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‘I’m Afraid to Show Any Weakness at Work’

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Dear Boss,

I’m a director at my company, responsible for four staff members and my own department. I have been in this director role for about 16 months, and prior to this I was an assistant director responsible for two people … but I had someone above me who shaped the department and basically ran everything. 

In my new role, I find that I’m challenged by the mixed messaging I receive as a female director and leader. While my field is not male-dominated (quite the opposite, really), I still seem to have absorbed this expectation that I should have all the answers as director. I think that I’ve somehow absorbed the idea that women in leadership positions shouldn’t show emotion and that we must appear confident and capable at all times or it will reflect badly on us because we’ll be seen as too emotional or too soft.

I can’t shake the belief that I shouldn’t let my staff see me stressed, confused, or unsure of myself. As a result, I’ve built up a persona of “business business business” and I think it’s becoming a turnoff to staff and colleagues.

My supervisor has encouraged me to be more vulnerable with my staff, to let them know that sometimes I don’t have all the answers, and that I am “human.” 

My field has a reputation for being touchy-feely, so showing vulnerability isn’t uncommon or really even frowned upon. I just can’t seem to get there. Is there a balance? How do I achieve that, without undermining myself or appearing to be incapable? I’m trying to balance my desire to do my job well with a certain amount of capability and confidence, with my boss’s encouragement to be vulnerable. I don’t know how to turn off that feeling that says “If you show weakness, they’ll think you can’t do this.” This is my first time in a director role, and I want to do a great job. 

This is going to sound counterintuitive to you, but if you really want to seem confident and capable, the worst thing you can do is to try to hide it when you don’t know something or aren’t sure. That doesn’t make you look capable — it makes you look insecure.

There is no job, no matter how senior or how impressive, where you’re expected to have all the answers. The idea isn’t that you rise to a certain point in the ranks and suddenly know everything and have no self-doubt. (In fact, people who operate that way are pretty dangerous. Would you want, oh I don’t know, a president with no self-doubt? Ahem.) Instead, the idea is that you strive to know your own limitations, and that you’re up-front when you’re not sure about something, and that you know how to find out the answers you need. It’s important to consult with people who have the expertise you lack, or who — when it’s not the kind of thing where anyone will have the One True Answer — can lend their brain power to helping you sort through it.

When people try hard to seem to have all the answers or to avoid showing any weakness, one of two things usually happens: They either seem intimidating and unapproachable (which is not good if you’re managing people) or, more commonly, they end up looking insecure in their own position. People who are really confident in their jobs and their capabilities are comfortable admitting when they don’t know something or that they made a mistake, because they trust that people know them to be competent. In fact, being open about those things often makes them look more confident and competent, because they don’t look like they’re battling to protect their standing.
There’s real power and strength in confidently saying, “I don’t know — can we find out?” or “I’m not sure yet how to proceed here because I’m grappling with X and Y. What are your thoughts?”

Keep in mind, too, that you’re modeling behavior for your staff, whether or not you intend to. If they never see you admit that you’re not sure about something, they may absorb the message that they shouldn’t admit uncertainty either. Do you want them doing that?

Of course, that’s only part of it. You also mentioned that this is about emotions — about letting your staff see you stressed or otherwise vulnerable.

It’s true that in general you want to maintain a relatively even emotional keel at work. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have emotions at all! You can. The ones you want to watch are the negative ones — like taking critical feedback personally or letting a bad mood impact your co-workers — because those can have a negative impact on other people. And you do want to watch out for how you show stress, because it can be hard to work for a boss who’s regularly and visibly frazzled.

But there are lots of other emotions that are perfectly appropriate for you to show at work. For example, warmth, interest, amusement, concern, gratitude, satisfaction, and yes, even sometimes uncertainty are all appropriate emotions at work, and they’re humanizing.

And humanizing yourself is important because it’s a key part of forming rapport with other people. If you present such a polished, closed-off surface that there’s nothing there for people to connect with, you’re not likely to build the kinds of relationships that will help you professionally, allow you to help your staff members develop, and just overall make life at work more pleasant for you.

That doesn’t mean that you should tell everyone the details of your breakup or describe the exact extent of your terror at presenting to the board. But it can be helpful to share things like “You know, when I started doing X work, I really struggled with this problem and had the same worries you have too! Let me tell you how I approached it.” Or even, “Wow, that was a tough call with the client! I think it wrapped up okay, but that wasn’t the easiest feedback to hear.”

And last … can we break down your worries that women in leadership roles need to appear in control at all times, lest they appear too soft? That’s a very old-school male idea about what leadership should look like, and it’s not a model that you have to buy into. That may well have been good advice 40 or 50 years ago when women had a more tenuous toehold into the professional world — but that was also a time when women were being told to wear boxy business suits with shoulder pads and floppy bow ties to mimic male business dress as well. Our models of what strong leaders look like have changed since then, and you can update yours too! One good way to do it is to look around at women you respect and admire and see how well they do or don’t match up with the standards you’re holding yourself to, as well as how they navigate things like uncertainty and vulnerability. I’m betting that you’ll see there’s a totally different model you can use — and one that will let you relax a little and not worry so much about showing people who you really are.

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‘I’m Afraid to Show Any Weakness at Work’