Building trust by becoming vulnerable

Written by
Dr Brennan Jacoby

07 Aug 2017

07 Aug 2017 • by Dr Brennan Jacoby

The benefits of trust to leadership are enormous: when those you lead feel secure in your competence, good will and moral character, they experience less stress, feel able to take risks, and are more likely to tackle difficult conversations. Where trust is present in appropriate amounts, office politics give way so the projects and people you care about can benefit from your full and undivided attention.

All trust involves vulnerability, but as a leader, it is often unclear just how vulnerable you should allow yourself to be. For example, saying what you really think, among friends can build trust with those closest to you, but should such honesty be present in team meetings? Equally, having a heart-to-heart with a colleague may build trust, but how will it impact on your authority? What place ought vulnerability to have in your leadership practice?

The answer is that if you value trust, vulnerability must feature strongly in your leadership. But it must feature in a specific way. It’s not about wearing your heart on your sleeve, or how much personal information you divulge. It’s about your ability to create a safe space for yourself and others, in which you can be imperfect humans who sometimes make mistakes.

You can do that while retaining your professional stance as a highly competent leader whom others have good reason to follow. The difference is that when things don’t go to plan, instead of jumping to blame or shame, you work with those involved to find a constructive solution, resulting in growth for the individuals involved and the project at hand.

It can be challenging to respond to set-backs in such a positive, trust-building way, and it’s tempting to lash out with blame or retreat in silence. These are symptoms of a deeper, but very common, issue: at some level, the fact that others are merely human has been forgotten; or your personal identity has become too closely associated with professional success.

To make space for human vulnerability where you lead, and by extension, to enable trust to flourish, embrace the humanity of your team and take care to not let mistakes or apparent failures define you.

It can be helpful to return regularly to the following three questions: am I remembering the humanity of my team? Am I expecting excellence too early in the life cycle of the projects I lead? Am I allowing my team’s success to determine my identity or value?

Establishing and sustaining trust takes time and attention. There is no quick fix or easy answer, but leading your teams with humility and compassion will help ensure that you lay the foundations for trust.