“Leading With Vulnerability: A Practical Guide”: Christina Chan with Wealthsimple (Video + Transcript)

March 22, 2024

Research shows psychological safety — team members feeling safe to take risks — is the most important dynamic that sets successful teams apart. Christina Chan (Wealthsimple Staff Engineer) shares her personal journey with vulnerability, as she reframed discomforts as opportunities for growth and eventually learned to be vulnerable at work. Attendees will leave with her strategies for practicing vulnerability without over-sharing and respecting your personal boundaries.


In her ELEVATE  session, Christina Chan (Wealthsimple Staff Engineer) discusses the importance of vulnerability and psychological safety in the workplace. She explains that creating a psychologically safe space is crucial for teams to feel comfortable asking for help, sharing ideas, and expressing their opinions.

Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but rather a measure of courage. She shares strategies for leading with vulnerability, including admitting what you don’t know, sharing when you’re struggling, developing self-awareness, and finding a trusted friend to practice vulnerability with. Practicing vulnerability, leaders give others permission to be vulnerable, ultimately creating a psychologically safer space for teams.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Christina Chan ELEVATE vulnerable asking questions asking for help saying no

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Christina Chan: Hi, everyone. Thank you for the warm introduction. It’s very exciting to be here and talking to you all. I guess I’ll just dive right into this. As leaders in engineering, we all share some common goals. We want to focus on high-impact work and build the trust and influence to actually get it done. We want people to feel comfortable coming to us with their problems and their ideas, asking questions, and sharing their honest opinions with us. And ultimately, we want our teams to be happy and insert your OKR here.

That all sounds well and good, but realistically, so many things get in the way and make it harder for us to accomplish these goals. Maybe you’ve noticed that your team doesn’t always ask for help or that it takes a long time for concerns to be raised if they’re even brought up at all. Or maybe you’ve been told that other developers find you intimidating and that they don’t feel like they can disagree with you. Or maybe you’ve noticed that there’s a lot of communication happening in back channels, and it doesn’t seem like people are openly sharing their ideas and their feedback. What all of these things point to is a lack of trust and psychological safety.

We can’t accomplish our goals without creating a psychologically safe space for our teams. Extensive research has shown how psychological safety, team members feeling safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another, is the most important dynamic that sets high-performing teams apart. Maybe you’re looking at me, and listening and it’s like, “Cool. Hi, I’m just one person. How can I actually do anything about this?” And I get it. It’s really easy to brush off these problems and dismiss them as organizational or cultural issues that are too hard to fix by ourselves. But as leaders, depending on your position, and as role models and mentors, we have the power and the privilege to create the sort of culture that we want.

How do we do that? How do we create an environment where our teams feel safe? And as you’ve probably guessed, we need to lead by example and lead with vulnerability. If your initial reaction to hearing that is, “Oh, wow, absolutely not,” you’re not alone. Vulnerability in the workplace can make you feel uncomfortable like you’re letting your guard down. And believe me, I’ve been there. I believed that I always needed to be professional, that I needed to maintain my distance, and always project a confident and composed image, otherwise, no one would take me seriously. I was afraid to show any vulnerabilities or any weaknesses, perceived weaknesses.

Whenever I did start to feel vulnerable, I would also feel this immense shame like I was letting my image slip and that people would find out about the real me, and they would stop taking me seriously or valuing my technical opinions and perspectives. This fear and shame crept up whenever I started something new, needed to ask a question, was the only person that looked like me when I was in a room, whenever I made a mistake or struggled to balance my work and personal life. I didn’t see other people talking openly about this kind of stuff. So I believed that if I did it myself, I would be seen as weak and I didn’t deserve to be here.

For me, this looked like forcing myself to give 110% at work every single day, no matter what was going on in my personal life, never making a mistake, and if I did, I would beat myself up about it. And also spending so much time trying to figure out things on my own instead of asking for help when I needed it. In short, I was avoiding feeling vulnerable at any cost. But what actually ended up happening was I was limiting the connections and the trust that I could build with my team. And with the effort required to hide from these feelings and hide my vulnerabilities, I was also running myself straight towards burnout. So I realized something needed to change.

