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The Key to Navigating Vulnerability at Work

The Key to Navigating Vulnerability at Work

By Elena Joy Thurston, HR Consultant, Elena Joy Experience.

This blog post is part of the INBOUND Speaker Insights series: where industry leaders share their expertise, actionable tips, and innovative strategies for success in sales, marketing, leadership, and more.

"I know I need to connect with my team. I know that requires some vulnerability. But I don't know what to share and when to share it. And I don't want to come across like I'm centering myself or oversharing." Sound familiar? This is a common challenge for many leaders. Luckily, it can be overcome by practicing Strategic Vulnerability, a critical component of the Inclusive Leadership Skills framework

Strategic Vulnerability is a set of skills that Inclusive Leaders can use to maximize workplace opportunities to increase connection and belonging, while minimizing harm to marginalized communities.

It is NOT emotional manipulation to get what you want. It IS a solid strategy to confidently know what personal stories to share at work and when to share them, leading to authentic connection and belonging in teams.

When employees feel like they belong they are:

  • 3x more likely to say their workplace is fun
  • 9x more likely to believe people are treated fairly regardless of their race
  • 5x more likely to want to stay at their company a long time (source)

Strategic Vulnerability’s impact on the bottom line makes it worth learning. But, the personal growth that comes from it is the real payoff.


Inclusive leaders create opportunities for authentic and safe connection through clear boundaries, or “guardrails”. Building guardrails is one of several skills in practicing effective Strategic Vulnerability.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had the experience of sharing something personal in a team setting only to realize that everyone is staring at you wide-eyed. You instantly realize, “Ohhhhh. We’re not doing that right now”. It only has to happen once at work to shut you down pretty good.

But, by implementing these guardrails you can create safety and confidence for your employees to be vulnerable and open the door to connection:

Guardrail 1: Clearly explain the desired impact of the activity/event.

If it’s simply for casual socializing, say it. If it’s to increase authentic connection in the team, make that clear. Don’t leave your people guessing what you’re trying to accomplish. 


“At this month’s listening circle, we hope to increase a sense of belonging through shared lived experiences. All guests are welcome including: those who want to listen, those who are excited to share, those who identify as part of the community, and those outside of the community who want to learn and support.”

Guardrail 2: Speaking of anxiety, no surprises please. 

Do not create an expectation of vulnerability without preparedness. Prepare yourself and your team ahead of time. For example, this is a typical email I encourage my clients to send their teams:


“At next week’s team retreat, I’ll ask everyone to share what they’re most excited about for Q4 and what about Q4 is weighing heavily on them. If there is a specific way our team can support you, this will be a great time to share it.”

Guardrail 3. Break the vulnerability barrier first. 

The leader in the above example will go first in that exercise with a prepared answer. The most important part of this guardrail is to not forget to ASK FOR HELP. The ultimate vulnerability move for a leader is to lead by example and open the door for everyone else to also be vulnerable. It removes the risk for others in the group to do the same.


“I am really excited to work on the ACME project in Q4 because I’ve been wanting to flex my project management skills. I’m frustrated because I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this all year, now it’s finally here and my wife is in her first trimester. I’m worried about how I’m going to be able to be fully present at work and at home. I don’t want to miss anything about either experience. I could use support from caregivers on the team who have experienced something similar to remind me it’ll all work out when I start to get really stressed.”

Whoa. After reading that, imagine yourself being that vulnerable with your team. If it made your heart beat faster, you’re not alone. But this is the exact experience that your team needs to hit that next level of success. They need to know that life can hit them sideways and you will have their back.

Strategic Vulnerability takes advantage of moments to increase the psychological safety within your team, allowing them to be more engaged, more productive, and more fulfilled. It also creates a way for individuals to feel more connected to each other. Whether that’s at work, in our families, or out in our community - we absolutely need to feel connected to prevent burnout and support our mental wellbeing.

Download your own copy of my “Rules of Engagement” cheat sheet. It’s there to help you navigate the risk of vulnerability so you can enjoy the payoff of increased connection, engagement, and belonging.

Featured in the award-winning documentary, CONVERSION, Elena Joy Thurston is an inspirational Diversity & Allyship speaker, trainer, and author that approaches DEI through a lens of LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Elena Joy Thurston

Elena Joy Thurston

HR Consultant, Elena Joy Experience

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