Vulnerability and trust

The choices we make to build strong workplace relationships

Vidhi Kumar
Director - People Capability 28 Jun 2021

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Vulnerability and trust

The choices we make to build strong workplace relationships

Satya read my last blog post and in his usual style, pointed me in the direction of thinking deeper about a related topic. Rightly so, in fact. My last post on vulnerability asked tons of questions – those I don’t have answers to today and those which will only be answered as we grow as a society. But what Satya highlighted was the importance of understanding a subject we have answers to and is impacting us today - how vulnerability interlinks with trust at workplaces, and its various manifestations, especially in leader-follower relationships.

This got me onto an exciting research spree on this vast topic. Up until last year, I had only studied the works of the brilliant Brene Brown, when it came to vulnerability and courage. I had read Paul Zak and how the neuroscience of Trust impacts workplace productivity. However, to understand how the two subjects mingle, I dug deeper into the studies by Jeff Polzer, Daniel Coyle, Roger Mayer, and more.

A poignant research by Nienaber et al. in 2015 (Vulnerability and trust in Leader-Follower relationships) pointed out that “In the case of trust between leader and followers, both Mayer et al. (1995) and Rousseau et al. (1998) define trust as the follower’s willingness to be vulnerable based on positive expectations that his leader will not take advantage of this vulnerability.”

Let’s spare you the academic research for a moment (although if you’re a research bug like me, would love to share notes!!). I’ll, however, get to the point that intrigued me most, in all these studies - Vulnerability precedes Trust.

Polzer’s classic Vulnerability Loop is a simple yet profound structure to explain this. I send you a signal of vulnerability. You detect it and respond with your signal of vulnerability, thereby establishing a norm in this relationship - which in turn builds trust. Think about all the relationships where there is deep trust - the vulnerability loop makes so much sense, right?

But here’s where I’d throw a spanner - what happens when the other party - say, a leader - does not respond with vulnerability, or worse, takes advantage of your vulnerability? Would you still precede your trust with vulnerability? Would you take a leap of faith the next time you are faced with a similar situation?

I am sure, most of us have been faced with such a situation in the past at our workplace, and our reactions would have been different. Some of us coil up in defence while others brush off the dust and take our position at the start of the vulnerability loop again! Some days we have the courage to face this lack of trust and other days, we just run out of steam. Some people, we find easier to start all over with, while with others, an irreparable breach of trust builds.

All these responses are so natural and human, and none can be defined as right or wrong. However, if there’s one thing that I have learnt from all this research as well as my personal brushes with vulnerability, it is the importance of starting over with a fresh slate. The importance of keeping faith and not letting past breaches of trust impact our future relationships. One may think it may be easier for leaders than followers - but speak to the managers who have stood up for their teams, only to find them unwilling to reciprocate.

Leader-follower relationships, like any dyadic relationship, are complex and multi-layered. A trusting one takes time and concerted effort to build and nurture, but once established, it becomes valuable beyond measure. You just have to keep looking for the right one to invest in – and that requires you to keep picking yourself up and having the courage to ‘precede with vulnerability’.

No one can summarise this better than my favourite Brene Brown, so I’ll leave it to her:

I want to be in the arena.

I want to be brave with my life.

And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked.

We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.