Building Trust Through Embracing Vulnerability

perspectives May 01, 2017

Read part one here: “Vulnerability and the deep dark cave called personal development“

The importance of building trust through creating psychological safety and social sensitivity in groups has been demonstrated by Margaret Heffernan in her excellent Ted talk “Forget the Pecking order at work”. There is also compelling evidence that building trust has a significant positive impact on financial results. However, there is very little understanding of HOW to go about building trust across groups and organisations.


Command and control cultures often attempt to create trust through heroic and certain authority. While this encourages trust in the chain of command, it does little to trust and empower people across the organisation, which is so necessary in an increasingly complex world.

Businesses have attempted to address this through trendy slogans like “safe-to-fail or “fail-fast” or agile methodologies. For these methods to be successful requires a culture that embraces small failures as great learning opportunities. This requires support for imperfection and taking appropriate risk. These mantras are often encouraged but rarely practised. We believe, and this is strongly supported by research, that the desire to appear perfect, complete and in control lies behind the reluctance to take risks and expose our lack of knowing.

The key, therefore, to unlock the latent potential bound up tightly inside many organisations, is vulnerability. In our work in creating high performing leadership teams and in evolving cultures, vulnerability is a key lever we work with to accelerate change. However, the creation of such a culture usually requires someone to “go first” in exposing that they are a less than perfect robot or machine.

This requires courage. And when this occurs, our experience is that it can build trust across a team and an organisation very rapidly. Here are 5 ways you can build a culture of trust through vulnerability:

  1. Expose your own limitations in knowledge and encourage others to do the same. Have the courage to say “I don’t know.” Not having all the answers frees us up to look for other alternatives. When others come to you and “don’t know” support them in exploring possibilities rather than criticising them. In less adaptive or open organisations, preface this by sharing your intention in doing so. For example “we are talking a lot about creating a safe-to-fail environment, to support this I am choosing to experiment with letting go of needing to have all the answers” or “I am trusting you all in being real here, rather than managing perceptions”.
  2. Build your network as a human being. Deliberately spend time with people you don’t immediately resonate with, have conflict with or assume are different to you. Have conversations with a “get to know you” rather than a “business” agenda. When you meet with people, take the risk to “go first” in exposing your humanity and vulnerability. Speak truthfully and reveal your positive intent.
  3. Demonstrate compassion and assume positive intent in others. When you notice you are making a judgment about someone, ask them questions to understand the intent behind their behaviours or words. Demonstrate compassion in any way possible, including through challenging conversations where you “call out” challenges or provide feedback.
  4. Be the safety harness for your team and colleagues. When someone takes an appropriate risk, there will be times that the outcome won’t be perfect. Be there to acknowledge and support them so that they know that someone has their back.
  5. Share how you feel, not just what you think. Many conversations in business stay in the rational realm, without revealing the thoughts and feelings behind our actions or decisions. Take the risk to open up the emotional and cultural space by truthfully sharing the emotional or cultural reasons behind your actions.

An adaptive culture is one of ongoing and continuous growth, not just of the organisation but also of each individual. This requires a safe, trusting environment which can’t happen without vulnerability.


The more we are able to step over the invisible bridge, sharing with the world that we are a less than perfect member of the species and letting go of what we have been comfortable with, the more others will feel safe to do the same. This is likely to feel awkward, vulnerable and even exhausting at first and then increasingly energising and liberating.

Over time, the cost to ourselves and others in keeping up appearances and managing perceptions is a far greater risk.

Not knowing, not being in complete control, taking a risk, trusting others, exposing our own limitations in knowledge; all are very vulnerable experiences, which we would argue, are essential in any kind of personal or organisational change.

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