Careers

Being vulnerable can make you more successful at work—here's how

LeBron James and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after defeating the Golden State Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland.
Getty Images
LeBron James and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after defeating the Golden State Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland.

Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love's assurance earlier this month that "everyone is going through something" resonated with a lot of people. In a viral article for the Players' Tribune, the NBA player described a panic attack he experienced in the middle of a game, going to see a therapist and struggling to get over the death of his grandmother.

His ultimate point, as he notes, is a universal one: Opening up helps.

Love's article was in part inspired by a tweet a week prior from the Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan that read, "This depression is getting the best of me."

Love and DeRozan are not the first athletes to kickstart this conversation. New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall has been an advocate for more open and honest discussions about mental health since he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011.

"As football players, we are taught to never show weakness, to never give an opponent an edge. To open up when something hurts, in our culture, is deviant. But when you really sit down and think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength," he said last summer.

The research backs them up. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable not just as an athlete, but in any workplace, can have immense benefits.

1. Vulnerability improves trust

Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston and leading researcher on this topic, affirms that vulnerability is at the root of authentic social connection.

In "The Power of Vulnerability," one of the top-five most-viewed TED Talks of all time, she explains that one of the most important things she found in her decade of research is that "a sense of worthiness" is what distinguishes people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those who do not. And those who believe they are worthy have "the courage to be imperfect."

In other words, they embrace vulnerability.

Those who feel unworthy, meanwhile, resist. "We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability," Brown says. That ultimately leads to disconnection and distrust.

In the workplace, it pays to be authentic. According to the Harvard Business Review, opening up breeds greater levels of hope and trust, which can in turn improve employee performance. It also facilitates a culture of forgiveness. That means not punishing mistakes, but instead analyzing and learning from them, which has been shown to benefit a company's productivity.

"We've found that when a leader, a person in charge, is able to be vulnerable and say, 'I'm human just like you, and I make mistakes,' it empowers the group," sports psychologist Graham Betchart told CNBC Make It. "People really resonate when they can connect."

Betchart has worked with rising NBA stars the likes of current rookie-of-the-year contender Ben Simmons on developing mental toughness and handling pressure. Now, as the director of mental training at Lucid Performance, where he runs workshops for surgeons, salespeople, educators and lawyers, he is spreading these ideas beyond sports.

"What we've found is this is much larger than sports," he says. "This is about everyone in life."

2. Vulnerability boosts creativity

Betchart asserts that a willingness to feel vulnerable unlocks you. "If you allow yourself to be vulnerable you have a great chance of winning," he says. "If you refuse to be vulnerable, you are handcuffing yourself."

That's in part because, when you're vulnerable, you accept that things won't always go as planned. "Perfectionists perish," says Betchart. "There's nothing worse for a team than someone afraid to make a mistake." When you work to intentionally avoid mistakes, "it completely limits your creativity."

Brown makes the same point: "Vulnerability," she tells Fast Company, is the birthplace of innovation and creativity."

3. Vulnerability makes workplaces safer

The NPR podcast Invisibilia explored a remarkable example of how vulnerability changed one unlikely workplace: Ursa, a Shell oil rig 130 miles off the coast of New Orleans.

For years, the culture among the men on Ursa was decidedly macho. "They were tough. They worked under any conditions. They didn't ask questions," NPR reports. That made the workplace unsafe. Accidents were not uncommon, and were often fatal.

In an effort to lower the accident rate, Shell set out to alter the culture by putting its employees through a training designed to open them up.

"It felt vulnerable. You put your personal life out there for everybody to hear and everybody to see," George Horn, one of the employees, told NPR. Some broke down and became hysterical when they discussed private issues. One reportedly completely dissociated during a session. After diving deep into his emotions he suddenly forgot who he was (he recovered after seeing a doctor.)

Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely and Stanford professor Debra Meyerson analyzed the effect of the training, and they observed a dramatic, lasting shift in the culture on the rig. The men became more open and were less hesitant to ask for help.

When Shell implemented this training company-wide over a 15-year period, its accident rate declined by an astounding 84 percent, and the company was able to produce more barrels at a lower cost compared to the industry's previous benchmark.

Be aware of appropriate boundaries

To be sure, you don't want to be too vulnerable at work. If you overshare, for instance, and excessively express self-doubt, colleagues may start to question your credibility.

You also don't want to fake it. "When vulnerability veers away from authenticity, it can tend to feel scripted. And rather than deepen relationships, this dynamic can actually be polarizing and professionally harmful," reports Quartz.

To ensure you're being authentic, ask yourself if what you're sharing is helpful not just to yourself, but also to others. "It's about developing relationships that incorporate vulnerability little by little, and elevating others — rather than yourself — in the process," the publication notes.

The benefit, in other words, reverberates — it's not personal, it's collective.

"Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need," Love writes. "You're not weird or different for sharing what you're going through. Just the opposite. It could be the most important thing you do. It was for me."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!

Don't miss: You can get more done by working less, studies show—here's how