Newcastle University Business School

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Vulnerability as managerial strength

Dr Sandra Corlett and Prof Sharon Mavin’s article (also with Prof Nic Beech) argues that, rather than protecting themselves against vulnerability understood as weakness, managers need to be permitted to drop the mask of invulnerability.

Managers are put under unrealistic pressure to meet demanding expectations, for instance to be knowledgeable and in control. Showing vulnerability, which is usually considered a weakness, is rarely permitted or encouraged. However, from our own experience as managers and from speaking with managers, the felt reality of managing involves not knowing and uncertainty, and such feelings are likely to increase in today’s challenging environments and competitive organisations. Therefore, how managers respond to vulnerability is important for them and their teams. Rather than concealing vulnerability, understood as weakness, and protecting themselves through defensive identity work, we advocate in the article for managers to recognise and claim vulnerability, as strength, and share their experiences of vulnerability with trusted others, so that alternative and more realistic ways of responding can be fostered.

The article draws on interviews with middle and senior managers in UK public sector and social housing organisations and includes our own reflexive learning. From our analysis and iterative engagement with literature, we reconceptualise vulnerability as a relational process of strength. By recognising and claiming vulnerability, developing social support to share vulnerability with trusted others, and recognising alternative ways of responding to vulnerability, managers may acknowledge the impossibility of their own and others’ unrealistic expectations, drop the mask of managerial control and the need to engage in defensive identity work by accepting that they are ‘good enough’. Rather than defensiveness in the face of vulnerability constructed as weakness, the strength and value of vulnerability lies in its opportunity to open up alternative liberating managerial practices and ways of being.

As Sandra and Sharon have managerial responsibilities, the research has already impacted on us. When working together on the article, we became aware of our personal defensive identity work to protect ourselves in vulnerable situations. Being open about our limitations and concerns, without fear of being misunderstood, and providing each other with social support enabled us to respond differently to vulnerability, as strength rather than weakness, and opened up alternative ways of responding. The research impacted on our own managerial practice, as illustrated in the article by Sandra’s reflections on a recent work experience. We all had our own stories of the value of recognising vulnerability as strength and responding to it with openness. As we and other managers recognise and claim vulnerability, and develop social support to share it with trusted others, then its value in opening up alternative, non-defensive ways of responding may be fully realised. Furthermore, changing the language of vulnerability, away from weakness to strength, will enable managers to show compassion towards other managers and team members and to challenge and change local work cultures.

Source: Reconceptualising vulnerability and its value for managerial identity and learning, Management Learning


Sandra Corlett Biography

Sandra Corlett is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership Development and Organisation Futures at Newcastle University Business School. Her teaching and research explores identity, leadership and management learning and development, leadership and followership, and qualitative and practice-based research methods.


Sharon Mavin Biography

Sharon Mavin is Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies and Director of Newcastle University Business School. Sharon’s research interests include gender, identity, learning, women’s leadership, dirty work and organization studies.


published on: 23 October 2019