Vulnerability at Work – My Story

Recently the courageous Sophia Lall opened a conversation about the value of vulnerability at work. As a result, the insightful Sarah Elkins piped up with:

“If we don’t demonstrate some level of vulnerability at work, no one will. Right, Mary Schaefer?”




I published a version of the story below on my own site years ago, yet it took some intestinal fortitude for me to post it here today. It’s the story of a time when I shared some vulnerability at work in a very public way. I didn’t know how it would turn out. I only knew I would be letting myself down if I didn’t speak up.

It was around 1995.

It was right before lunch. I was at the local town hall co-leading a workshop for survivors of downsizing. I was a corporate employee at the time, presenting to other employees. Most of us were acquainted with each other.

Somehow the group started ranting about a few projects that were going on at the chemical plant where we worked. They were making accusations about the “agenda” of the projects. They were pretty harsh in questioning the purpose and usefulness of what was going on. What they didn’t know was that I was working on each of these projects. As my co-leader navigated this discussion, tears started pricking the corners of my eyes. Then it got harder to hold it in. Soon tears were streaming down my face. I wasn’t exactly front and center in the room, but if anyone saw me they could see I was upset.

I didn’t know what to do. What came to me is that I refused to be ashamed that I was hurt and upset — EVER AGAIN. I didn’t have the energy to pretend it wasn’t happening. I mean how ridiculous is that? As my co-leader wrapped up the discussion I asked for a few minutes to speak. I told the group that I worked on each of these projects they were discussing. I said I had worked hard to ensure people would not have the exact reactions they were expressing. I had wanted to avoid distrust, suspicion, and people feeling left out. I obviously was not successful. I told them I was really disappointed and I wanted them to know why I was crying.

My revelation was met with utter silence. Then one woman burst into tears. She said if she had known it was me she would never have gone so far. We had a great discussion about making assumptions. We all learned something that day.

I’m not saying that anyone needs to be as transparent as I was in that moment. I felt very comfortable… I was going to say “comfortable with allowing myself to be vulnerable.” That’s not entirely true though. I didn’t feel particularly vulnerable because I had decided that I was okay with showing this. And I was willing to take any consequences that might follow.

Normally this type of “incident’ would have been fodder for the gossip mill. For example, “Did you hear Mary lost it at the workshop?” When I returned to my office I gave my boss a heads-up in case he heard anything. He never did. I never did.

Weeks later I was in a meeting with a participant from the workshop. After I said something, she turned to the rest of the people in the room and said, “You need to listen to her. She’s not typical management.” Never would I have expected my “loss of control” to have that impact. I know that in the future I didn’t sweat it as much when I chose to show some vulnerability.

Eventually, I became an HR manager. I know that “being real” on occasion gave people a level of comfort with me that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. It follows that sharing our human experience in a considered way helps create a more human workplace. It’s tricky, but if we don’t, who will?


Mary Schaefer
Mary Schaefer
Mary is a fierce advocate for developing workplaces where the human beings who happen to be employees, thrive. Her speaking, coaching, training, and writing all focus on making the most of what human beings can contribute to an organization through their distinctive energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. As the principal of her own business, Mary is a guide to increase empowerment and cultivate productive manager/employee interactions. Drawing from her experience as an HR manager, her work centers on talent development, performance management, and a positive employee experience. She is a co-author of the book, "The Character Based Leader." Mary has presented at the Inspiring Women in STEM Conference and is also a TEDx speaker. Her clients include small businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies. Mary has a master's degree in human resources management and is a certified HR professional. This Midwest farmer's daughter is a big fan of homegrown cantaloupes, gapingvoid art, and LinkedIn.

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  1. Very educational article. Thank You!
    Each of us brings with it weaknesses which we should not be ashamed of, but it is important to understand when and with whom to expose them with humility and openness. The ability to safeguard our vulnerabilities must always be vigilant to prevent them from being exposed unnecessarily to improper and insensitive attacks. I believe that it is necessary to discern when it is time to defend yourself from an attack such as, for example, the one represented by unjustified criticism, and when, instead, to lower your defenses by accepting to also show your vulnerability as when, for example, you want to establish with a person a relationship of deep intimacy. It makes sense to show your vulnerabilities and, therefore, to get naked emotionally (which is not easy at all), when I find myself in front of a person that I really want to learn and with whom I want to establish a sincere emotional relationship, it does not matter if sentimental or friendship, which allows me to feel completely welcomed, accepted, understood and to be nourished by this interpersonal exchange which helps me to grow and mature. It also makes sense to do this when I am experiencing a circumstance in which showing my vulnerability can help someone.
    When you share your vulnerability with someone you are giving the other an invaluable gift and you are affirming not only full respect for yourself, but also your full trust in him. Hence the importance of setting your limits and deciding what you are ready to face by investigating wisely beyond the surface of things.

  2. Each of us has vulnerabilities in a certain area. A good number of people (like me) would not want them known. You showed courage and strength at a time when others would have ran and hidden. I commend you not only for writing an article such as this one where you put yourself out in front of people that showed incredible leadership skills but also for being an inspiration to others.

  3. Wonderful story, Mary. I am glad that you decided to post it here. It’s a story we all need to hear, and it exemplifies why it is important not to shun our vulnerability. Tucking it away is far easier than letting it show, but look at how much good came from what you chose to do?
    It is an inspiring story, and it speaks to humanness, which should always come first. Thank you for giving me some good insight today and for sharing your experience with us.

    • Hi Laura! I know you are familiar with this story. Thank you for taking the time to comment on it here. The incident happened so long ago. There are days I wonder if that person is still in me. Your words today helped me re-recognize her and reignite my desire to exemplify the strength in humanness. Thank YOU!

  4. Mary, thank you for sharing your very personal story. I can think back on times when I “bit my tongue,” as my mother used to say, and other times when the words wouldn’t behave themselves and remain in the back of my mouth. You have to pick your spots, but it generally felt better to get my thoughts out. If I didn’t, I carried them around for days like a heavy yoke. And I also learned that you have to do that appropriately.

    • “I carried them around for days like a heavy yoke.” I understand, Jeff. That is why I made that choice that day. I didn’t want to carry it. One does have to pick their spot. Thanks for commenting!

  5. What a great story, Mary! While not many people have chosen that brave path, it’s one that I’m sure many of us can relate to. We all have those human moments that we regret. But it is in that humanity that we’re able to forge deeper connections with others. Thank you for sharing this personal story!

    • FROM MARY: “…humanity that we’re able to forge deeper connections with others” Yes! Melissa, when I saw your comment from the self-proclaimed “Neuroscience Geek” that you are, my thoughts went to memory and how it shapes our reality. Some day I would love to know what really happened in that room that day 😉 Thx for commenting.