How To Build Vulnerability-Based Trust on Your Team


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“Trust trumps everything. And everything flows from trust — learning, credibility, accountability, a sense of purpose, and a mission that makes ‘work’ bigger than oneself.” — Deb Mills-Scofield

How do you build a team that trusts each other to speak their mind and take risks?

How do you make it possible for the team to engage in passionate and sometimes emotional debate, knowing that they will not be punished for saying something that might otherwise be interpreted as destructive or critical?

Establish vulnerability-based trust.

Vulnerability-Based Trust is the Place to Be

I’ve been on many teams throughout my career and there’s a big difference between a team that trusts each other to take risks and speaks their mind versus a team that trusts each other in terms of predicting behavior.

Having experienced both, I know that vulnerability-based trust is the place to be and that it comes from shared experience over time and through the right behaviors.

My personal  favorites for building vulnerability-based trust include going out to lunch and taking the team off-site.

I prefer to do the off-site earlier versus later so that the team can learn each others’ styles and learn the rhythms in a low overhead way.

It’s actually a working off-site, where as a team, we kick off the project together in a shared room.  Building the shared experience really helps humanize the relationships and improve understanding across the team.

Don’t Fear Conflict, Face It

Vulnerability-based trust is the key to high-performance teams.

If you build it, they will come.

It’s not about trusting that your team members will behave in a certain way.  It’s about building vulnerability-based trust, where it’s safe to take risks and face conflict on the team rather than fear it.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Patrick Lencioni writes about building vulnerability-based trust and overcoming the fear of conflict.

Vulnerability-Based Trust Thrives With Good Intentions

Good intentions are a breeding ground for vulnerability-based trust to thrive.

Lencioni writes:

“In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. 

In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.”

Standard Definition of Trust

When people think of trust, they typically mean they expect a certain behavior, as in I ‘trust’ that you’ll do a good job.

Lencioni writes:

“This description stands in contrast to a more standard definition of trust, one that centers around the ability to predict a person’s behavior based on past experience. 

For instance, one might ‘trust’ that a given teammate will produce high-quality work because he has always done so in the past.”

Trust and Great Teams

Great teams and vulnerability go hand-in-hand.  When you know your team members have your back, you can go out on a limb.  You can stretch more.  You can reach for the brass ring.

Lencioni writes:

“As desirable as this may be, it is not enough to represent the kind of trust that is characteristic of a great team.  It requires team members to make themselves vulnerable to one another, and be confident that their respective  vulnerabilities will not be used against them. 

The vulnerabilities I’m referring to include weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes and requests for help.

As ‘soft’ as all of this might sound, it is only when team members are truly comfortable being exposed to one another that they begin to act without concern for protecting themselves

As a result, they can focus their energy and attention completely on the job at hand, rather than on being strategically disingenuous or political with one another.”

Achieving Vulnerability-based Trust

When it comes to building vulnerability-based trust, it takes parking your ego, and focusing on collaboration over competition with your peers.  You give up needing to be right, to focus on learning, growth, and improvement.

Lencioni writes:

“Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because in the course of career-advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. 

It is a challenge for them to turn those instances off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required.”

The Costs of Failing Are Great

When there’s no vulnerability-based trust, everyone spends their energy protecting their own backs.  It’s a drain on everyone, and robs energy from giving your best where you have your best to give.

Lencioni writes:

“The costs of failing to do this are great.  Teams that lack trust waste inordinate amounts of time and energy managing their behaviors and interactions within the group. 

They tend to dread team meetings, and are reluctant to take risks in asking for or offering assistance to others. 

As a result, morale on distrusting teams is usually quite low, and unwanted turnover is high.”

How to Build Vulnerability-Based Trust

You can build vulnerability-based trust by creating shared experiences.

Lencioni writes:

“Unfortunately, vulnerability-based trust cannot be achieved overnight.  It requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes of team members. 

However, by taking a focused approach, a team can dramatically accelerate the process and achieve trust in relatively short order.”