And it was around this time that I came across Dr. Brené Brown and her amazing TED talk about the power of vulnerability. If you haven’t watched it or read her books, I highly recommend them. I love her. I’m obsessed. The rest of this talk will basically be a love letter to Brené Brown. What she had to say fundamentally changed the way that I think about vulnerability. Brené Brown has spent over two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She’s brought to light the profound impact of vulnerability on our lives, especially in leadership.

She famously has said things like, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” She defines vulnerability as, “Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” which I thought, “Great, that aligns perfectly with my views.” She also says that, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity, and that it’s the root of building authentic and meaningful connections.” I thought, “Hmm, that doesn’t quite fit.” But upon a lot of reflection and honestly reading her book, Dare to Lead and Daring Greatly, it became clear that vulnerability is about the courage to show up and to let ourselves be seen, to risk failure, and to still be resilient throughout it.

What does that mean for leading with vulnerability? This means embracing our imperfections, acknowledging our mistakes, being open about our challenges. It means having the courage to say, “I don’t know,” or, “I need help.” It’s about creating a culture where people feel safe to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. When we lead with vulnerability, we create an environment where people feel valued, heard, and empowered, which eventually leads to a culture of innovation, creativity, and resilience. And yeah, I see in the chat, it’s hard. So now, just because we know that being vulnerable is good for us and good for our teams, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy. And that feeling of discomfort with being vulnerable just goes away.

It takes a lot of effort and practice to sit with that discomfort and work through it. Something that has personally helped me is to reframe my anxiety and nerves as excitement and an indication that whatever I’m nervous about is an opportunity for growth. For example, say you’re speaking in front of an audience, virtual or live, that could be pretty nerve-wracking, but the body sensations of anxiety and nervousness align pretty closely with how it feels to be excited about something. Here I am, being vulnerable and very excited to be speaking with all of you.

Another thing that can make vulnerability seem scary is boundaries, and there being a misconception that vulnerability means we disclose everything, divulge every aspect of our personal lives, and kind of lay it all out on the table. But that’s not true. Vulnerability without boundaries is simply not vulnerability. Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves and others, and they’re about understanding what’s okay and not okay for us. They’re about respecting our own needs and the needs of others.

Let’s use a theoretical example. Say you are a senior leader at your company, and someone on your team is coming to you expressing concerns about the stability of the tech industry. Imagine you reply to them, “Let me be vulnerable. I’m freaking out. I’ve never experienced a downturn, and I’m scared we’re all going to get laid off.” While those are valid feelings, saying it like that is oversharing. It’s not only unfair, it’s likely going to scare that person that came to talk to you. If you do genuinely feel that way, you should absolutely share it with someone. But in this case of being a leader, you probably don’t want to share that level of detail with people who are looking to you as a source of stability and guidance.

Instead, you can validate their concerns, tell them that you feel a similar way, but set the boundary of it’s not appropriate to overshare and dump your concerns on this person who came to you for help and support. But you can say, “I’ve never been through something like this, and I feel a similar way to you. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please come talk to me one-on-one, and we can go through this more together.”

Vulnerability is not about oversharing or dumping your feelings on someone. We need to think about why we’re sharing and with whom. Is the sharing going to move your work connection or relationship forward, or is it just going to make you feel better in the short term? Hopefully, by this point, I’ve convinced you, and you’re ready to go forth and practice vulnerability. As promised, I’ll share some strategies and tips to get you started. So I tried to come up with a nice acronym, but the best I have for you is ASDF.

