How Veterans Can Connect with Co-workers by Expressing Vulnerability at Work

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(U.S. Army/Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner)

Question: I was told by a colleague in another department that I would benefit from being more vulnerable with my teammates and my boss. He said it would help them know the "real me." Why does it matter that they know me? I get my work done.

Answer: I can appreciate that in your post-military career, the idea of sharing your hopes, goals, challenges and insecurities with others might seem ridiculous and fruitless. But if you consider how social human beings are and that we connect with each other on emotional levels, then knowing who you are as a person does matter.

Being vulnerable does not mean being weak. When you show your true, authentic self, you allow others to feel more comfortable around you because they feel they know you. When we feel we know someone, we don't worry that they could hurt us or surprise us with behavior that's out of character. We're also more likely to want to help someone we feel we know and will forgive them for a misstep more quickly.

There's another benefit to sharing vulnerabilities: You won't isolate yourself. If you're struggling on a project, need more resources or have a question, sharing that with your colleagues or manager empowers them to help you. When you withhold your challenges, others are left to believe you're either fine or don't trust they can help you.

How to share vulnerabilities at work:

  • Remember that you're still empowered to keep private things to yourself. You do not have to share every fear, trauma or dream you have. Consider whether sharing a vulnerability is for short-term gain ("I need to blow off steam") or will help you professionally ("letting my manager know I'm over my head on this project can get me more training").
  • Being vulnerable means showing your realness to others. What do you feel, believe, enjoy or detest? Remember, you're still at work, so there's a decorum to how you'll express yourself, but know you can share what you're experiencing and how you feel.

    If a project has you stressed out, bring that up in a team meeting and follow it up by asking for support or resources. If you're frustrated with a colleague, talk to them and find a way to resolve your challenges. If you feel you're not happy at work, share with your manager that you're looking for more fulfillment.
  • Be willing to listen to others share their thoughts, feelings and concerns, too. Being vulnerable means you're doing the talking, but it also means others can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings and concerns with you, too. Be as good a listener as you are a talker.
  • Be honest and don't feel you have to have an opinion or view on every issue being discussed. When you share your view, it should be the truth as you feel it. If you need something, speak from a place of strength and authenticity in sharing your need.
  • Instead of deflecting from your feelings when you feel something, own it and discuss how what you're experiencing feels. Use "I" language such as, "I feel that you're not on my side," or "I don't feel included in team activities," rather than pointing out someone else's shortcomings. Often, when we know how our actions or words make someone else feel, we can better adjust our behavior to make them feel included.

Sharing your vulnerabilities takes practice and trust. Find a few people you already trust and tell them how you feel or what you need. Over time, and with positive interactions, you'll be able to share (appropriate) vulnerabilities with more people, and more people will feel they know you and trust you.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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