Tools for Building Vulnerability-Based Trust

Lencioni identifies some tools you can use:

  • Personal histories exercise.  Humanize the relationships by sharing your life stories and backgrounds.
  • Team effectiveness exercise.  Identify the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as one area that they must improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team.  Focus on one person at a time, starting with the team leader.
  • Personality and behavior preference profiles.  Some of the most effective and lasting tools for building trust on a team are profiles of team member’s behavioral preferences and personality styles.  These help break down barriers by allowing people to better understand and empathize with one another.  Lencioni recommends the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for profiling.
  • 360-degree feedback.  These are riskier than the other tools because they call for peers to make specific judgements and provide one another with constructive criticism.  The key is divorcing it entirely from compensation and formal performance evaluation.  It should allow employees to identify strengths and weaknesses without any repercussions, otherwise it can take on dangerous political undertones.
  • Experiential team exercises.  This includes ropes courses and other experiential team activities.  While they don’t always translate directly to the working world, they can be valuable tools for enhancing teamwork as long as they are layered upon more fundamental and relevant processes.

Key Takeaways

Here are my key takeaways:

  • Who’s got your back? One of my colleagues used this as a gut check.  It’s amazing how simple, but revealing this simple question can be.  Ask yourself, on your own team, who’s got your back?  Who’s back do you have?  In your org, who’s got your back? … etc.  Worse, who doesn’t have your back?
  • Focus on a supportive, learning environment.  Make it safe for the team to spread their wings.  I’m a fan of learning and growing.  It’s tough to grow if you can’t take chances.  I find that pairing on the team and using mentors helps a lot.
  • Encourage open and respectful communication.  I think this is critical for the team leader to set the stage for this one.  Asking the right questions and encouraging ideas is the key.
  • The leader has to set the example. By setting the example yourself, you help mold the culture. On example is open, trusting communication. Asking for honest feedback from employees, and then acting on it is another. Examples that run counter: Playing employees off of each other, competition in which the loser gets penalized in some way, public humiliation – as a supposed joke, penalty for honest failure, failure to extend trust – not trusting employees to take initiative and do things right on their own.

If you’re a leader, and you build vulnerability-based trust, you will attract top-talent.

If you are an individual contributor and you help establish vulnerability-based trust on the team, your peers will want to work with you.

Everyone is a leader.

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  1. I think this is righteously good stuff.
    In my own work on trust, I also say that we typically put too much emphasis on the “rational” (meaning credentials, logic, track record), and not nearly enough on what I call intimacy and low self-orientation. These have to do with whether I’m perceived as “safe,” and whose agenda I’m working.
    I love the “who’s got your back, and whose back have you got?” idea; it speaks very much to who are you in it for, and for whom are you safe?
    Very right, very powerful, good thoughts.
    Charles H. Green

  2. Hey Charles – great to hear!

    I agree — it’s amazing how a simple question catches stuff that flies below the radar. I now find myself asking who’s got my back? … and who’s back do I have? … and do I demonstrate it?

    … Ironically, it’s the under the radar stuff that seems to count more than what’s right before our eyes — once we know what to look for.

  3. j.d.,

    Congratulations on your selection of this (excellent) post to the February Carnival of Trust, hosted this month by Michelle Golden on her blog Golden Practices.

    As per my previous comments, I think her selection is well justified. Reading your post over again, I wanted to note that the idea of trust as “reliability” is one of the least powerful forms–a shark is predictable, for example, as is a thief.

    You highlight the higher forms of trust–vulnerability, the focus on the sense of intent, the things that speak to the relation between people.

    I always thought Ronald Reagan’s famous line “trust but verify” was bogus. If you had to verify, then to that extent you didn’t trust. Trust without risk is an oxymoron.
    Your post speaks eloquently to that point.

    Again, congrats on inclusion in the Carnival, which your readers can visit (and see 9 other top-10 posts) at

    Charles H. Green
    Trusted Advisor Associates

  4. As a team develops, trust begins to form. The group quickly realizes who is going to be reliable and will work on the team and who is just there for the ride (social loafing is the new term I’ve learned it’s called). I’ve always hated teams because usually some work harder than others and the ones that work harder resent the ones that don’t work and ultimately will earn the same grade as the group or team. That’s why there are closed groups that once a group or team is started no one else can be added after a certain period of time because the group will not embrace the new member and the new member may feel like they are just intruding on an already established team. Teams at work and teams in a classroom setting are a little different. At work the resentment can be high in that people will feel the co-worker is getting paid the same for doing the job, but they really are social loafing and not pulling their weight.

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