I’m afraid to show any weakness at work

A reader writes:

I’m a director at my company, responsible for four staff members and my own department. I have been in this director role for about 16 months, and prior to this I was an assistant director responsible for two people … but I had someone above me who shaped the department and basically ran everything.

In my new role, I find that I’m challenged by the mixed messaging I receive as a female director and leader. While my field is not male-dominated (quite the opposite, really), I still seem to have absorbed this expectation that I should have all the answers as director. I think that I’ve somehow absorbed the idea that women in leadership positions shouldn’t show emotion and that we must appear confident and capable at all times or it will reflect badly on us because we’ll be seen as too emotional or too soft.

I can’t shake the belief that I shouldn’t let my staff see me stressed, confused, or unsure of myself. As a result, I’ve built up a persona of “business business business” and I think it’s becoming a turn-off to staff and colleagues.

My supervisor has encouraged me to be more vulnerable with my staff, to let them know that sometimes I don’t have all the answers, and that I am “human.”

My field has a reputation for being touchy-feely, so showing vulnerability isn’t uncommon or really even frowned upon. I just can’t seem to get there. Is there a balance? How do I achieve that, without undermining myself or appearing to be incapable? I’m trying to balance my desire to do my job well with a certain amount of capability and confidence, with my boss’s encouragement to be vulnerable. I don’t know how to turn off that feeling that says “if you show weakness, they’ll think you can’t do this.” This is my first time in a director role, and I want to do a great job.

This is going to sound counterintuitive to you, but if you really want to seem confident and capable, the worst thing you can do is to try to hide it when you don’t know something or aren’t sure. That doesn’t make you look capable — it makes you look insecure.

There is no job, no matter how senior or how impressive, where you’re expected to have all the answers. The idea isn’t that you rise to a certain point in the ranks and suddenly know everything and have no self-doubt. (In fact, people who operate that way are pretty dangerous. Would you want, oh I don’t know, a president with no self-doubt? Ahem.) Instead, the idea is that you strive to know your own limitations, and that you’re up-front when you’re not sure about something, and that you know how to find out the answers you need. It’s important to consult with people who have the expertise you lack, or who — when it’s not the kind of thing where anyone will have the One True Answer — can lend their brain power to helping you sort through it.

When people try hard to seem to have all the answers or to avoid showing any weakness, one of two things usually happens: They either seem intimidating and unapproachable (which is not good if you’re managing people) or, more commonly, they end up looking insecure in their own position. People who are really confident in their jobs and their capabilities are comfortable admitting when they don’t know something or that they made a mistake, because they trust that people know them to be competent. In fact, being open about those things often makes them look more confident and competent, because they don’t look like they’re battling to protect their standing.

There’s real power and strength in confidently saying, “I don’t know — can we find out?” or “I’m not sure yet how to proceed here because I’m grappling with X and Y. What are your thoughts?”

Keep in mind, too, that you’re modeling behavior for your staff, whether or not you intend to. If they never see you admit that you’re not sure about something, they may absorb the message that they shouldn’t admit uncertainty either. Do you want them doing that?

Of course, that’s only part of it. You also mentioned that this is about emotions — about letting your staff see you stressed or otherwise vulnerable.

It’s true that in general you want to maintain a relatively even emotional keel at work. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have emotions at all! You can. The ones you want to watch are the negative ones — like taking critical feedback personally or letting a bad mood impact your co-workers — because those can have a negative impact on other people. And you do want to watch out for how you show stress, because it can be hard to work for a boss who’s regularly and visibly frazzled.

But there are lots of other emotions that are perfectly appropriate for you to show at work. For example, warmth, interest, amusement, concern, gratitude, satisfaction, and yes, even sometimes uncertainty are all appropriate emotions at work, and they’re humanizing.

And humanizing yourself is important because it’s a key part of forming rapport with other people. If you present such a polished, closed-off surface that there’s nothing there for people to connect with, you’re not likely to build the kinds of relationships that will help you professionally, allow you to help your staff members develop, and just overall make life at work more pleasant for you.

That doesn’t mean that you should tell everyone the details of your breakup or describe the exact extent of your terror at presenting to the board. But it can be helpful to share things like “You know, when I started doing X work, I really struggled with this problem and had the same worries you have too! Let me tell you how I approached it.” Or even, “Wow, that was a tough call with the client! I think it wrapped up okay, but that wasn’t the easiest feedback to hear.”

And last … can we break down your worries that women in leadership roles need to appear in control at all times, lest they appear too soft? That’s a very old-school male idea about what leadership should look like, and it’s not a model that you have to buy into. That may well have been good advice 40 or 50 years ago when women had a more tenuous toehold into the professional world — but that was also a time when women were being told to wear boxy business suits with shoulder pads and floppy bow ties to mimic male business dress as well. Our models of what strong leaders look like have changed since then, and you can update yours too! One good way to do it is to look around at women you respect and admire and see how well they do or don’t match up with the standards you’re holding yourself to, as well as how they navigate things like uncertainty and vulnerability. I’m betting that you’ll see there’s a totally different model you can use — and one that will let you relax a little and not worry so much about showing people who you really are.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 92 comments… read them below }

  1. Al*

    Oh, man, I could have written this letter a few years ago. That job, for many reasons, ended up being a wash. Unfortunately I think it was because I built up a wall with my staff in he name of professionalism. I’m having a lot more success in my new director role at another org., I think in part because I try to be a “whole person” at work, and not just a worker bee.

