Is burnout preventable? In a time where many of us have been stretched past our limits, we have to begin asking ourselves what’s valuable, what’s sustainable, and how to hold up humanity in the workplace. Let’s explore how leaders can lead with vulnerability, model healthy boundaries, and uplift themselves and their employees in order to avoid burnout.
“Many employers only value the humans who work for them in as much as the amount of money, or labor, or effort employees give to their company. There is no room for humanity in this Grind Culture,” Rebecca Waite, psychotherapist and owner of US-based This Space Between says as she goes on to encourage companies to center employee experiences of rest, joy, and freedom. In order to foster a welcoming space, a company culture that prioritizes rest, joy, and freedom, we have to examine some conditions that make that possible: vulnerability, authenticity, and boundaries.
In a recent podcast with Adam Grant, Brene Brown defines vulnerability as, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Without vulnerability, there’s no innovation, there’s no learning, no growth. But, both leaders and employees need to feel safe in order to be vulnerable at work. Brown goes on to note that there are often barriers to vulnerability in the workplace saying, “At work, I think we armor up more because there’s less trust, there’s less confidence, and I think we slip into kind of who we think we’re supposed to be at work […] using things like cynicism, perfectionism, needing to be the knower and be right versus the learner and get it right.” Key here is the emphasis on positioning oneself as a learner, remaining curious about the people and world around you while also allowing yourself room to grow and change.
But creating a space for vulnerability in the workplace isn’t easy. One of the most powerful ways we can reframe work culture is through language. Let’s say you’re a leader and are experiencing a moment of deep personal grief in your life, which has begun to impact your leadership. So often we are conditioned to believe voicing emotions, particularly difficult emotions, is a sign of weakness. Brown powerfully states that “We think that giving language to hard emotions like shame, or grief, or hard experiences, gives those experiences power. But, giving language to hard things gives us power.” If, say, in your leadership position you went to your employees and communicated your moment of grief, expressing how you’d like to navigate it, and identifying the support you think you’d need, you will have begun to model not only vulnerability but also healthy boundaries. You’re saying to your employees that you’re human, advocating for your needs, and in turn, inviting them to do the same, carving out space where that can feel feasible for them to do so as well.
The thing is, you can’t force people to be vulnerable. By doing so, you render any vulnerability inauthentic. In order to develop a culture of vulnerability, you have to start by practicing it yourself, by modeling it for others. Through that modeling, you’ll begin to see connection build and genuine care and Brown says that “Care and connection are irreducible needs when we lead. We have to care for and be connected to the people we lead or we can’t do it effectively.” Now, we couldn’t have a real discussion of vulnerability without further delving into healthy boundaries. When you feel you’d like to share something with employees or colleagues, ask yourself: “Am I sharing this to move the discussion forward or provide necessary context or is this something I’m feeling that I need to process outside of work?” You’re going to have to do some self-exploration here and this kind of growth doesn’t begin and end, but rather is continuous.
By creating an authentic work environment that centers vulnerability and healthy boundaries, we become better equipped to navigate conflict as well. We know to show up to difficult conversations with curiosity, compassion, and with the aim of being learners. We show up wanting to be seen and heard just as we seek to see and hear those around us, even through competing agendas and opposing opinions. When we do this, when we lead with vulnerability, we know that discomfort is okay, even welcome, because it means we’re growing. We can begin to build a team with diverse needs because we respect each other, we see each other authentically as we are. That’s real leadership and that’s hard because it’s not transactional. It’s not rooted in, “I input this, I always export that,” but is ever-evolving and complex. Are you ready to do the work to usher in vulnerability, innovation, and make your workplace one of humanity, joy, and freedom?