Show Confidence Up and Vulnerability Down

Updated: Jul 24, 2019


Since writing this blog, I’ve asked many people what their favorite piece of advice is for new managers.  One piece of advice that has stuck with me over the years was from my friend, Tyler. He said, 


“Show confidence up and vulnerability down.”


I love this advice because it sums up so many important concepts to remember as a manager and because it feels incredibly counterintuitive - especially to new managers.  First, this advice emphasizes the importance of managing “up.” As we’ve discussed in the past, managing your manager is a critical skill to build and work on.  To manage your manager well, you need to show confidence in your ability to execute, manage others, and be a thought-partner. You show confidence by owning the relationship with your manager:   in essence you anticipate your manager’s needs and take items “off” of your manager’s plate without her asking.  That’s confidence. 


But, what does “vulnerability down” mean?  And why would you ever want to be vulnerable to the people you are leading?  Won’t they see weakness in your ability if you are vulnerable to them? Won’t they respect you more if you show lots and lots of confidence in your abilities?  


Well, two things.  First, people are really good at sniffing out BS. As a new manager, loads of confidence to your subordinates reeks of false bravado.  People want a leader who has a clear direction and path, but knows what she doesn’t know and is willing to listen to others.  Too much confidence down ends up feeling like a dictatorship. And we all know what happened to Qaddafi.  


And the second thing:   Vulnerability is critical to managing down because vulnerability builds trust.  Vulnerability is when you show an openness to not knowing all of the answers all the time, to showing that you are flawed and have weaknesses you are working on, and to sharing when you have fears or anxieties about something.   And, trust is the secret sauce that improves communication, reduces bad types of conflict, makes people feel connected to a team and organization, allows risk-taking and healthy mistakes, encourages psychological safety and a whole bunch of other wonderful, magical things that just make work better.  


When you’re vulnerable, you’re also authentic.  And the more authentic we can be in every facet of our lives, the less emotional labor we need to expend.  Yup - there’s real “work” associated with showing emotions that you aren’t actually feeling (or hiding the true emotions you are feeling).  In fact, the people who have jobs that require lots and lots of emotional labor experience more burn-out and stress than those who can authentically express what they feel.  


But here’s the rub that’s often missing from the loads of musings on vulnerability. As a new manager, there’s a risk of conflating incompetence with vulnerability.  You try hard to be vulnerable, but your team sees incompetence. Vulnerability only works with competence.   So, what’s the difference between incompetence and vulnerability? Let’s dive in with some slightly fabricated scenarios. 


Scenario 1: 

A great friend was recently asked to give a Ted-like presentation to her entire organization.  We discussed how this talk is a great way to be vulnerable with her direct team. She prepared mightily for the presentation and I had no doubt in my mind she was going to do an outstanding job (given her competence in the area).  So how could she frame this talk to her team? 

  • Option 1:  “I’m going to bomb this Ted-Talk.  I didn’t prepare at all.”

  • Option 2:  “Public speaking still makes me really really nervous despite giving lots of presentations. I still have to memorize every big presentation in order to be prepared.”

Trust me, we all do Option 1 (recall the:  “I didn’t study for the final at all. I’m going to totally fail” line many of us used in college?)  Option 1 shows incompetence. But, Option 2 shows vulnerability. It lets your team know that even the best public speakers still get epic nerves.  


Scenario 2: 

An executive on a leadership team is about to talk to his junior team about potential layoffs that are coming down the pike.  The executive is scared for his own job and doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, let alone the rest of the team.  

  • Option 1:  “Hey guys. I’m in the dark just as much as you all and am also petrified about losing my job.”

  • Option 2:  “Hey guys. I’m also anxious about the uncertainty that’s going on around here.  It’s really scary trying to make decisions and navigate our day-to-day when it’s not yet clear exactly what’s going to happen.”

In Option 1, it might feel like the executive is building lots of trust because he’s being vulnerable about losing his job and building empathy with what his team is experiencing.  But, people will immediately think that the executive is so worried about his own job that he can’t worry about making the best decisions about the future of each of his team members.  The team will code the exec as incompetent: he doesn’t have any authority or control over the situation.  


It’s hard being vulnerable - whether in your personal life or at work.  It takes a ton of courage, but the benefits are huge. Three years ago (almost to this day) I was teaching a class of about 30 grad students.  The class got into a conflictual and raw discussion, with some students taking big social risks by sharing personal and impactful stories.   In the past, I always played the role of the facilitator and stayed on the outside of these conversations. But for some reason, the conversation touched me in a way I didn’t expect: I went to share a personal story of my own and….I started to cry.  In front of a class of 30 students. As a female, relatively young teacher. There was no hiding the raw vulnerability of the moment. It was petrifying and I felt like the semester of strong teaching, competence, rapport, and respect I had worked so hard to build was about to completely evaporate.


But.  The total opposite happened.  The class became closer to me and me to them.  They rallied around me and rallied around each other.  We developed a level of trust that other classes in the past didn’t experience.  I’m still close to that group of students in a way that’s different from my other students because of that vulnerable moment.  Trust me, crying in front of a class is pretty low on my list of things I enjoy doing. But in that moment, it was an authentic expression that bridged the divide between student and teacher.


So, it’s pretty simple when you sum it all up:   to be a great manager, show confidence up and vulnerability down.  


TL;DR

  • Best management advice I’ve received? Show confidence up and vulnerability down. 

  • You show confidence to your manager through owning your relationship and anticipating your manager’s needs. 

  • Vulnerability is the openness to admitting you’re wrong, sharing what you feel or what scares you. 

  • Vulnerability allows for trust-building and for authenticity.  Both have huge benefits to your team and to you. 

  • But, it’s important to make sure you’re not confusing incompetence with vulnerability, especially as a new manager.  

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