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The surprising truth about vulnerability at work

A common statement made about trust is that you need vulnerability.  In order to learn to trust, team members must allow themselves to be vulnerable with one another.  That means confess to mistakes, talk about their fears, share authentic personal stories and ask for help.

In a workplace, organisations often encourage people to trust each other by sponsoring lunches and virtual meetings.  And while it seems reasonable to expect that the more people meet with each other, the more trust will blossom, it is not actually correct. We need to go deeper in our interactions with each other.

Dr Jeff Polzer, from Harvard Business School, undertook a study where complete strangers had to ask questions of one another. Group A participants were asked standard personal information sharing questions such as "What was the best gift you received and why?"  While Group B participants had questions that were uncomfortable to answer such as "Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?  Why haven’t you done it?"

Group B questions were awkward and generated confession. They also melted the ice between strangers.  But it did something else that was extremely powerful.  It created vulnerability - allowing Group B strangers to feel 24% closer versus those in Group A.  In fact, one Group B couple ended up getting married.  Group A participants asked questions that allowed them to stay in their comfort zone.  In other words, the standard types of questions we ask people at work functions.

But this is where it gets really interesting.

We often assume that being vulnerable is going to make us feel ashamed in some way.  That we are going to expose ourselves and people will see us for who we really are and make fun of us (just like that common dream we experience of walking down the street naked)!  So many of us avoid being vulnerable.

Yet, the benefits of being able to be vulnerable in a workplace are huge.  When leaders admit to having weaknesses and ask for help, it sets the behavioural tone for others.  Enabling team member to brush aside their insecurities, trust one another and get to work.  In fact, if there is no vulnerable moment, people will default to covering up their weaknesses resulting in dysfunctional interactions and work quality. 

But here's the catch. Dr Polzer's research found that vulnerability isn't about the sender.  It's all about the receiver.

And this is what we often get wrong.  A common complaint by employees is that their leaders need to be more vulnerable.  And yes - leaders do need to be humble and ask for help, in order to build trust.  But few people ever look at themselves and consider whether they are enabling those around them to be vulnerable.

If the second person pretends they don't have any flaws or ignores the sender's vulnerable comment, it creates distrust in the team impacting team dynamics (especially if the leader ignores the signal).  In fact, Polzer has become skilled at observing the moment of truth when the vulnerability signal travels through the group. He says, “You can actually see people relax and connect and start to trust.”

Polzer calls it a vulnerability loop that transfers trust to other people in the room, just like a virus:


How we react to other people disclosing personal information is critical.  Not just by leaders to their people, but vice versa.  If we aren't taught how to empower those around us to share insights and fears, we are contributing to reducing psychologically safety.  The outcome is that people will fear taking risks in the group and will shut down further contribution and commitment

It reminds me of an executive from a global company who told me how at the end of a leadership team meeting he disclosed he had cancer. The CEO said nothing.  The other executives also said nothing.  After less than a minute of uncomfortable silence, but what felt like an eternity, the CEO closed the meeting.  Ignoring one of his key executives who was not only fearful about his health but who was now more fearful about his perceived value in the team.  For many years, that executive (who survived cancer) still feels sick recalling the response.  And shame for disclosing a weakness.  He resigned earlier than he had planned as that episode continued to haunt him and question his ability to trust his CEO and peers. 

So the next time you hear someone quip about how trust and vulnerability are important ask them "How do you respond when a colleague bravely offers a vulnerable moment?"

Because that is KEY. 

If we believe that vulnerability is important, then we need to learn how to safely allow others to be vulnerable.  Vulnerability is so much more than just disclosing our own personal frailties (phew!).