but we sure do want to avoid discomfort and fear. 

Common Acts of Vulnerability

  • Being your authentic self
  • Interacting with other people
  • Expressing your emotions
  • Sharing something personal
  • Connecting with your team
  • Asking for help
  • Admitting you don’t know
  • Trying something new
  • Making a mistake
  • Giving an incorrect answer
  • Accepting more responsibility
  • Receiving feedback
  • Contributing to a discussion
  • Clarifying expectations
  • Asking for more resources
  • Raising a concern
  • Expressing disagreement
  • Challenging the way things are done
  • Pointing out a mistake
  • Offering a different point of view

Punished Vulnerability = Evidence of Low Psychological Safety

While some forms of punishing vulnerability are macroscopic and clearly against organizational policy, others are microscopic and almost indetectable. This is why it’s so easy for complacent cultures with fearful employees to allow their team members to suffer. In these organizations punished vulnerability becomes so routine and consistent that you assume it’s how it’s always been, and how it’ll always be.

Common instances of punished vulnerability:

  • Dismissing requests for help
  • Reacting poorly to mistakes and failures
  • Not taking “no” for an answer
  • Asking someone to try something new without clear expectations
  • Ignoring effort and expecting perfection
  • Refusing to provide more resources for larger/new tasks
  • Taking feedback poorly
  • Shutting down candor/challenges to the status quo

Because your experiences with vulnerability are unique, you might not realize that your actions are punishing the vulnerabilities of your team members. You might not even know what their vulnerabilities are. But it’s not too late to change the way you interact, and it’s not too late to learn what makes the people around you feel vulnerable.

Crack yourself open and ask these questions:

  • How do people react when I walk into a room?
  • What kinds of barriers exist between me and my team members? Why?
  • Do I naturally include, or exclude others?
  • Do people feel safe to be their authentic selves around me?
  • Are there patterns of unsuccessful interactions in my day-to-day life?
  • What’s hard for my team members? Do I contribute to the difficulty?

A Neutral Response to Vulnerability = Varied Levels of Psychological Safety

A neutral response to vulnerability creates an environment of doubt. Maybe there are times when a specific act of vulnerability is rewarded, but other times when that same act is punished. This inconsistency causes hesitancy. People who constantly experience neutral responses to vulnerability live in an environment of doubt. They aren’t sure what the next reaction will be, and probably don’t want to find out.

What does this mean? It means that it’s not enough to avoid punishing acts of vulnerability. In order to reap the benefits of a culture of psychological safety, you have to actively reward, not just ignore or acknowledge, acts of vulnerability.

Rewarded Vulnerability = High Levels of Psychological Safety

You’ll feel the difference in energy when you start rewarding, instead of punishing or ignoring, people’s vulnerabilities. It’s palpable. But rewarding the vulnerabilities of others is an active choice. Especially at the beginning of your cultural transformation journey (before psychological safety becomes a habit) deep introspection and careful interaction will be two of your best friends. Self-reflect often. Notice the unspoken norms of the space. Start open dialogues about your team’s vulnerabilities and talk about how those vulnerabilities are currently being punished. Then you can talk about what you’ll do to reward them instead.

Common instances of rewarded vulnerability:

  • Verbally acknowledging and actively respecting boundaries
  • Expressing gratitude for candid emotions
  • Giving people the space to process
  • Making yourself available and interruptible
  • Valuing honesty over correct answers
  • Clarifying outcomes and expectations
  • Offering a way forward after a mistake

Creating a culture of rewarded vulnerability requires both modeling and rewarding acts of vulnerability. It's not enough for you to reward acts of vulnerability that your colleagues are willing to commit, you actually have to be vulnerable yourself. Yes, you. Especially if you’re a leader with a lot of eyes on you. But even if you’re not, engaging in acts of vulnerability will help others see that they’re safe to follow suit. 

Crack yourself open and ask these questions:

  • What acts of vulnerability are hardest for me?
  • How can I make that interaction go better next time?
  • Who on my team do I not know very well? 
  • Do I model vulnerability as much as I reward it?
multiple covers of the behavior guide next to each other

Download 120+ Behaviors to Practice Psychological Safety

If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance, how do you improve it? This is a good place to start. With 120+ practical, specific behaviors, the Behavioral Guide will help you know what to start, what to stop, and how to infuse healthy interaction into your work life. It's the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book. Download it today.

Download the Guide