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When to be vulnerable in the workplace—and what you can gain from it, says best-selling author Susan Cain

Work might feel like the last place you'd go to open up about your feelings. But best-selling author Susan Cain says being vulnerable in the workplace — when done at the right time — can actually be beneficial.  

Part of Cain's new book, "Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole," discusses how the workplace often discourages managers and employees alike from sharing difficult feelings and experiences. This ends up being harmful, she says: People often experience burnout because they are constantly hiding their true emotions, such as trying to appear emphatically cheerful when they're actually sad or in distress.

But managers and other leaders at work can help create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing difficult emotions, which could boost everyone's well-being and productivity in the workplace, Cain tells CNBC Make It.

"Anytime a leader goes first it's a way of making it acceptable for others to follow up, and there are both soft and hard benefits to that," she says.

Timing can be key, though, according to Cain.

Leaders have to "read the room" and share those emotions when the workplace is more relaxed and open, as opposed to during busier work periods. For example, don't share something you're struggling with in the middle of a morning meeting, or a few hours before your team's high-stakes project is due. Instead, share during lunch, a break or maybe later in the afternoon once the hectic part of the workday has died down. 

"Look for moments where there's openness in the ebb and flow of any given workday," Cain says.

She points to an example: A Google study found top performing teams at the company had the greatest "psychological safety," meaning that team members felt safe to be vulnerable in front of each other without any fears of being embarrassed or ridiculed. 

One Google manager in particular gathered his team for an off-site discussion and asked everyone to share something personal. The manager first shared how he was struggling with stage 4 cancer, which encouraged others to open up and disclose their own private stories, Cain says. The team realized it was easier to speak honestly with each other and they eventually applied that to their work, which helped them get along better and perform their work duties more effectively.

However, Cain notes that sharing emotions doesn't have to be limited to things out of your control, such as bereavement or, in the case of the Google manager, illness. At the appropriate times, you could talk about divorces, financial troubles or interpersonal conflicts, among other topics.

"I would say that sharing those struggles is probably the next frontier," she says. 

The bottom line is that leaders have the ability to create an environment where sharing difficult emotions is acceptable — especially if they're willing to take the lead.

"Going first is always the best invitation," Cain says. "This is not to say that leaders should feel pressured to share bold things that might feel private to them. But just opening up in ways that are comfortable is a way of inviting the other person to do the same."

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