    1. Swedish Chef*

      Agggghhhh, I am struggling with this exact issue right now. I commend the OP for realizing it, because my current boss didn’t give me the feedback I actually needed until very recently. Unfortunately, it might be too late for this job. I’ll be much more aware of it moving forward.

  2. Naptime Enthusiast*

    I’ve found that the best managers and directors I’ve worked for have been those that admit when they don’t know the answer and work with you to find it. In so many fields (maybe even most of them?) it’s impossible to know everything about everything! Instead, it’s important to know where to look or who to talk to, and that is something you can coach your employees on when you don’t have the answer yourself, or help leverage your connections to help them out.

    1. LizB*

      This, absolutely. I would never think that someone who said to me “I don’t know, let me check and get back to you” or “That’s more of a Jane question, please ask her” was weak or showing vulnerability. That’s just… the normal way to handle the very normal situation of not knowing an answer, which happens to everyone because human brains can’t hold every piece of information in the universe.

      1. Irene Adler*

        Exactly. The best boss I ever had was one who would freely let me know that he didn’t know the answer.
        I always liked it when it was a situation where he didn’t know the answer, we worked together to figure out the answer.

    2. Mad Baggins*

      This exactly. My favorite female boss so far didn’t answer my every question; she knew what questions to ask /me/. I think that’s a much more useful skill!

      Also, one thing she did that OP could try, is start small by showing vulnerability/weakness in trivial situations. My boss had a carefully cultivated professional persona, but she had no problem “playing dumb” and asking me how to filter her inbox a certain way, or complaining in a joking tone that she thought she’d done all the approvals, but there were more hidden, augh! This let us commiserate with her and feel helpful in small ways. I didn’t think lesser of her for not knowing how to filter her inbox because I knew she had the big picture stuff taken care of.

  3. a1*

    Yes, to all that Alison said. There is nothing wrong with saying “Hmm… I don’t know, let me get back to you on that” or “Not sure, let me follow-up internally (or with so and so, or ask around) and get back to you” or any of the examples Alison gave. Of course, you actually need to do the follow-up. :-)

    Good luck with changing this outlook, I know it can be very hard to shake a feeling like this, but it really is worth it.

    1. NotAnotherMananger!*

      Yes, exactly! Your job is to get them the answer (or guide them to it themselves), not to know absolutely everything all the time.

      I also think that there is value to letting other people be the subject-matter experts. I’m also a director, and my job is to get things done, not to do/know them myself. I am in a fairly unpleasant work assignment right now where the team had a crappy manager, and I’m doing mop and bucket duty. I simply do not know the day-in/day-out intricacies of the position and need input from the team. I try to give opportunities for them to be the SME and recognize the knowledge and experience they have (as well as to identify things to make their lives easier and to follow up on the things that are bugging them). It’s a fine line – you don’t want to cede so much that they think they’re doing your job, but I just see it as part of being a contributing member of the team. I do the grand scheme of things; they do the detail work.

    2. Nita*

      Yes, we actually had coaching at work on doing exactly that! Sometimes you’re just not going to know the answer on the spot, and it looks a lot more confident to say “I’ll check on that and get back to you” than to try to come up with a half-baked answer you may need to take back once you actually look into project details.

  4. Cassandra*

    Here’s another possibly-counterintuitive suggestion: work on redoing processes and scripts for yourself. You clearly have default processes/scripts already that you use to react to people and events. Noticing those, being aware of those that work in your context and those that don’t, and changing those that don’t should get you closer to where you want to be.

    As an educator who is also a human being, certain things students do invariably set my inner ragemonster raging. Obviously I can’t let my inner ragemonster loose on students! So I had to teach myself to notice inner ragemonster clawing at the door (extra-hard keystrokes, tense body, other indicators) so that I could switch the script to a healthier non-ragemonster alternative. I have several such scripts now, but when I was just getting started, the first process I taught myself was delay: put the email or assignment or evaluation or whatever away and do not look at it for the minutes, hours, or day (never more than that) it takes for inner ragemonster to stop raging.

    I am not a calm, take-it-on-the-chin sort of person, but my students don’t know that, and that’s how it should be.

    It sounds weirdly antiseptic, I know, which is again counterintuitive when you’re trying to be less antiseptic in how you approach people. But consciously-developed responses that you can practice will, I firmly believe, help you break the default habits that aren’t working for you. Good luck!

    1. Cassandra*

      Oh, another thought — coworkers who get the responses you’re hoping to get? I have learned so much from someone at my workplace who has dealt with students for decades and has it down pat. My ragemonster-taming process for the top 5% of rage-inducing situations (the really, really bad ones) involves going to this person and asking for advice!

      You may or may not be able to ask your person for coaching, mentoring, or advice. If you can, do. At minimum, though, you can watch how they handle things and pattern your processes after theirs.

    2. Breda*

      This! I’d also maybe recommend practicing this when you DO know the answer, so you can try it out when you feel comfortable. So if someone comes to ask you a question (not something with an obvious answer, but something where you feel confident about it), you say, “I’m not sure off the top of my head – let me look into it and get back to you,” then set a phone alert for an hour or so later, and get them the response when it goes off. You’ll probably only need to do this a couple of times to realize it doesn’t make you feel or look weak.

