Stop faking it. Why we should all be more vulnerable at work

The old adage, ‘fake it til you make it’ is something that many working folks can relate to. It’s the idea that climbing the ladder of professionalism and success requires us to get tough instead of vulnerable. It requires us to power through times when we’re tired, sad, anxious, depressed, etc. It encourages us to save our vulnerable emotions for our personal lives; where they’re tucked away from deadlines and work expectations. 

But are they? Faking it in the workplace can actually lead to lower employee performance and engagement. It can also impact our overall mental health. 

Not to mention there’s a whole slew of problems with faking it. For one, men are statistically better at the ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ game. Which puts them at an advantage over women for promotions, recognition, and growth. 

And secondly, faking requires us to put aside our values and separate our authentic selves from our work selves. HR professionals around the world can tell you why that is troublesome. Faking it until we make it sparks bad work behaviors like “the dirty yes,” and even burnout. 

But vulnerability can be the solution, not the weakness, for us to be more authentic, more productive and overall happier in our work lives. 


Vulnerability can kill shame

In her book Daring Greatly Dr. Brené Brown describes the power of shame in our lives: “shame keeps us small, resentful and afraid. In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.”

But being vulnerable requires us to be empathetic as well. And empathy is the killer of shame. Where there is empathy, shame cannot exist. Dr. Brown expertly and simply describes the difference between shame and guilt. 

Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad. 

When an employee underperforms, it’s important to understand what is going on and be empathetic to their situation. Empathy does not replace accountability; it encourages people to be honest about where they’re at, why they’re performing the way they are and allows them space to talk about solutions. 


Being vulnerable allows us to work through what’s really going on and address root causes.

Say a coworker consistently misses their goals every week while others are hitting them. What is our first response? Put them on a performance plan, track their progress towards improvement, and then take necessary steps, if needed. Right? 

The problem with performance plans is that they don’t address what’s really going on with your coworker or employee. 

A vulnerable and empathic culture does not look like this:

LEADER: I see that you’re not performing as well as you did a few months ago. What’s going on?

EMPLOYEE: I’ve just been tired. I’ll work to do a better job. I’m sorry. 

LEADER: I’m juggling a million things, so no one understands tired more than me. I’d like to put you on a performance plan to support you in being successful at meeting your goals. 

A vulnerable and empathic culture can look like this:

LEADER: I see that you’re not performing as well as you did a few months ago. What’s going on?

EMPLOYEE: I’ve just been tired. I’ll work to do a better job. I’m sorry. 

LEADER: There’s no need to be sorry, I’ve been there. Are you feeling burnt out? We’re in this together and I want to support you. 

EMPLOYEE: Well, actually, when I’m given goals from leadership, I don’t feel any connection there. I’m not sure how my individual goals contribute to the company and I feel disconnected and unmotivated. 

LEADER: Well, damn. I imagine that’s a pretty isolated feeling. I need to do a better job of communicating that to our team. Let me circle back with you on how we can be more transparent and collaborative in our goal setting.  

Notice the difference? An employee’s shame can be subtle on the surface, but neglecting it can lead to deeper shame and deeper disengagement. Being empathic at work and vulnerable can lead to a culture of trust, courage, and productivity. 

Vulnerable conversations can lead to more accountable and honest company culture. 

Vulnerability is hard. That’s why Dr. Brown equates it with courage. Our culture has been taught to succeed through grit and toughness. That kind of success requires us to build the armor up around our hearts. 

But working with an open heart is far more courageous.

For more information on how to implement vulnerability into your work, we suggest reading one of Dr. Brown’s many books on the topic.