Admit what you don’t know. If you pretend like you know everything, you’re closing the door to curiosity and continuous learning and signaling to your team that perfection is expected. Being vulnerable means we ask questions when we don’t know something, we ask for help when we need it, and we say no when something doesn’t fit with our time, energy, or values. And we don’t blame people when mistakes are made. An example of this is, say, your team uses an acronym all the time. You don’t know what it means, but you’ve used it in conversation several times. You can go on continuing not to know what it is. My acronym is ASDF. Yes. Using acronyms as my example for something is probably not the best, but thank you for asking.

The worst thing can happen is they just tell you what it is, or maybe they don’t actually know what the acronym stands for either, and then you all learn something together. Share. Share when you’re struggling. It’s okay to talk to your team about things you’re struggling with, whether it’s a specific project, a personal issue, or something else. It’s important to be honest about what you’re going through. And you can do this while respecting your boundaries and not disclosing every detail. You don’t need to go into the nitty-gritty details with everyone, but if you have a trusted team member, you can share more with them.

For example, if you have something going on in your personal life that’s making it really hard for you to focus, instead of suffering in silence and having it negatively impact your work, you can have the courage to be vulnerable and talk to your team and say something like, “Hey, I have something going on in my life, and I’m struggling with, and I wanted you to know. These are some ways that I can… that I need help from you, but I may also need to take some time off.” And then to your manager or whoever is a trusted colleague or a mentor, you can give more details if you’re comfortable. D. Develop an awareness of how vulnerability feels. So start by understanding yourself and your emotions and your reactions.

Self-awareness is the first step towards vulnerability because you can’t be open about your feelings if you don’t understand them yourselves. This one feels the most like a therapy exercise, but check in with yourself and allow yourself to really feel your feelings and what comes up when you’re being vulnerable. Finally, F. Find a friend to practice with. Being vulnerable is intimidating, and the best advice I can give to you is to practice with someone you already trust. This could be your manager, a mentor, or a trusted friend. Being the first to be vulnerable can feel like taking a leap of faith. But the more you practice, the more comfortable you will get with it.

Start with small disclosures to build a foundation of trust and gradually share more and more as your comfort increases. I’d like to leave you with another quote by Brené Brown. “Trust is earned, not through heroic deeds or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection.” Remember, vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but a measure of courage. It’s about showing up and being seen in all our authenticity.

By practicing vulnerability at work, you give others the permission to open up and be vulnerable to ultimately creating a psychologically safer space for our teams.

If we want to foster healthy debate for people to share their ideas, seek feedback, and ask for help, we need to lead by example and lead with vulnerability. Thank you. I think that I will stop sharing my screen now, or I’ll leave this up. And we have about five minutes left, I think. I could have some time to answer questions. And there is a question in the chat. Well, not in the chat, in the Q&A box. If you have any questions, you can please type them in there. What was the name? I think there’s one on screen that I maybe shared with everybody. What was the name of that TED talk person that I mentioned? It’s Brené Brown. I’ll share the specific TED talk in the chat, I think.

How do I do this? Okay. There’s a question from Cynthia in the Q&A, I think. Yeah. “I agree. Showing vulnerability is being authentic. Thank you for a great talk. Have you dealt with a coworker that saw you as weak and tried to take advantage of it when you’re showing vulnerability? How do you think one should handle it?” That’s a good question. I think I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people that haven’t done this. Although I think early on in my career before I had the title of staff developer, it was anytime I shared a concern, I was always a lot more anxious about it being perceived poorly. But I think the practice is you don’t have to be vulnerable with absolutely everyone.

You can work and build up slowly like you find a trusted mentor or a sponsor that you can work with and share these things and concerns and grow from there. And then if you have a coworker that sees you as weak and tells you that you suck and is putting you down, it’s kind of on them, and it’s their issue and trying not to take it personally. And I guess just giving them the feedback or giving their manager the feedback honestly, that they were not cool and basically said something inappropriate to you. And then, “Thanks for the great talk. Will you please share the full acronym again?” Yes. The acronym is ASDF. Admit, develop… or admit, share, develop, and find a friend. 

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Share this