    3. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Something that helps me to do this is to pause. I always thought faster was better. Yes! Sounds fine! Sure, that will work! OR No! That’s wrong! That’s dumb!
      It’s pretty much the opposite of better.
      Take a breath, look the person in the eye. Let them know you are listening and hearing. And then respond.

      1. OP Here*

        This is DEFINITELY something I need to work on – calming my knee-jerk immediate response.

  5. animaniactoo*

    OP, when I was a student, I had the *most* respect for the teachers who said “Hmmm, that’s interesting. I’m not sure, let me check into that and get back to you.”

    Their willingness to admit that they *didn’t* have every answer solid meant that I had a lot more trust in what they did tell me – because I knew that the odds were a lot higher that they were right. Because if they didn’t know, they would have said so.

    Similarly – you’re in a situation where you’re dealing with a lot of unknown factors often I imagine. The goal is to make the decision with the best info you have. But you’ll get a lot more respect for being someone who doesn’t double down and chase a wrong decision just because you feel like it *has* to be the right answer. What they’re looking for from you isn’t having the right answer. They’re looking for “likely has the right answer, and the ability and will to course-correct if it turned out to be wrong”.

    Pretty much – it’s like every other role. You have to get it right more often than you get it wrong, and when it’s going wrong you have to be able to see it and retread before it goes too wrong. That’s all.

    Towards that, I would say just to try the next time something comes up that you don’t know about or aren’t sure about – as an experiment – try once on something relatively minor. And see how it goes. “Hmmm. I don’t have the info on that right this moment. Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you in 2 days with an answer.” or “Hmmm. That’s not an area I’m well versed in. Tell me what you know/think.” or “Do some more research into this and fill me in on what the specifics are that I need to know about” or “Alright, there’s lots of argument for this way or that way. Let’s try this way and evaluate in a week/month/etc. to see how it’s going”.

    And think back – how did the people who you used to report to pull that off? Did they do it well? If not, did someone else? Hold them in your head as the example that you want to try and achieve as you make your attempt.

    Because honestly – you can show *confidence* even in admitting you don’t have the answer, by defining a path to *get* to the answer. Practice how you want to say this stuff, because I’m putting that right now 80% of the issue is that you don’t have the “script” to fall back on when you’re faced with an unknown, so you don’t even have that available to use in these situations. If you have it, it’s more likely that you’ll use it and be able to pull it off confidently – because it will be what you know you want to say, rather than the blank nothing of “Oh Carp. I don’t know this answer. I have to find an answer”. No. No you don’t… you just have to find the *path* to the answer. Which I bet you do know how to do or you could not have gotten to where you are now.

      1. animaniactoo*

        Hey, if it tickles your fancy, go with it. Because the more authentic you are with this, the more comfortable you’ll feel and the more confident AND human you’ll be at the same time in your delivery. So if it works for you, absolutely go with “Oh carp. You just HAD to ask me something I don’t know!” [mock glare] “Alright, let’s figure out how to solve this….”

    1. Naptime Enthusiast*

      The goal is to make the decision with the best info you have. But you’ll get a lot more respect for being someone who doesn’t double down and chase a wrong decision just because you feel like it *has* to be the right answer.

      This is an awesome point, there’s nothing wrong with saying that you made X decision but because you now know Y, the team is instead going to do Z. In fact, that’s what you should do as a good leader, make a decision but reevaluate if new information becomes relevant.

      1. OP Here*

        Thank you! I actually had to do exactly that a few weeks ago with a mini-crisis (it was a HUGE DEAL OMG to the students, but in the grand scheme of life it’s a blip). We acted on information we had at the time, learned new information, adjusted our course, learned MORE new information, re-adjusted and moved ahead. Students were pissed at the process and the outcome, but I have confidence that we did the right thing because of how we reacted to new information.

        1. Naptime Enthusiast*

          It can be really tough to change your plans, especially when you know people will be upset, but all you can do is make a decision you can stand behind and be proud of. Best of luck OP!

    2. SeuciaV*

      Just want to second this:

      What they’re looking for from you isn’t having the right answer. They’re looking for “likely has the right answer, and the ability and will to course-correct if it turned out to be wrong”.


  6. LKW*

    The first project I managed I behaved like this. I tried to show no emotion. I tried to never show stress. It totally backfired on me. My team was very angry because despite the fact that I was swimming furiously and trying to keep my head above water – they didn’t think I understood or cared about how off the rails things were going (not entirely my fault, but definitely good lessons learned for later on).

    When they told me this I was shocked and let loose a torrent of “Oh my god I’ve been stuffing this down trying to be a good manager and knowing that I can just vent is such a relief!” We still had an uphill climb but it was much more an US versus a me & them.

    The smartest people in the room know they don’t know everything. Be smart.

    1. Safetykats*

      This. You’re in a very bad position as a manager of most of your staff aren’t smarter than you at something. Figure out who is smart about what. Assemble your experts. Ask them what they think. Work the process. Provide the big picture view as necessary – that’s really your job as a Director level person. Once you have enough input, make the decision and task out the logical outcomes.

