Has the pandemic set back my path to vulnerability?

Jen DaSilva, President, Berlin Cameron
Jen DaSilva, President, Berlin Cameron

Vulnerability is necessary, especially in the moments when it’s raw and feels impossible to share.

On yet another Zoom call, I was stressed out from work, my recent move, acclimating to a new environment, the ongoing pandemic and my kids going back to school without the protection of the vaccine. For a minute, I propped up my elbows on my desk and put my head in my hands. 

At the moment, I didn’t realize I was doing it. But it exposed my heaviness and overwhelming feeling to my team. It was enough for one of my team members to tell me that my body language made her feel uncomfortable and increased her own anxiety.  

It made clear to me that, even after all the work we’ve done as female leaders, we’re still not able to (really) let our guards down and show that we’re having a bad day. It’s easier to talk about vulnerability when it’s over and you can share learnings. But sharing the raw emotions can feel like you’re bringing the team down with you. 

With the pandemic and other recent stressors, many women in the workplace feel like they suddenly have to be superwoman all over again. The pressure is exhausting and draining. Everything is hard for everyone, from my teammates, to my family and friends. But showing vulnerability can feel hard, or even selfish. I still fear that any crack in the veneer of perfection would make me look less capable as a boss.  

I’m not alone. According to research from Berlin Cameron and Kantar, a majority of women have felt the same way over the past year and a half. A whopping 70% haven’t asked for help at work during a tough time because they felt uncomfortable and didn’t think it was their coworkers’ responsibility to help.  

Yet, vulnerability is necessary, especially in the moments when it’s raw and feels impossible to share. People notice, and those who want to or can help reach out. I recently asked for support in my networking group and the amount of offers to lend a hand has been tremendous. I did it at work too, as we’ve suffered from the great resignation and I’ve had to take on more roles. After asking for help, I found people were so willing to step up.

Vulnerability can also build stronger connections, whereas holding everything inside pushes people away. A woman on my team recently shared her miscarriage story with me, and her openness and bravery has pushed me to support her by giving her time off, fighting for the right support groups at work and lending her an ear. Imagine if we all did that for each other.

Other leaders feel the weight of superwoman syndrome and have found it hard to show the cracks. But the only way we feel comfortable with being vulnerable is to see it modeled.

“The most embarrassing thing as an executive is admitting that you can’t handle it all,” Chantay Golson, founder and CEO of Chantay Golson International, said on a recent Berlin Cameron and Luminary panel about the WFH crisis. “Helping the leadership team learn empathy, teaching them to start conversations with their team, can be more supportive and help open doors to communication.”

Nat Farfan, Account Director at J Wolves, notes that “Vulnerability is key. The best way to make it safe starts from the top. We have to change the narrative of what it looks like to be a leader, especially for women.” 

But some find that there’s still a stigma, especially for women. 

Jean Freeman, Principal and CEO at Zambezi, had a slightly more optimistic take: “The role of emotions in business is a complicated one. Historically, regardless of gender, it’s been taboo for leaders to show too much emotion or appear that they don’t have things under control. In the chaos of the past 18 months there has been a dramatic shift, and leaders, like everyone else, have had to continually adjust. I think leaders can and should be transparent and genuine about situations, while at the same time continuing to instill confidence in their teams.” 

Transparency and genuineness — even if it’s being genuine about having a hard time — are important. I also think it’s time for us, as leaders, to be more empathetic. Empathy needs to start within ourselves. We need it now more than ever.

Jennifer DaSilva is President of Berlin Cameron.

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