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Don't Be A Fonzie: The Power of Vulnerability

February 21, 2017


“You are not a failure until you start blaming others for your mistakes.” - John Wooden


Many of us will remember the classic episode: the “Fonz”—the tough, cool leather-jacket clad character from the TV show Happy Days—confronting his near-physical inability to acknowledge his errors. “I was wrrrrr . . .” he would start. After a few tries he’d get to, “I was wrrrooo . . .” Suffice it to say, wrong didn’t quite roll off his tongue. 



Brené Brown is a leading researcher, who has studied vulnerability and how it, as well as the absence of it, affects us personally and professionally. Her studies show that people with feelings of self-worth tend to establish more meaningful and enduring relationships, and an attribute common among these individuals is the ability to embrace vulnerability.[2] She describes vulnerability as “shame and fear, but also as the birthplace of joy and belonging.”[3] She paints a picture of a world without vulnerability as a place where we:

  • Make the uncertain certain (think of the “I’m right, you’re wrong” certainties in politics today)

  • Try to be perfect — (ourselves and our children)

  • Pretend—that what we do has no impact on others [4]

She continues by illustrating a picture of a society where vulnerability is ever present. Where we:

  • Let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen

  • Love with our whole hearts

  • Practice gratitude and joy [5]

One can see the sincerity and authenticity of the person and society embracing vulnerability. It tells the other person: I’ll admit my mistakes, and say I’m sorry when I am wrong; I will work to confront and fix problems, not hide them, or hide from them; and I will express thanks to you for doing the same.


It’s not weakness to acknowledge a mistake or failure in our personal or professional lives. In fact, it reveals the opposite traits of strength and confidence. We live in a tough and challenging world and lead complex lives. We are not without flaws and should not expect to be. If others can accept that of us, why can’t we?


The interviewee who humblebrags their way through the question, “Can you give me a few examples of your failing in a prior role” with gems like, “I cared too much” or “I had a hard time saying no,” neglects to “let themselves be seen, deeply seen.” Perceptions of insecurity and inauthenticity set in, while reliability and trust are forced out. Like the lawyer or politician who acknowledges no weak points in their position or an individual who accepts no role in a failed relationship, invulnerability clouds believability, and waning believability breeds mistrust.


Here are examples of vulnerability in action, examples that build trust and strengthen relationships with co-workers, your employees, customers and even opponents in competitive situations:


  • You let your guard down. People want to deal with the authentic you, not a false replica. Hollywood stars routinely appear on the late-night circuit to promote a new movie. In most cases, they come across as they do on the big screen, a mere continuation of the characters they play. Ease up, relax, and don’t aspire to always be perfect.

  • You can laugh at yourself. This is the flip side of taking yourself too seriously. You can also inject humor, at appropriate times. It lightens tensions at work and welcomes others to do the same.

  • You aren’t Fonzie. Whether it’s saying “I was wrong” or “You were right,” say it. Even in high-stress deal settings, I’ve learned from some of the most seasoned negotiators that a well-timed “Wow, your argument was way better than mine” or “I hate when you are so logical” does more to instill energy in the room than perhaps anything else. You are not going to ingratiate yourself with others by being the unrelenting political talking head that won’t give an inch. No one likes the person who is “always right,” especially when they’re not.

  • You let integrity be your guide. This may seem like a no-brainer. Of course, we should have integrity. But I am approaching it not just from your own vantage point, but the vantage point of your audience. We’d like to think that the vast majority of us act with personal values that are mostly virtuous. Some reinforce it by talking about it; others just let their actions speak for themselves. The notable point is that you are being observed, and yes, judged by others. How you speak, including to subordinates, how you maintain confidences, how you handle pressure, and how you approach your work all leave a trail of behaviors that shape opinions about you.

The power of vulnerability is also cited by researchers as a foundational element of persuasive and effective communications. One expert, who published a list of the four best habits of great speakers, called them out as:

“Honesty (be clear and straight)

“Authenticity (be yourself)

“Integrity (be your word)

“Love (wishing people well).”



So, open up and let others see the real you. You will be a more effective and credible employee. Your co-workers, friends and family will thank you for it and think better of you. Importantly, you will think better of yourself.


Please share or comment on this article if it hit home with you.


[Nick Psyhogeos is Founder and CEO of Global Negotiations, LLC and author of Confessions of a Global Negotiator: A Quick Guide to the 5 Rules Business Development Professionals Need to Close Great Deals to be published by Authority Publishing on or before February 28, 2017].






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