      Not knowing the answer isn’t weakness. Accepting input and expertise from staff isn’t weakness. Weakness is being afraid to accept input and expertise, and being afraid to admit that finding the answer is often a process. (Weakness is also being afraid to make the hard decisions once you have the input, and we’ve all worked for that boss, so try not to be that boss. But that doesn’t sound like your problem.)

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This, this, this.
        And with the way everything is moving so fast, more and more it will be that bosses don’t know the answers but they are good at finding it and accurately forecasting which direction to go with the information in mind.

  7. OP Here*

    Thanks, everyone. And thanks, Allison, for that really helpful answer. You’re right – I have NO idea why I have an old-fashioned idea of how a female director is supposed to act, and I never understood that until just now. I have a ton of excellent female role models in my field, so I’m going to be more intentional about spending time with them and watching how they handle situations.

    I think a lot of the comments about not having a script are on-point. We’re all a relatively new staff – new to this department in the last 2 years – so I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to do everything perfectly. They look to me for answers about nearly everything, and I worried that not knowing would = not doing my job. It’s funny, too, b/c the answer about saying “I don’t know, but I’ll check” is what I tell my students leaders all the time. If only I could practice what I preach!

    Part of it is also personal vulnerability, and showing more of who I am outside of “Director” so they see me as human. I need to work on that, too.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I don’t know if this will help anyone else, but I don’t have a lot of female mentors in my field, so I kind of mentally try to channel Captain Janeway from that old series Star Trek Voyager. Sometimes the writing was inconsistent but there were many episodes where she seemed like a human, compassionate leader who was still in charge and very tough. Does anybody else have a fictional example of female leadership they channel?

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Honor Harrington from the novels by David Weber (the first one is “On Basilisk Station”).

        From the “Ring of Fire” shared world series started by Eric Flint (the first one is “1632”) there are a bunch: Gretchen, Rebecca, and Melissa are a few examples. And they’re a really fun read, besides. The premise is that a West Virginia coal mining town gets plunked down in the middle of the 30 Years War in what will later be Germany, and what happens from there.

        Queen Selenay in the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey. And her daughter Elspeth.

      2. SarahTheEntwife*

        Pretty much all the nuns in “Call the Midwife”, and most of the nurses. They’re a really excellent assemblage of different models of leadership, each with their own strengths and shortcomings.

      3. PM-NYC*

        I love Stella Gibson from the show “The Fall”. She has a great mix of strength without feeling like she has to fall into the toxic masculinity around her. She also does a great job of mentoring people below her.

      4. Marillenbaum*

        Diane Lockhart from The Good Wife. Not just because of her exceptional collection of chunky power necklaces (though that helped), but her forthrightness, commitment to principle, and diligence made a huge impression on me.

    2. Alex*

      Just a thought, as a manager of a team, I never felt more supported and trusted by my director that when I would present a situation and they would say, ‘This is your area, you know it best, what do you think?’ I felt they valued and respected my contribution and trusted me to help figure out a solution. It really encouraged me to think and manage proactively.

    3. MLB*

      Totally agree with Alison. Your team just wants to know that you have their back and don’t expect you to be perfect. Good luck!

    4. Product person*

      OP, the book Multipliers by Liz Wiseman may be a good read for you.

      It talks about how well-intentioned managers end up becoming “diminishers” that shut down the contributions of others by thinking they should have all the answers.

      You can check the book out here:

      One of its great tips: Ask the Big Questions. Instead of using your smarts to think of new ideas, spend your intellectual energy on forming hard questions that require others to generate ideas. A successful shift from individual contributor to leader includes the acceptance that you don’t need to have all the ideas. Instead leaders provide more value by asking big, thought provoking questions that advance the thinking of their teams. These types of questions allow teams the freedom to challenge existing assumptions and generate new and fresh ideas. These are open questions that start with words such as “How might we…”

    5. animaniactoo*

      OP, now that I know you’re somewhat related to education, I’m going to guess there’s a weird wormhole you’ve dived down on the “don’t show weakness” mindset.

      How many times have you heard a teacher say “You can’t crack a smile in the first month” when taking on a new class?

    6. Ali*

      I’m not in a managerial role but for things that are in my areas of expertise I usually say “I think X would be the answer but I’ll look into it and confirm” my field has a lot of regulatory requirements. I don’t think it makes me look uncertain just thorough.

    7. SeuciaV*

      I just want to say that my boss – who I have now worked for in two different organizations over the last 12 years – is the best boss I have ever had. I would literally walk over fire for her and would follow her anywhere, she’s that amazing to work for. And I’m not alone. We have very little turnover here and a lot of growth because of how well she does this job. She is the antithesis of that old school, old-fashioned ideal about a woman in power.

      She can be tough and firm when the situation calls for it (and she’s politically very savvy) but she’s also got tremendous humor and warmth that she shares with us – she never takes herself too seriously which helps us feel like it is OK to be more relaxed and authentic ourselves. When she makes a mistake she owns it immediately and without any hand wringing or fanfare (because, you know, humans make mistakes) and applies the same to us when we make mistakes. We talk about what happened, figure out how to fix it or to reduce the likelihood of it happening again, and we move on. She’s got no problem acknowledging when she doesn’t know something or when someone else on the team is a better source for that information. Just today she replied to an email from another agency head with a copy to me that said: “You should ask Selucia your question about developing performance measures – I’m rubbish at it!”

