Ongoing Development

Why positive change starts with good leadership and vulnerability

Posted on: June 13, 2023Updated on: June 10, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

During times of turbulence or change, employees often look to their leaders and mentors for support, reassurance and guidance. 

Great leaders inspire teams and help them realize that change brings opportunity. They can also be the make-or-break factor for how successfully teams are able to pivot during tough moments and turn breakdowns into breakthroughs.

Vulnerable Leadership At Work

Elizabeth Thompson, founder and Chief Experience Officer for Intuitive Quest, LLC., has had a 20-plus-year HR career leading teams at companies like Southeastern Grocers and Starbucks through massive cultural transformation. She chatted with Axonify’s JD Dillon during a recent episode of ITK about why it’s important for strong leaders to introduce vulnerability and empathy into the workplace and how it can be a powerful catalyst for positive change.

Here are some highlights of their conversation, including the first steps companies can take to create a culture where employees can be their authentic selves and reach—or even exceed—their goals.

“We’re all renting our titles anyway”

Aspiring leaders should understand that being great doesn’t mean knowing everything or having a shiny title. In fact, Gallup found that only 10% of people are naturally born leaders, so the vast majority of bosses are growing into their roles. Encouraging them to admit mistakes along the way can even strengthen teams by revealing learning opportunities—for them and their direct reports.  

“The difference I see in management and leadership is management can be about checking boxes and it can be very transactional,” says Thompson. “Leadership is a lot more than that. Leadership is about having a vision and motivating and inspiring other people.” 

Employees at every level have the power to act as leaders and drive change by embodying the company’s values through sharing their expertise and modeling positive behaviors for others. 

“It’s important people realize that you don’t need to be a title to be a leader and that we’re all kind of renting our titles anyway. To be a leader is to speak up, have a vision and share ideas. And the best leaders are the ones who lead horizontally and upwardly, not just downwardly.”

Leadership vulnerability drives empathy and builds trust

Providing a safe space for tough conversations, free of the fear of failure or judgment, is a critical first step in today’s workplaces. Not only does it inspire a sense of belonging, empathy and trust, but it can also accelerate change. And actions speak louder than words. One person who feels comfortable enough to get vulnerable with their peers can spark a company-wide movement of open dialogue. Thompson has seen it first-hand.

“Pre-pandemic at Southeastern Grocers, we were doing a DEI workshop with our district managers and instead of putting up slides, we did more storytelling. The executive team got up and shared their own personal stories about what inclusion feels like—and a couple of leaders got super vulnerable. The energy in the room was game-changing and it set a new way of being at our company. We were finally at a place where it wasn’t about leaving your personal life at the door; it was completely the opposite,” shares Thompson.

“The takeaway was ‘take this back to your stores’. Share your story. Have your store managers share their stories with their employees. Let people get to know you. Being vulnerable is scary but it’s powerful when you’re bringing your full, authentic self. It teaches people how to be empathetic.”

The impact of this vulnerable moment, along with encouraging the organization to take a closer look at their people data to get a full picture of what was working and what wasn’t, had a lasting ripple effect throughout the entire organization. Thompson says that this helped SEG associates gain a deeper and more personal understanding of what “creating a culture of belonging” meant to their workplace.

To foster a culture where people can be their authentic selves, lead by example

The decision to be vulnerable at work is a personal one for every leader and employee. But it’s important to note that expectations about empathy in the workplace are changing—85% of HR leaders at midsize companies say that it’s more important now for managers to demonstrate empathy than it was before the pandemic. 

Not investigating how your company demonstrates empathy is no longer an option. It’s time to evaluate what getting vulnerable with teams looks like and how to build the muscles of empathy, trust and vulnerability in the workplace.

“Companies can transform the world. We have a lot of responsibility as organizations to make positive change,” says Thompson. “But in order for a leader to really influence their culture, they have to take a hard look in the mirror. Transformation starts with you.”

Want to learn more about empathetic leadership? Watch the full interview here:

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Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.

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