Posted in Blog | Leadership

The Best Leaders Build Trust Through Vulnerability

In the business world, being “vulnerable” is often viewed as a negative attribute. It’s viewed as soft, naïve, and generally undesirable. But the ability to show vulnerability is arguably the most important characteristic for the modern leader looking to earn the trust and respect of their teams.

Brené Brown—a researcher, podcaster, public speaker and New York Times bestselling author several times over—wrote her 2018 book, Dare to Lead, with this exact topic in mind. After over 20 years of comprehensive interviews and research, she and her teams found an undeniable truth: in all facets of life, the concepts of bravery and vulnerability are deeply intertwined.

No, Being Vulnerable Isn’t Easy

Think about a time in your career when you needed to bring up a personal work issue with your boss or supervisor. You might’ve thought endlessly about what you wanted to say, how they might react, and whether you should say anything at all. In many organizations, employees opt to say nothing, which continues the vicious cycle of toxic work culture.

In most organizations, employees find it difficult to be open and vulnerable with their boss or supervisor, and it isn’t because of a shortcoming on the employee’s part. For so long, American culture has dictated a harsh attitude toward vulnerability, viewing it as weakness instead of the strength it truly is.

For leaders to win, they’ve been taught to suppress their feelings, force false positivity and shut down tough feedback. But just over 80% of the leaders Brené interviewed “could immediately and passionately talk about problematic behaviors and cultural norms that corrode trust and courage,” and many of them stem from those exact behaviors. It takes intention, effort and strength to overcome these barriers to greatness.

Building Trust Requires Vulnerability

In order to develop trust with our teams, we must put the “greater good” first, not our feelings. We need leaders who are brave enough to say, “I understand that you don’t like my actions. I’m ready to hear what you have to say,” and actually listen to the answer.

Facing difficult conversations with our teams is, understandably, difficult. But building trust with teams starts with a leap of faith, followed by consistent trust-building efforts over time. In her book, Brené uses a jar of marbles to explain the trust-building process:

“Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out. We look for the people who, over time, put marbles in…until you look up one day and they’re holding a full jar. […] Those are the folks you trust with information that’s important to you.”

– Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

In nearly every interaction we have with the people around us, we have the opportunity to add or subtract marbles from our metaphorical jars. Over time, the number of marbles we’ve collected can greatly influence what our teams think of us and how much they trust us as leaders.

Trust Starts Small

The task may seem daunting, but we aren’t expected to dive head-first into the most difficult conversations. The most important thing is to be consistent. While it’s our job as leaders to take the first step toward building trust with our teams, there’s nothing wrong with that step being small.

It starts with tiny details, like remembering the name of someone’s pet, their distaste for tuna salad, or that they host game night with their friends on Wednesdays. Simple actions like offering to share your umbrella during a rainy walk into work, actively listening when they speak, and giving them the room and grace to make mistakes can all add up.

On the surface, these may seem so small they’d hardly make a difference. Surprisingly, these seemingly small actions, when put together, can lead to significant impact. And, over time, increased trust.

Honesty Builds Trust, Trust Builds Good Leaders

When we build trust with our teams and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them, over time (and if we do it right!) they’ll open themselves up to be the same with us. With the doors of vulnerability open on both sides, we can truly dig into the deeper, harder conversations with our team members. And by addressing the deeper issues within our organizations, we can all grow as better professionals and leaders together.

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