      Obviously as the head of our agency there are things she can’t share with everyone on the team, but she’s as candid and transparent as she can be and she encourages all of us to do the same – good, bad, or in-between. The example she sets allows all of us to feel confident in trying new things – even if we don’t always succeed – and to reach out to others for help and support when we need it. It discourages blame-casting and blame-shifting and has really created a culture where we know that by collaborating together and leaning on one another when we need to, we are going to be much more successful. She’s not perfect by any means, but so much of what she does that makes this such a fantastic place to work – much of which I would wager you might classify under that banner of “vulnerability” – are the very things I would consider her greatest strengths/assets as a leader.

      I think you writing this letter is such a perfect first step towards becoming more of that leader you’d like to be and I hope you are kind to yourself and patient as you flex these new muscles! I hope you’ll also share some of this with your staff so they can learn from your example and experience. :) Good luck!!!

    8. ILOVEHR*

      OP – as a female HR manager, I helped many of my new supervisors/managers figure out how the balance between being warm enough or sharing too much by role playing. Perhaps you can get a coach to guide you through so that your instincts are honed. Good luck and kudos for recognizing..

  8. Lil Fidget*

    I don’t love the comment being phrased as “be more vulnerable at work” (am I crazy to think men wouldn’t be told that?) but I do try to cultivate warmth and gratitude to my staff – not necessarily vulnerability, but still, emotions. If I’m getting that robotic-jaw-tick feeling, I try to stop and acknowledge somebody who’s working hard or who has made my life easier in some way. It reconnects me to my human self.

    1. fposte*

      Now I’m thinking about the shades of difference between vulnerability and showing emotion, and where defensiveness fits into this. To me vulnerability is much more about letting go of a fear of fallibility and uncertainty than it is about showing emotion, but maybe it’s connected to what I find harder to do.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        To me “vulnerable” suggests like, a frail baby gazelle limping across the grasslands in front of a hungry pack of lions, but I’m going to guess the comment was intended to be more along your way of thinking :)

    2. Product person*

      I don’t remember if it was in the Read to Lead Podcast or another podcast about leadership, but actually men are being told left and right that they should be more vulnerable at work (yes, with this exact word).

      Apparently studies are demonstrating that leaders that show vulnerability get better results.

    3. OtterB*

      I think of vulnerability as letting go of the need to appear perfect. If your surface is too highly polished, there’s no way for others to connect to it.

      1. Irene Adler*

        I wonder if some folks think that vulnerability is perceived as incompetence. Of course, it is not. But I wonder if that is something some folks believe -at some level.

    4. Mockingjay*

      Rather than “vulnerable,” what about “approachable?”

      Vulnerable has weird emotional connotations for me (personal quirk). I don’t want to know my boss’s emotional vulnerabilities. I do want a boss that is approachable; meaning that if I have a problem or something needing clarification, I won’t hesitate to talk to him or her because I know I’ll get an answer, even if the answer is, “don’t know, let’s figure it out” or “let me look into that; I’ll get back to you.”

      1. Gloucesterina*

        Yeah, I think part of is the root meaning of vulnerable (able to be wounded), which of course not what we’re talking about in a workplace setting. But I think your comment gets at how this shouldn’t be boss-centric or all about how the boss feels. Rather, it’s about the professional relationship the boss wishes to cultivate with their reports.

        I also wonder if the OP has opportunities to interact professionally with the employees outside of situations where the employees are peppering them with questions or the OP is delivering instructions. Creating mini-pockets of time for a greater range of interactions over the course of the work week (or whatever unit of time is feasible) could help.

      2. Lil Fidget*

        Yes! This would be a wonderful substitution for me. If someone told me to be vulnerable, it would make me feel like they wanted to hurt me and were hoping I’d make it easier for them. If someone said “approachable” I would have no problem for that.

        1. fposte*

          To me, though, that is why vulnerability is important and why “approachability” doesn’t get at it. Approachability is about mien; you can be approachable and never admit error. Vulnerability is about doing what needs to be done without defenses, even if it makes you feel more at risk of being hurt.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            Hmm. There ought to be a word that means willing to admit to errors and being open to feedback or suggestions that does not have what is to me a feminine or weak-sounding connotation (and yes I’m aware that putting those words together may mean I have some of the same internalized misogyny that the OP is struggling with). To me, vulnerable means something very similar to weak. I wouldn’t tell someone they need to be a weaker leader – especially a woman trying to get ahead! But this must be some personal issue I have with the word.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              It takes a secure person to say they don’t know or aren’t sure. An insecure person immediately looks for ways to cover up their lack of knowledge.
              The sad part about using secure/insecure is that some people will default to the old school definition for those words and that turns them into pompous asses. The more a boss tries to hide their limitations the more everyone can fully see the boss’ limitations.

    5. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      The only comment I was going to make was how much I hate the word “vulnerable” in this context. Poor word choice. This is not about vulnerability. I like AAM’s word “humanizing”.

