5 ways to embrace vulnerability in the workplace from Zapier’s Alex Danvers
Alex Danvers seeks out avenues to help people, in all areas of their life. “I’ve been known to direct strangers when they’re looking for things in grocery stores,” they say with a laugh.
It’s this same trait that guides Alex’s behavior in the workplace, where they advocate for their peers and strive to build a welcoming environment. “I know that people do their best work when they feel safe and supported, me included,” they say.
Whether they’re pointing to the pasta aisle or helping a teammate through a tough time, Alex also recognizes that one attribute can increase the power of support tenfold: vulnerability.
That being said, they say, “It hasn’t always been an easy journey,” when reflecting on their ability to lead with vulnerability. “I’ve made missteps, I’ve fought through my own fear, and I’ve had to draw from wells of emotional energy to advocate for myself and others. At the end of the day, it has always been worth it.”
We sat down with Alex to hear what changed on their journey to leveraging vulnerability as a tool and the impact it’s had on their work as senior community manager at Zapier.
Leaning into vulnerability
“I used to be really closed off, both in my personal life and at work,” Alex starts. They explain how they had a hard time opening up, offering a simple “fine” whenever someone would ask how they were doing — even if it was far from the truth.
“Therapy taught me to trust other people with my feelings. I was afraid that people would react badly if I was honest about my feelings, but I learned that my fears were unfounded. It didn’t happen overnight, but with each small act of trust I took, I gained more confidence,” Alex shares.
The shift in Alex’s personal life didn’t immediately transfer to their professional life. Wanting to make a good impression, they would constantly agree to take on tasks, without asking questions. Alex compares their experience to the 90s classic “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.”
“The basic premise of the film is that a 17-year-old bluffs her way into a high fashion job and her boss tells her to always reply to any question with ‘I’m right on top of that Joan.’ That became my motto,” they share. “Predictably, I burned out fast.”
Realizing that inauthenticity was counterproductive, Alex started to lean into honesty, ask questions, and set boundaries. The more they opened up at home and at work, the more they discovered that others were going through similar challenges.
“Everyone carries a weight and it can feel very lonely, thinking that we’re the only one” shares Alex. “Being open about things like mental health challenges creates connection and support. I realized that being vulnerable doesn’t just help me, it helps those around me who feel the same way.”
Alex was immediately drawn to Zapier when looking to make a career change.
“I liked that Zapier’s core values are actionable; they’re shared publicly and include examples of how that value is demonstrated,” they share. Zapier doesn’t see values as buzzwords; they’re integral to how the company operates.
Right off the bat, Alex noticed one of these values in action — Default to Transparency — which encourages team members to have discussions in the open and document their work.
“Another example of this value in action is saying, ‘I'm clear about what people should expect from me, even if that reality disappoints.’ This sets the tone of a culture that encourages people to be vulnerable and open,” they share.
Now on year five (and counting) at Zapier, Alex has witnessed a whole host of ways that a company culture that encourages vulnerability can have a positive ripple effect on both the company and team members:
1. Combating imposter syndrome
“Working at Zapier can be pretty intimidating sometimes,” Alex says with a laugh. “Zapier hires brilliant people, and when you see so many intelligent, passionate, creative people sharing their ideas, imposter syndrome can really start to creep in.”
They recall how during their first in-person retreat, they heard someone say, “Whenever I come to retreats, I always feel like the dumbest person in the room.” Alex recognized that many people often struggle with imposter syndrome, and the more we open up about it, the more we can normalize the feeling. “I make sure to talk about this myself, especially if there are new hires in the room. Knowing that everyone feels like an imposter sometimes helps you to recognize your own skills, your own brilliance,” confirms Alex.
2. Increasing productivity and retention
Alex mentions how creating a culture of vulnerability allows others to open up without fear. In fostering this authenticity, employee productivity and worker retention both benefit. (They point us to The London School of Economics for a deep dive into the data.)
“I do my best to be vulnerable when I’m struggling with something, like sharing that I’m having a rough mental health day in our team channel,” they say. “I also do my best to show up as myself every day. I talk about my queerness, my nerdy interests, and when a migraine has me on the ropes.”
3. Creating safe spaces for marginalized groups
Employee Resource Groups are another integral piece of Zapier’s culture. “They provide safe spaces for members to celebrate, advocate, and share themselves,” says Alex. “ERG leaders are involved with discussions across the company that affect its members. This helps to effect change at all levels, and these changes build an environment that is safer and more inclusive for marginalized groups.”
4. Seeking out support
Fear of how others perceive us can hold us back from seeking help. Alex remembers their colleague sharing that during her first week at Zapier. “She labored for hours trying to access an app we use and made zero progress. She was too embarrassed to admit that she didn’t know what to do and so didn’t ask. She told me she wished she had just asked the question because if she’d been vulnerable and admitted that she needed help, she would’ve saved herself a lot of time,” says Alex.
When others are struggling, whether it be personal or professional, Alex encourages them to be honest and ask for support. “Honest conversations help people find what they need. It’s obviously good for the employee, and getting someone back on their feet quicker ultimately benefits the employer too,” they say.
5. Catalyzing company-wide change
As a transgender individual, Alex explains how opening up about their uncomfortable travel experiences to Zapier’s leadership team resulted in a new employee benefit.
“When you approach the TSA body scanner at the airport, the TSA agent will press a blue or pink button, depending on what they think your gender is. Transgender bodies often don’t match this perception and cause ‘anomalies’ which cause them to be pulled aside for an additional body search. Having been through this experience myself many times, I can tell you that it’s both scary and humiliating,” shares Alex.
When they described this issue, leadership reacted by providing all employees with a stipend toward TSA pre-check status.
“Individual transparency provides a landscape that feels safer to express your own needs. Transparency at a company level explicitly tells you Zapier’s commitments to diversity and inclusion efforts, which creates a culture where it feels safer to show up authentically,” Alex shares, bringing home how a transparent culture benefits both the individual and the organization.
5 ways to embrace vulnerability in the workplace
If you’re struggling to lean into vulnerability in the workplace, Alex offers these five tips:
- Start small and work your way up. Small acts of vulnerability allow you to build confidence and trust. “Start by sharing something about yourself that doesn’t feel as scary and see how your colleagues react.”
- Find spaces that feel safe. “Putting your hand up at an all-company meeting to share something very personal is difficult and not always a safe choice. Find people and places where you feel safe sharing your full self, whether that’s sharing something with your team via DM or hopping on a Zoom call with a trusted friend or coach.”
- Ask for help from the people who are there to support you. Alex is the first to admit that it’s not always easy to know how to say what you need or who to say it to, so they encourage others to reach out to a trusted leader, mentor, or coach to ask for help. “They can guide you to relevant resources or help you frame your communication.”
- You don’t have to share everything, all of the time. “It’s ok if there are things you don’t want to share. It’s not always safe to be completely vulnerable.”
- Think about what you have to gain. “It’s easy to frame decisions in terms of what we may lose if things go wrong, but I encourage you to think about what you could gain from being more vulnerable.”
Alex wraps up by sharing, “Masking and holding back your emotions takes a psychological and physical toll. Imagine how it might feel to be able to let that go. Think of the support you may receive if you’re honest about what you need.”Bring your vulnerability to Zapier — they’re hiring! Check out their openings here.