Being Vulnerable and Getting to Know Others Builds Trust

This is an excerpt from Chapter 4: Explaining 21st Century Leadership Principles and Beliefs in Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership: A Guide for Inspiring Creativity, Innovation, and Engagement. For this format, some minor editing was necessary.

In Leaders Eat Last (page 154), Simon Sinek explains that building trust only requires being truthful. This includes:

  • Acknowledging mistakes rather than ignoring or downplaying them.
  • Crediting others for their contributions rather than taking credit unfairly.
  • Admitting when things are going wrong such as knowing that a project is behind schedule and letting others know as well as explaining why.

Being truthful also involves personal disclosures. In The Leadership Challenge,Kouzes and Posner write about how building trust involves sharing about yourself.

To become fully trusted, you must be open to and with others. This means disclosing things about yourself in order to build the basis for a relationship. This means telling others the same things you’d like to know about them—talking about your hopes and dreams, your family and friends, your interests and your pursuits. (290-91)
– Kouzes and Posner

Doing so requires you to take the risk that others won’t use the information to somehow harm you. Someone has to begin risking himself or herself, and Kouzes and Posner state that those practicing leadership need to open up, “show vulnerability, and let go of control. Leaders go first. (222)” Once you start showing vulnerability, trusting begins, and it continues to build. However, Kouzes and Posner caution that, while groups can build trust contagiously, they can likewise build distrust contagiously. (222)

Without Trust, It Is Difficult to Maintain Relationships

Kouzes and Posner (290) as well as James Hunter (The Servant, 45) write that you cannot maintain positive relationships without trust. When you don’t trust, those you work with distrust. When they distrust, they work together ineffectively, act more in their self-interest, and may even work against others—even causing harm. As Sinek writes, “The more abstract people become, the more capable we are of doing them harm.” (101)

Getting to Know Others Builds Trust

Sinek links getting to know others with building bonds of trust. “The more familiar we are with each other, the stronger our bonds.” (36) This familiarity isn’t limited to personal information, as Kouzes and Posner (227-28) note: When you share professional and personal information with teammates and colleagues, you communicate implicitly that you trust others. Professional information examples include:

  • Information about company changes (business acumen)
  • Learned techniques and resources that can help others with their work
  • Stories of how you benefited and learned that others could also benefit by hearing

Building Trust through Your Stories

Storytelling can be powerful for letting others get to know you and contribute to building trust. At one company, a new executive took over the department. On his first day, the executive held an impromptu meeting that afternoon with all direct and indirect employees. In the meeting, he shared a personal story and explained how the experience shaped who he was and how he approached work. Afterward, a few talked about the meeting and quickly expressed their appreciation toward the new executive simply because he shared his story.

Published by

Gary A. DePaul, PhD, CPT

"I help organizations become more effective at leadership development." Gary A. DePaul is an expert on how leadership is radically changing. He has two decades of experience as a practitioner and scholar of leadership, has worked as a manager in fortune 500 companies, and consults with organizations to improve leadership practices. He completed his Ph.D. and Ed.M. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and a bachelor's degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). ISPI has designated him as a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT).