To Create Trust, Lead with Vulnerability

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Ours is an era of increasing competition, and only the strong survive. We’ve always got to be smarter, tougher, more nimble, quicker on our feet, and more ruthless than the next guy if we’re going to “get ahead” – and woe to us if we’re off our game, even for a moment.

Or so we’re led to believe. Business magazines, self-help career books, self-styled “thought leaders” and others tell us to be simultaneously hyper aggressive and hyper defensive, ready to press hard to get what we want and to push back hard when pushed. The mindset has gone on to permeate popular culture, becoming the ethos of Survivor, The Apprentice, and even competitive cooking shows. It becomes difficult not to be swept up in the eat-or-be-eaten mindset, but the fact is that this line of thinking stands to do our careers and our lives a tremendous amount of damage.

Think about it: At its core, a company is necessarily a team. That team is typically made up of countless other teams – groupings of people who must necessarily work cooperatively together in order to achieve their business goals. How well can any team function when its members are perpetually competing with one another rather than an opposing team?

Almost all of us have been in the position of entering a new job or business relationship, meeting new bosses or colleagues, and having the sense of being “sized up” as a potential rival or threat. In these circumstances, it becomes quickly obvious that it will be very hard to be productive, let alone exceptional in our appointed roles. We’ve got to “break the ice,” establish trust and rapport – because if we don’t, chances are good that we’ll quickly be shown to the door.

So how do we establish that trust? By leading with vulnerability – and by countering all of the defensive programming that conventional wisdom has instilled in us. We begin by acknowledging that we are firstly members of a team, and that it’s part of our job to be effective in that role. We are individually responsible for creating trust in order to make our teams effective.

As Patrick Lencioni notes, we are called upon to establish a confidence level where:

  1. Team members know that their peers’ intentions are good.
  2. There is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.
  3. Team members must be comfortable being vulnerable with each other. (The five dysfunctions of a team, Patrick Lencioni)

 What is leading with vulnerability? Actually, it’s simply a matter of being completely honest about yourself to your peers or staff. All of us know that we can’t be good at everything – but few of us are willing to outwardly admit it. It takes courage to say…

  1. I’m not good at this…
  2. You’re better at this than I am…
  3. I made a mistake…
  4. I was wrong…
  5. I need your help…
  6. I can’t do this on my own and I need your help and the help of your team…
  7. I’m not sure…

Sure, it takes courage to say such things, but we all know that for all of us, they are all true in some areas. There’s nothing at all exceptional about making mistakes or needing help – but it is very exceptional to admit it. And some very interesting things happen when:

  • You display uncommon courage – a quality that other team members will be inclined to respect.
  • You demonstrate personal strength – you’ll acknowledge an area of possible weakness without fear of repercussions.
  • You project confidence – a universally-attractive quality that draws others to like, emulate, and respect you.
  • You create opportunity for others to mirror your actions, express their own vulnerability, and establish rapport.

This is an example of an instance where it is truly possible to “turn your weakness into strength” – strength for yourself, for your team, and your entire organization. Paradoxically, your “weakness” can be the foundation for your power play – taking control of a situation, guiding a team’s direction, and leading towards a positive shared outcome.

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