In tech companies and startups, we’ve heard about and practice modern leadership with radical candor, transparency, and vulnerability. We want to bring our whole selves to work and be an authentic leader. We want to do this while delivering on impact and performance to the company.
But does being transparent and vulnerable work all the time? How much is too much? What if the company isn’t set up with the right performance incentives to enable authenticity? What if the company has set up a system of cross-org competition that rewards aggressive behavior? What if the particular person, or group of people I have to interact with are truly a$$holes?
Aside from delivering impactful work with a sense of purpose, high performing employees in tech also derive fulfillment from harmonious interactions with the people around them. People want:
- Collaborative, trusting relationships with their managers, their team, and their cross-functional peers
- The ability to express their authentic opinions and have their voices heard
- Recognition and appreciation for their effort
Often vulnerability and transparency are the first tools used to grow these relationships at work, but they can be overused and put people in an exposed place.
Mistake #1: Thinking of work as your family
I’m highly competitive and have struggled with being a workaholic for much of my career. A common trap that people can fall into is closely associating your entire identity with the work you do. This is common for hard-working, driven tech workers and even more so as a cofounder of your own company.
Yet your work is not family. Working for a company is a financial transaction where you are paid to deliver high quality work that contributes to the company’s business or economic goals. Yes, it’s important to form strong relationships and friendships at work—they’re the people you spend the majority of your days with—and it’s also important to remember that your employment is conditional upon performance. Unlike with a family, there isn’t the sense of unconditional love and support.
Remembering this distinction helps to draw boundaries. There can be a sense of 100% vulnerability and transparency with family, if you’re lucky. Consider what boundaries you want to draw with your coworkers. How transparent and truly vulnerable do you want to be? You can practice range with these emotional skills.
Learning from this foundational reminder that work is not your family, there are four strategies to use to help determine exactly how far to go with vulnerability and transparency.
Strategy #1: Experiment with levels of vulnerability
At Facebook one of our values when working with others is to “Assume good intent.” When building a new relationship, whether it’s with a boss, a team member, or a peer, assuming good intent is a great place to start. Remember that it also takes time to build a long-term trusting relationship. When you’re working with a new boss, it’s important that you can both trust each other. You can start running an experiment where you share something to spark a connection. It could be sharing:
- an inner fear you have around imposter syndrome
- a weakness or growth area that you’re activity working on
- some information about your personal life
What’s important is to choose how vulnerable you want to be. For example, let’s take imposter syndrome and how you might bring it up with your manager when starting at a new job:
- 5% vulnerable: I’m feeling a little nervous about starting at this company and not knowing how things work.
- 30% vulnerable: I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome when starting at new companies. I’ve sometimes compensated by needing to take control and show that I know my stuff, which can make me come across as an arrogant know-it-all. I’d love your support in watching for these blind spots.
- 90% vulnerable: I have a lot of confidence issues especially in these new situations. I suffer from severe anxiety and have been on antidepressants in the past. I’m also spending a lot of time with my toddlers at home, and caring for my mother-in-law and may not have the time or energy to fully hit the ground running.
These are examples of exploring the range of how vulnerable you could be in a conversation. In this experimentation phase of building a new relationship, start with 5 or 10% vulnerability and depending on the response & level of support from the other person, you can increase your % as the relationship builds.
Strategy #2: Experiment with curiosity, empathy & perspective
When you’re working on building influence with another person, perhaps a cross-functional peer or partner, the first place to start is with listening. Invoke curiosity and empathy to better understand this person, and see their perspective. This might include:
- Understanding their discipline or group (e.g. product/engineering/sales)
- Knowing their business goals and performance incentives
- Uncovering what they care about
- Learning what lights them up and gets them excited
- Asking about what keeps them up at night
- Offering any genuine support to help solve their problems
As you approach them with this level of empathy, treat it as an experiment to offer up curiosity and empathy. With their answers, notice what matters to them, and how much time and good intention they have towards you. I recently ran a workshop with design leaders at a major technology company. I made the mistake of teaching strategies for how to connect with their business leaders in a 1–1 meeting situation, when the reality is that the business leaders were too busy to make time to meet 1–1. If the person you want to influence is too busy, then it’s time to shift strategies from wanting that seat at the table to instead embodying a service mindset for how to get communications over to them in the most time-efficient manner given that they are time-pressured and stressed.
As you approach these partners with curiosity and empathy, you’ll also learn which of your partners have good intent. You can increase your transparency and vulnerability with those people.
Strategy #3: Watch out for oversharing
Relationships and trust are built on vulnerability. One of my clients works for a large technology company and has been open with his boss that he is looking to move to another team within the company. Yet there’s a double-edged sword with the level of transparency. His manager pulled him off the lead role on a big project, since he might not be around long enough on the current team to complete the project. In this particular case, he had to let his manager know about the internal exploration to get permission to move. However, he’s gathered data to see that his manager is watching out for the project success more so than his success, and now he’s learned that he doesn’t need to be as open about exploring external opportunities outside the company.
Considering holding back sensitive, personal information unless you absolutely need to share it.
Strategy #4: You can walk away
I was recently teaching a series of workshops on working with difficult people. We worked through a series of exercises and strategies. And at the end, one individual shared a story of interactions with his boss, the company CEO. He’d tried everything — being vulnerable to build trust, trying a more direct communication style, being more assertive/aggressive, and working around the clock for many months to hit his boss’s high expectations. None of these worked. All these experiments simply gave him data that his boss wasn’t operating from the best intentions. No matter what he tried, he wasn’t getting back the same level of effort, trust, or change from his boss.
In the end, he ended up leaving the company. After months of trying to shift himself, he realized that he was at the end of his rope and at the end of the experiments. There was nothing else to do but leave. Ultimately, your work is not your family so there is the option, especially in the tech field, of interviewing and finding a different place to work. In some cases, all the transparency and vulnerability in the world isn’t going to make a difference, and you can walk away.
While I’m a huge advocate of practicing transparency and vulnerability, there are scenarios at work where holding boundaries is crucial. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that work is the same as family. Instead, 1. experiment with levels of vulnerability, 2. experiment with curiosity and empathy, 3. watch out for oversharing and, 4. know that you can always walk away.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in the summer of 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching which you can follow. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.