The Secret to Building Trust in a Team: Leadership Vulnerability

What’s the secret to building a trusting team dynamic? From the many actions leaders take to build trust, there is one that research finds to be a game-changer: vulnerability. Leaders who are willing to share their small weaknesses are better able to connect with their teams and build stronger relationships. Want to learn the benefits of being more transparent about your struggles–and how to use this communication practice effectively? Read on. 

Why leaders should consider being more vulnerable

Many leadership experts will tell you that leadership vulnerability builds trust. Brené Brown put vulnerability on the map with her writings about shame and courage. For years, author Patrick Lencioni has been telling stories about leadership failures due to a leader’s unwillingness to demonstrate any chinks in the armor. 

Harvard professor Jeff Polzer has studied a very specific type of communication structure called the “vulnerability loop” – which has to do with the way people on a team share information about themselves.  His research shows that paradoxically, when people are more vulnerable with one another, they increase trust and a willingness to cooperate.

And perhaps most interesting? There is a neurochemical  element: when people work in high-trust environments, leaders who ask for help stimulate the production of the “feel good” hormone in others, causing them to want to help. In other words, leaders who ask for help increase trust and cooperation. And, studies show that leaders who admit small flaw are seen as more authentic. 

So, the “secret” is hiding in plain sight, but it’s still a tough sell for many leaders.

Why don’t leaders show vulnerability?

If demonstrating vulnerability is such a great trust-building skill, why don’t more leaders do it? Historically, Western societies have placed a huge leadership premium on individualism, and risk-taking. Vulnerability has no place in those leadership archetypes. But times are changing. As this post from Harvard Business Review points out, younger generations are more comfortable sharing their frailties; as these younger workers increasingly step into leadership roles, there will be less judgment about leaders who discuss their concerns. Even world leaders have admitted to their vulnerabilities– and how those potential “weaknesses” could be turned to an advantage in their leadership style

[Related: Want to show vulnerability at work? Here are 5 phrases to try.]

The science of vulnerability and building trust

So let’s say you are willing to show more vulnerability with your team members as a way to build trust and create a deeper connection to your team. Where do you start? The science on this is fascinating. Turns out most of us get it wrong. It would be reasonable to think, “I’ll create trust with the team, then they’ll feel more psychological safety. From there, we can be more vulnerable with one another.” 

Makes sense, right? Except that the research shows it’s actually the opposite. Leaders need to take a leap of faith and show vulnerability first, before others are willing to follow. In this interview with Wharton professor Adam Grant, author Daniel Coyle talks about the vulnerability loop being complex, saying: “Someone has to signal vulnerability, the other person has to receive that signal, and then they have to send their own [signal of] vulnerability back.” 

Coyle follows up with this important nugget: the leader needs to go first. Nobody’s going to stick their neck out and show any sort of perceived weakness in front of their peers or manager. However, if a leader goes first, that is the “signal” that Coyle mentioned that sets in motion a process that conveys, “hey, it’s ok to talk about difficult stuff.”

How to get started building trust with your team 

You may be thinking, “how much sharing is too much?” Fair question. It is possible to overdo it. Here’s something to ease your mind: you don’t have to bare your soul. (And, in fact, you shouldn’t.) Think of it this way – you don’t need to share anything private but you could share something “personal”– in other words, a humanizing element. So, to be vulnerable, you wouldn’t need to share your private thoughts (Wow, I really bombed that presentation. I looked like an idiot) but you might say, “That presentation wasn’t my best work. I would really value some constructive feedback.”

Here are some additional “I’m going to go first” words and actions to try:

  • Yesterday’s meeting was rough. Frankly, I wasn’t prepared for the backlash. Does anybody want to talk through it with me?
  • I need a minute to process what we just learned. Let’s take a breather and reconvene in 10 minutes.
  • I reacted poorly to your feedback. Will you give me a do-over?
  • This news is concerning. It brings up more questions than I have answers for. I’ll research it and get back to you.
  • I chose my words carelessly and hurt others by doing so. I’m really sorry.

As you can see from the statements above, none of the suggestions are overly dramatic. But they do indicate a certain sense of humanity—and humility—in the speaker. One that conveys, “Hey, I’m human. I got caught flat-footed,” or “I’m uncertain how to proceed.” This is really all your team needs to see—that you, too, as their leader make the occasional poor judgment call. It opens the door for them to share their concerns and be more willing to ‘fess up if they screw up. 

Showing vulnerability isn’t necessarily synonymous with saying you are “weak.” Rather, it’s showing that you’re human–and make mistakes. When leaders admit they are fallible, it encourages team members to feel more comfortable sharing their own concerns and admitting their own errors. But, in order for the “vulnerability loop” to get started, leaders need to go first. Use these tips to help you make use of the not-so-secret human relations skill that is sure to help you build strong connections with your team. 


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The post The Secret to Building Trust in a Team: Leadership Vulnerability appeared first on People Equation.

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