The 'V' Word: Can you really say it out loud?

I spend countless hours in discussions with leaders and teams about authentic leadership and the power of vulnerability.

Authenticity is not a difficult case to make to smart people who realise that 'being yourself' is the key to personal connection. Even when the practical realities tell you to close the kimono just a bit, most people still see authenticity as a noble objective.

From personal experience, many of us know that vulnerability is the key to authenticity. To be yourself always comes with the risk that someone won't like what they see, which fits the typical definition of vulnerability as the 'condition of being exposed....and open to injury.'

We talk a lot these days about vulnerability as a strength, even as a virtue.

However, my own experience over the past few years has led me to pose the question: Are we facing an uphill battle with the common gut reaction to the 'V' word? Does the word itself defeat its very purpose?

Exposure, threats and pending attack. Check out the standard definitions of vulnerability.

The common thread is an implied weakness: the quality of being exposed, easily hurt or attacked. Wikipedia breaks down vulnerability across multiple dimensions, mostly associated with being either a person, group or system susceptible to attack.

The 'V' word is common in engineering, most often in relation to threats to structural integrity. In most definitions, there is an overtone of 'incoming threat.'

The meaning is rooted in the Latin word for wound: vulnus. It is the state of being open to injury, or appearing as if you are. My premise is that the word itself, in today's lingo, prompts a defensive and fear-based reaction. For many people the 'V' word doesn't conjure up a positive vibe.

Just the opposite, it tends to cause fear, apprehension, and a 'go there at your own risk' mentality. The very word causes some people to sweat.

Yes, there is very credible evidence that emotional intelligence drives profitability.

The 'V' word is used a lot more often in today's business world than 20 years ago. Yet below the surface, I believe that a huge number of people still experience the word as something negative - like a dark force that you have to push through because it is too hard to drive around it.

To put it simply, most people probably wouldn't opt for 'vulnerability' as their first order of the day - compared to other so-called virtues to choose from. People would certainly choose authenticity. They would choose values. They would choose vision. But vulnerability? There are days when you would cut a wide berth around that option on your menu of challenges at work.

Men still joke about it. The 'V' word is kicked around the workplace like a football. Men still joke about the word openly. Not all men of course, but enough men to know that vulnerability is generally seen as 'soft,' often conveyed with feminine overtones, and is bantered about in ways that imply weakness and timidity.

In a leadership program, a participant recently made this observation about vulnerability: "In my community, the word does not resonate as strongly with men; it doesn't hold the same gravitas as the word' mana' does. Yet, in many ways they are about the same thing."

Men struggle more with vulnerability because it defies the machismo ideal of being the one who knows it all and can fix everything. Yes, being vulnerable means that you are okay with letting other people help you -and you see this as a good thing. But for a lot of guys, and many women, this is easier said than done.

I think we would all agree that the 'V' word wouldn't qualify as locker room talk, certainly not in Donald Trump's world. And while I believe that most women can empathise more with vulnerability as a strength, many still experience it personally as a negative. In general, people are still inclined to whisper about vulnerability than talk about it openly.

This sentiment is more pervasive in some cultures than others, but as a rule, the 'V' word has an uphill battle in front of it. If vulnerability were a person, it would probably be in psychotherapy. Think about your life if you were vulnerability.

People know they can't escape you, but would prefer to experience you only in small bits that are spaced out between huge gaps.

Is it time to rebrand vulnerability? I am starting to wonder: Does the 'V' word gets in its own way and ultimately set its very cause back? At its core, vulnerability is about having courage that is so compelling, other people are drawn toward you like moths to a flame. Like an acrobat high in the sky on a wire.

From personal experience, you feel so connected to that acrobat - imagining their fear and admiring their every step. It is their courage that connects you viscerally to them while they push into the challenge. That connection is called empathy. It is what you feel when another person shows vulnerability.

And yet, when you use the 'V' word to describe that same experience, the human psyche goes wacky. Intuition grabs the gut more viscerally than does logic. The word is not wired as a positive thing in our modern way of thinking about it. Rightly or wrongly, vulnerability has taken on a load of negative stigma.

I would dare say that a huge number of people FEEL the 'V' word as a weakness.

I mean that literally. If you could strap people up to a polygraph test and ask them: do you think of vulnerability as a 'virtue' or a 'vice' - my prediction is that their mouths will say one thing and their bodies another.

Test my thinking in your own mind, perhaps in the world in which you work. What's your starting point with the 'V' word? Is it too loaded? Do people joke about it? Does it carry a 'softness' that will never cross a credible threshold in some circles at work?

What if vulnerability were called Edge? That sounds cool. Or what if the 'V' word was suddenly changed to Flair? Or Gravitas? Or Intelligence? Or Human? "Hey, I'm going to be human today." That one word seems to change the whole sentiment. If vulnerability were called 'bling,' more people would probably bring it.....with edge.

As a person who knows the power of vulnerability, I run the risk of conceding to those who pretend that calling it something else will make it easier to avoid. After all, isn't that the whole point behind the word itself? As Brene Brown reminds us in her powerful Ted Talk, the very paradox of vulnerability is to embrace the discomfort.

But I'm also a realist. And I know the uphill battle the 'V' word faces. Bling....definitely bring it. Gravitas....where do I sign up?Intelligence....yes, more of that. Chutzpah there is something that you can't live without.

Certain words morph out of common use because they no longer work, or sometimes they even get in the way. As a young therapist, I shifted from the long tradition of calling people 'patients' to calling them 'clients' instead. The whole dynamic in the relationship changed for the better under the premise that the person was now in charge of the plan, like a client.

Sometimes what you call something really does change its valence and purpose.

Personnel became Human Resources before it became People and Culture. IT has become 'Digital' because it makes that whole tech world more relevant to the future. We have glammed up insurance and banking as Financial Services. Every now and then, you have to change the word to enhance the connection.

To the ultimate test of vulnerability, I will open myself to injury, or at least appear that I am, to explore whether the 'V' word has become its own worst enemy. Is it time to change the word, particularly in the work place? Should we re-brand it in our vocabulary? Is that the best way tore-wire it in our psyches?

From a whisper to a roar. As a team, have a conversation about whether the 'V' word works for everybody, or at least most of you. Would it pay just to boot it out of your lexicon and start afresh? Or is it worth pushing into the challenge where you go all out to make the word resonate for people as something far more positive?

How do you change vulnerability from something that you whisper about....into something that you roar across a room?


Here are three questions to get the dialogue going at work:

1. Being completely honest, does the word 'vulnerability' resonate with you personally as a weakness or a strength? You have to choose one or the other; no in between. Try this litmus test: would you use the 'V' word in your circle of colleagues at work?
2. If you like the word 'vulnerability,' how do you move the stigma associated with it being a weakness rather than a strength.
3. If you could re-name vulnerability to have more power as a strength, what would you call it?

Here's hoping these questions spark a dialogue that leads the team to a tighter understanding of why vulnerability is important. You want to do whatever is required to make 'being yourself' the ultimate prize for everyone - no matter what you decide to call it.

The important thing is - call it something that works.

Originally written for, and published in the New Zealand Herald.

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A headshot of Dr. Harold Hillman