    6. SeuciaV*

      You know, this is a really good point. I don’t think the term “vulnerability” is accurate at all – but it is a sad reflection of the fact that we tend to equate some of the behaviors the OP identified (like showing emotion or admitting you don’t have all of the answers) with being vulnerable when that really isn’t true at all. The definition of vulnerable is “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” Being willing to be human and authentic with your staff, to acknowledge the limitations of your knowledge or expertise, to admit to mistakes are not things that should make you susceptible to attack or harm! As I posted above, I would argue those things are actually strengths as it demonstrates that you are intellectually and emotionally secure as a person and won’t crack at the slightest sign of disapproval or disagreement.

      I get why the OP used the term – because lord knows that sentiment is big out there in the male-dominated work force – but I think it is well passed time for the idea that owning your humanity and acknowledging your limitations somehow means you are “vulnerable.”

      And your point about men not being told to be more “vulnerable” is freaking spot on.

    7. Swedish Chef*

      I didn’t love that phrase either when my boss mentioned it to me as a piece of feedback, and it ended up having the exact opposite effect. Which is how I ended up in my current situation. Words do matter, and I think Alison’s characterization is something I would have responded SO much more positively to.

  9. Canadian Public Servant*

    Great answer, Allison. I particularly like the points you made about how being warm and human can be about sharing positive emotions as well as vulnerability. I am very private about a lot of my life, but I’ve found that having a few work-safe topics I’m happy to chat about (cats and travel!), and taking an interest in other people (I am terrible with names, but my goal is always to know the names of spouses, kids, or anyone else important in the lives of my directs) has helped me build relationships.

    I also talk where appropriate about lessons I have learned, and how – in a performance review discussion, recently, I spoke to an employee about my own struggles with learning to trust my judgment, and how it can be very useful to get outside your comfort zone. And then we talked about concrete ways we can take away a bit of the safety net to help her grow, because she has good judgment but doesn’t always trust it.

  10. AnonEMoose*

    I really prefer supervisors who, when I bring something to them, are willing to say “Let me look into it and get back to you” to those who give an answer, find out that’s wrong, and then have to have me re-do or undo a bunch of stuff. Why? Because I’m perfectly willing to wait for a bit, and if there’s a deadline, I can let them know. Whereas the second approach can really end up wasting quite a bit of my time. And I really don’t have it to waste.

    I also like supervisors who ask me what options I see, and the pros and cons of each. They might have more information than I have, but sometimes I have more information than they do about certain aspects of the situation. For example, I might know that a particular solution is going to be a real pain to implement for various reasons. Since they don’t use the system the same way I do, they might not know that or understand the implications.

    So I’m more than happy to talk through options and implications, and pros and cons, and have the supervisor make the decision. It’s not that the supervisor has all of the answers…more that they have the authority to choose the course of action.

    You don’t have to be all-knowing. Be willing to listen and have those conversations. But when it’s time to make the decision, that’s when you might need to be willing to be clear with people that this is the decision and they need to do X. That can be difficult. But you can do it. And that’s where your team knowing that you heard them out, understand their concerns, and are doing what you can to advocate for them as appropriate will make a big difference in your favor.

  11. NJAnonymous*

    Ooof. One of OPs comments really hit home for me: ” I don’t know how to turn off that feeling that says “if you show weakness, they’ll think you can’t do this.”” I think Alison’s answer is right on (and I may be personalizing this too much), but I would struggle with changing that internal monologue. For example, I work in management consulting and that feeling of ‘if you show weakness, they’ll think you can’t do this’ is so, SO constant. There’s always other people who could replace you on an engagement if you don’t know how to do something. The normal responses that Alison suggested “I’m still working this out, what do you think?” only work if you’re in a group that you trust to support you. It sounds like OP has that, though, so I think Alison’s advice will really help.

    1. Safetykats*

      I find it’s helpful to frame it more like “this is a complicated issue, and I know we want to give if the consideration it deserves.” Then let people know when you expect to get back to them. That sounds less like not knowing, and more like active problem solving.

      1. NJAnonymous*

        I like that phrasing! In my mind I definitely am thinking of it as active problem solving, but am consistently paranoid that someone is going to look at it and think ‘this person doesn’t know what she’s doing’.

        Ah, the ever constant battle of my logical mind knowing the truth but my subconscious ID ignoring it.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      “I don’t know how to turn off that feeling that says “if you show weakness, they’ll think you can’t do this.”

      It’s really important to understand that NO matter what you do, someone, some where will think you can’t do it.

      I think the bigger issue here is why try to control people’s thoughts? They are going to think whatever they think. Take that energy (and it’s a lot of energy) and put it into rocking the job. Nothing says, “I CAN do this job” like when we knock it out of the park.
      Respect on the professional level is earned, it’s not for free.

      I was put in a situation where I took over a crew. The crew was prepped for my arrival. They were told I was going to make their lives a living hell. (Anyone who has read my comments, knows that won’t happen. But they did not know that.) Man, you needed a chain saw to cut the tension in the work area. I have never seen such a tense workplace.
      I sincerely doubt I had upper management support.
      Everyone was waiting for me to FAIL.
      So I was walking alone on this one, I had nobody to talk it out with or to figure out what to do. I thought “This is like drowning.”

      Then it dawned on me.

      The ONLY person who needs to know that I will not make their lives hell is ME! I have to know ME and know that I will work through whatever this is and we will move on as a group. I started with some simple Commandments for myself. Be fair. Be logical. Explain stuff. LISTEN. Apologize where appropriate.

