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Cultivating Vulnerability-Based Trust

Regular readers will know that I'm a fan of management consultant and author Patrick Lencioni, and particularly his "Five Dysfunctions of a Team" model.

The first dysfunction of a team in Lencioni's model is the Absence of Trust. Notably, Lencioni refers specifically to what he calls "vulnerability-based trust", in which members of the team are open with one another – ready to disclose their thoughts and feelings, share ideas, admit their own shortfalls and mistakes, ask for help, give and receive honest feedback.

Team members are open with one another because they are confident that each member has the best interests of the team/business at heart. In Lencioni's words "Trust is confidence that teammates will not slip a knife in your back as soon as you turn it".

Over the course of my career, both within my corporate roles and also in my consulting work, I've repeatedly seen a lack of vulnerability-based trust play havoc in teams. Team members withholding information, competing amongst one another, not disclosing/denying or minimising mistakes and shortfalls, putting extra and unwarranted gloss on their achievements and those of their team, politics and gossip, poo-pooing the ideas of others and advocating for their own self-interests/convenience rather than the interests of the team. I could go on, and I suspect those of you who have been "around the traps" for a while could also add to the list.

The implications of such behaviour are readily-apparent – lost time and productivity, poor decision-making and problem solving, lack of cohesion and engagement and a workplace culture that is far from constructive.

So if we know and accept that developing vulnerability-based trust is important, how do you go about doing it?

If you think about it, building real trust between individuals begins to develop as they get to know one another. What are the other person's likes and dislikes, how do they generally go about doing things and how do they respond to particular situations, what's brought them to this point in their lives, what are they working towards etc…? As we begin to understand, we generally start to feel a bit more comfortable and establish a level of trust, which encourages us to share a bit more of ourselves, and so it goes on and trust is strengthened.

Of course coming to this level of understanding typically takes a bit of time. In a work setting, among teams, the process is the same and while it still takes time, there are a few things that can be done to try to accelerate the process. Consider these options:

  • Begin to share a bit more of yourself: If you're a leader of a team, begin by sharing a bit of easy/comfortable personal stuff of your own, then gradually, and without being too forceful or intrusive, begin to ask your team members what they did on the weekend, what they enjoy doing outside of work etc.. People will in most cases shortly become a bit more comfortable and begin to see that it's OK to share, which in turn helps to build vulnerability-based trust.
  • Personal histories exercise: We've facilitated this exercise with a few of our clients teams with great success. It's similar to the suggestion above but is a more formal approach that essentially involves setting the scene for the team (what we're going to do and why), then moving around the room and asking team members to share their responses to a series of questions – things such as where you grew up, how many siblings you have, your favourite childhood memory, your first job, your worse job (hopefully not the one they are in now!) etc… The leader should always be the "first cab off the rank" and set the example for others to follow. The results we've seen from this simple exercise, which often takes only an hour or so, can be incredibly powerful. Just by breaking down some of the barriers around usual "work" conversations, we can come to understand one another far more insightfully and quickly than would otherwise be the case. And from this base, vulnerability-based trust can begin to emerge.
  • Team effectiveness exercise: This exercise, also suggested by Lencioni, can accelerate the establishment of trust. Again, it involves setting the scene, then team members taking turns to tell each of their peers (a) what they most value in terms of that person's contribution to the team and (b) what they think that person needs to "work on" in order to become even more valuable to the team. Again, the team leader should welcome the opportunity and be the first person to be commented upon by the team members. Effectively setting the scene for this exercise is particularly important, and it's often best for it to be facilitated by a person external to the team.
  • Personal profiling tools: Personal development and preference-type profiles such as Everything DiSC© and the Human Synergistics Life Style Inventory (LSI) provide information on team members that, when genuinely shared with other team members, provide great insight that can accelerate the development of vulnerability-based trust.
  • Experiential team building exercises: While the choices are many, ranging from survival simulations through lego building to ropes courses and whitewater rafting and the like, the attribute they share is that they get team members interacting and working together in ways that are different to usual Appropriately conceived and well-delivered, they can also be a valuable means to having team members come to understand one another better and with that knowledge begin to develop a greater level of vulnerability-based trust.


So there you have it, a few tips and tools for building vulnerability-based trust within your team. Are you ready to embrace the challenge?

If you'd like to explore the opportunities for us to work with you on building more cohesive, effective teams, including programs relevant to Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team model, please get in touch or check out our Short N Sharp Training website.

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