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How to build trust and openness through vulnerability

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

These times call for courage as there is a lot of uncertainty and risks around us. Some of these are the uncertainty of losing one’s job, income, our loved ones, relationships, health, our efficiency and familiar routines, to name but a few. Being vulnerable may feel subversive, uncomfortable and even a little dangerous, and we may rather hide in our shells, opt for disconnection and pretend that we can avoid vulnerability. 

These uncertain times also ask a lot from our leadership: how to cultivate openness and honesty and create more trust so that we can come out of this as a stronger team? In brief, honesty is known to increase trust, trust to increase openness, and openness to increase the appreciation of differences. When was the last time you had a real and open conversation with your people? 

Vulnerability, what is it? 

In her book, Daring Greatly Brené Brown (2012:34) defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. She says that vulnerability is also “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity”. In other words, vulnerability isn’t only dark emotions, such as fear, shame, grief, sadness and disappointment, but it is also a cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave, such as love, joy and authenticity. 

Vulnerability is the feeling when you walk into a room full of high-profile investors, or your teammates, and you pitch your idea of saving the world or the company. When your business idea fails and you let your clients and investors know that you will be closing your doors for good. When you ask help from your neighbor to look after your kids while you run your errands and sleep. When you show your art. Or when you voice your opinion whether it is popular or not. You allow yourself to be seen despite the risk. 

Have you ever admired people who are vulnerable, but then concluded that it’s not who you are? That has happened to me and just recently in a Zoom meeting where I couldn't get a word out of my mouth. As Brené Brown puts it: “ foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living”. When I realized this, I wished I had been more than a bystander.

It may be helpful to define what vulnerability is not: It’s not the act of throwing yourself under the buss thinking somebody’s got to save you. Brené Brown points out that vulnerability isn’t oversharing, purging or indiscriminate disclosure. A helpful tip for me has also been that vulnerability isn’t desperation, woundedness or attention-seeking. Vulnerability is about mutual respect, increased connection, trust and engagement. That’s why often when someone shares authentically from their heart we feel an increased amount of compassion.

How can we all benefit from vulnerability? 

If there’s one skill you want to cultivate during these times it might as well be vulnerability. The benefits of vulnerability include, among other things:

  • more intimate relationships (we want to feel more connected),

  • Increased self-worth (people who live wholeheartedly report being vulnerable), 

  • increased innovation and motivation (because of increased openness and trust), 

  • more compassion and appreciation of differences, 

  • increased call for accountability, and

  • less loneliness.

It may feel counterintuitive but being vulnerable actually protects us from harm. This is the opposite of what we have been conditioned to believe, right? It is not a weakness. It may feel scary first, yet it is so simple and rewarding when we do it regularly and it becomes an item in our comfort zones.

An exercise to reflect on and practice vulnerability These are some powerful questions to reflect upon to find out how you relate to vulnerability (replace work with family and friends if you feel so): 

  • Can I be truly myself with my team and within the company I work in?

  • Do I appreciate myself for my courage and boldness to speak up uncomfortable topics? 

  • Am I completely open with myself and my colleagues without any filters? 

  • Whenever I do a mistake can I speak openly about those and learn from them?

  • Am I comfortable being vulnerable with my team members about my mistakes and fears? 

To practice openness and honesty this week I encourage you to choose an opportunity where you could do so. This could be sharing a mistake in your next team meeting or inviting everyone to a virtual circle of sharing and setting an example for others, etc. Make yourself vulnerable in the eyes of others. Take action and reflect on what you learned. For example, how willing are you to take emotional risks? 

Start with those people you feel you can trust. And as a leader, you can cultivate that trust within your team by little acts, such as taking the time to ask “How are you, really?” and remembering some small details of what people have shared with you.

May this be an opportunity to deepen our relationships and to feel closer to one another despite the physical distance. 

If you haven’t read the book by Brené Brown “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”, it is a gem!


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