      The commandments worked in to set methods for handling recurring things. And the commandments worked into guidelines to get me through the uncharted/unfamiliar stuff that comes up.

      I just kept doing this.
      It was about six months later, productivity doubled. They were average people, average workers and they blew productivity off the charts.
      The secret here?
      Just like you want a fair shot at doing a good job, OP, SO DO THEY. Keep that thought with you at all times. They wanna rock their jobs, also. And this is how you cast aside your own concerns about your weaknesses. In the process of helping others with their shortnesses, they will help you with yours.

  12. Oxford Coma*

    I had a good moment at work last week regarding this topic. A colleague came to me for help with a work-adjacent skill, and I sent him the URL to a great tutorial for it. A cubicle neighbor joked that I was just “playing human Google” for the guy instead of sharing expertise. I replied that I don’t see the need to memorize seldom-used skills as long as I know how to find them when I need them, and that the colleague could be confident that the link I gave him was the best one for his needs.

    IMO, knowing how to find the answer is often even more useful than just knowing the answer–because you’ve parsed a variety of options with many viewpoints, and chosen the most appropriate option. That’s why many universities encourage undergrad/grad students to seek their PhD elsewhere: a monopoly of opinion benefits no one.

  13. nonymous*

    I’ll add that I have seen multiple situations where someone lower-ranking on the team disagrees with the boss because of an incorrect belief/assumption or limited experience. To that person, if the boss comes in with answers that conflict with their expectations, cognitive dissonance results and that can lead to future problems of trust and ultimately an antagonistic work environment.

    Even if the LW is confident she is right, it is worth exploring what perspective team members have and guiding them, as much as possible to a consensus. It may be that Boss is right, it may be that Staff is right, but the process of exploring different options is value-added for a strong team. Also in a highly politicized environment, demurring in the interest of full research can work as a strategic “no”. My personal experience is that people who are demanding an answer in the moment often have an agenda.

    1. Not That Jane*

      What you said about consensus reminded me: I once had an insecure boss whose working definition of consensus was, “we are going to talk about this issue until you agree with my viewpoint out of sheer exhaustion with the arguing.” It really sucked. So, consensus is great, but it’s also really helpful as a manager to go into a conversation knowing how much you can / are willing to change your initial approach based on the conversation. Sometimes you do have to just go in and say, “Here’s what has to happen for X, Y, Z reasons. How can we make that work best for everyone?”

  14. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    OP you are merging emotion and ability.
    Asking for help or clarification is not weak. It is healthy and productive.
    I think you are creating a bad situation by limiting communication. If you are not allowing yourself to talk to them at a deeper level than, “I have X Y and Z due tomorrow,” then they are going to get frustrated and you are going to get frustrated, then somebody IS going to blow.

  15. Dinosaur*

    Hi OP, this might be way off base but I’m seeing a lot of my former self in your description of your worldview, and therapy helped me SO SO much. It helped me look at my unconscious assumptions and scripts and helped me break down why those things were holding me back. In most cases, my assumptions were just plain incorrect but I never took the time to actually examine them and figure out if they were logical, reasonable expectations for me to have of myself. I’ve become a much more secure, confident person who is okay with the fact that I am a fallible human through therapy. Feel free to disregard if it’s not that deep, but I wanted to mention therapy as a short-term investment into yourself that can reap big rewards. Good luck!

  16. She Who Needs a Username*

    For me, the thing I’m looking for in a director/manager is taking responsibility, not necessarily knowing all the answers. Whenever I would ask my last boss a question he would say, “Gee, what do you think?” because he didn’t know, and he would try to pass back to me.

    1. CAndy*

      Saying something like, “I honestly don’t know, let’s find out together”, or “I haven’t a clue about that, there are people here whose job it is to know about that sort of stuff… let’s ask Jane and John and chat again in a few days” is powerful and shows a bit of humility. Also an understanding of how work works.

      Who the hell knows everything about everything? Nobody I’ve ever met.

  17. Earthwalker*

    I prefer to work for a more human manager and I prefer to be a more human manager. That said, though, there still are old fashioned workplaces where male peers come down on that approach like hyenas on a wounded antelope. I’ve received and watched other women leaders receive patronizing mansplaining “mentorship” and the “you’re just affirmative action” comments if male peers found the least chink in their armor. A woman who seeks to win by becoming a tough old battleaxe to fend off the critical peers, though, will be unavailable and inflexible to subordinates and fail to build a winning team. I don’t see any solution for a woman in that situation than for her to move on. That behavior is so outdated that there are plenty of better workplaces where it isn’t a problem.

  18. Is pumpkin a vegetable?*

    “Would you want, oh I don’t know, a president with no self-doubt? Ahem.”

  19. OP Here*

    Thank you, all! I appreciate the support and advice. It’s very helpful to have this outside perspective. I’m going to pay more attention to that internal monologue that says “YOU HAVE TO DO/KNOW/FIX THIS” when something comes up, and remind myself that I don’t. I appreciated the comment that talked about letting people be their own subject-matter experts, and I could see my staff responding well to that.
    I know I’m too hard on myself, and that’s something I’ve been working on. I let it take over until I got into the “all or nothing” mentality of my job, and that’s not a healthy place to be. I really like where I work, and I like what I do, and I want to do it well.
    Part of where I think my boss was coming from by this comment was that our little dept has had a lot of upheaval in the past year+. New hires, long-term staff retiring, office renovation and move, new processes, etc etc. So the staff have been looking to me to manage it all, and I didn’t want to show them that I, too, was a bit freaked out by everything b/c I thought they would freak out. But I’m beginning to understand that there is a way to show that I acknowledge the stress and I’m dealing with them too, so we’re all in it together.

    1. CAndy*

      Hope I’m not talking above my pay grade, but when someone asks you something you don’t know you can sometimes coach the answer or at least a plan out of them.

      “My project isn’t up to speed, I need help with x and y and z.”
      -What have you done so far?
      “I’ve done a and b and c”
      -What else do you think you need to do?
      “I need to find out about f and g and h”
      -Who in the organisation do you think could help you with that?
      “Jackie could maybe help with f, I know Bill worked on g last year. I’m stumped with h though.”
      -That’s great, if you can talk to Jackie and Bill to work out f and g, we’ll have a chat on Thursday about what they said and then we’ll have a look at h.

  20. Susana*

    I agree with Alison, but… I still get a whiff of sexism at LW’s workplace. It’s the word “vulnerable” that threw me. Human, of course. Showing emotion, sure. But the idea that she’s supposed to show that she’s not sure whether she knows what she’s doing… I dunno. I find myself doing this, being at a meeting and starting out a question by saying, dumb question, but… or, maybe I’m not getting this, but… As if we have to soften everything, especially ourselves and our knowledge/authority.

    1. Not That Jane*

      It makes me wonder, too. Not specifically about sexism, but about the company culture. In my particular education niche, for instance, we talk about vulnerability a TON. I don’t experience it as remotely sexist in my context, just as expressing a value of sharing feelings / showing weakness.

  21. Not That Jane*

    When I first started teaching high school, I was waaaaayyyy stricter than I needed to be, mainly because I didn’t feel confident and comfortable with my authority yet.

    Now that I’ve been teaching for a while, I can flex much better. I know what issues are non-negotiable for me and my classroom, and what things I can let go of (and when to let go of them). It sounds to me like as you get more comfortable with your role, some of this will just happen naturally.

    I’ve also had principals who fell into this category (afraid to admit mistakes / seemed insecure / strict when they didn’t have to be), and I found I have more professional trust in the competence of people who are willing and able to admit when they’re wrong or don’t know something.

  22. TechnicalManager*

    One thing to remember, OP, is that you’re not in management for your knowledge. Sure, if you work at Teapots Inc., you probably want to be able to tell a teapot from a coffee pot, but at the root of it, management isn’t about being knowledgeable, it’s about having good judgment when you are presented with the facts.

    It’s completely fine and very normal not to have all the answers – the thing I always try to do is help the person identify their one immediate next step. It’s perfectly fine if the next step is something like “Oh, Hippolyta is an expert on that, you should talk to her”, or “I’m going to need more information to make this decision, can you investigate X and Y and report back?”. In fact even when I am pretty confident in the answer, I’ll often say “I think it’s Z but double-check with Theseus who knows more about this than I do.”

    No matter how great you are, your knowledge won’t exceed the combined knowledge of your team – and if it did, it would be a sign you have a really, really bad team. Your job is to leverage everyone’s knowledge, make decisions, and help people remove roadblocks preventing them from getting their own work done. Connecting people to experts and helping them work effectively with those experts is usually more valuable than simply being the expert yourself.

  23. GreenDoor*

    I used to work for the Smartest Woman in the Room. It was demoralizing on so many levels. Her “smarts” made the rest of us doubt our abilities and second guess ourselves all the time, which added an extra element of chaos to the office. My new boss doesn’t hesitate to say, “Let’s pull Bob in on this, he’s the expert on teapot handles.” Or “I’m going to ask Sue to address that question, since she’s really our go-to on teapot spout legislation.” It’s wonderful. No one see her as being less capable. Her staff sees her as being willing to share credit, someone that has confidence in and trusts the collective abilities of her staff. Outsiders see her as someone who has built a reliable and capable team.

    In short, you will actually garner more respect if you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room at all times.

  24. Aisling*

    I’m a reference librarian and taught computer classes to patrons. I also felt that I was supposed to be the computer expert, when I felt like anything but that. My retired patrons, most of whom were afraid the computer would blow up if they looked at it wrong, felt so much better when I made mistakes, like mistyping something or clicking on the wrong link. At first I actually was making a mistake, but I started doing something “wrong” in most classes, because it set the class at ease. If the teacher got it wrong, it wasn’t such a big deal if they did it! I could also show them how to correct the mistake, and that was valuable for them too. People aren’t looking for perfection, and it actually makes them more nervous when you are.

  25. tiniest teacher*

    Such a good question and response, really relevant to my current work life.

    Does anyone have insight into navigating this as a young teacher (I’m 20, and teaching both elementary schoolers and high schoolers)? I try to be up front about the fact that I’m not perfect and make mistakes, but it feels like a balancing act and I feel like I have to work very hard to be “on,” especially to prove to parents/community/admin that I’m capable of caring for kids. It can be exhausting. I also have brain fog and am afraid I often come across as disorganized when parents ask me logistical questions I’m unprepared for.

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