Vulnerability is defined as a willingness to feel risk, uncertainty or emotional exposure, according to Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, in her book Dare to Lead. I know it as the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach when I am deeply aware that I cannot control the outcome of a situation.
In The Thin Book of Trust, author Charles Feltman defined trust this way: “Trust is choosing to make something important to you, vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” He adds, “Distrust happens when what I have shared with you that is important to me, is not safe with you.”
“We need to trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable in order to build trust.” —Dr. Brené Brown
Why Build Trust?
Nothing shakes people to their core as much as hearing the words, “I don’t trust you.” We naturally get defensive and stop listening.
Indeed, in my role as a leader, I’ve often found myself struggling to find the words to talk about trust in employee and professional relationships. I couldn’t break it down or describe it in detail, which made it hard to feel confident when having a conversation about accountability.
That changed for me when I learned about the “Seven Elements of Trust,” developed in the leadership research conducted by Dr. Brown. The ability to point to the specific behaviors that are driving the issue, rather than just using the word “trust,” helped me have more productive conversations. When I was using this more specific language, I was more confident and risked having more of these important and vulnerable conversations.
The Elements follow the acronym “BRAVING,” which stands for Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Nonjudgment and Generosity. Dr. Brown describes each this way:
Boundaries. Setting boundaries is making clear what’s okay and what’s not okay and why.
Reliability. You do what you say you will do. You stay aware of your competencies and limitations and you deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.
Accountability. You own your mistakes, apologize and make amends.
Vault. You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. You keep the other person’s confidences.
Integrity. You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
Non-judgement. I can ask you for what I need, and you can ask me for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgement.
Generosity. Extending the most generous interpretation possible to intentions, words and actions of others.
Using these terms can be a conversation guide that allows me to walk through a conversation from a place of curiosity, learning and, ultimately, trust-building.
How to Build Trust that Lasts
Once you know now how important trust is to your success, and have the words to talk about it, how do you build it?
Psychological researcher John Gottman says, “Trust is built in the smallest of moments,” and it is the seemingly insignificant acts of kindness that count the most. He goes on to point out that in nearly every moment of life, “There is the opportunity to build trust and there is the opportunity to betray.” In one of those fleeting opportunities, if you choose not to connect with another human being, it is a betrayal. The opportunity to build trust is lost.
Trust requires vulnerability and vulnerability requires trust. Trust and vulnerability build on one another; one cannot happen without the other. It is why, when we ask for help at work, it is recognized as one of the biggest builders of trust. This was counterintuitive for me until I took the time to reflect deeply on my own experiences. Dr. Brown’s research also showed that most of us believe that we are trustworthy — yet we trust only a handful of others. Believing we are trustworthy and being perceived as trustworthy are two very different things.
It is critical that leaders remember trust is not a grand gesture — it is a collection of small moments. If you wait until there is a crisis to say, “Trust me!” — you’re too late. It is the small things. Every single day.
I know my personal leadership is impactful and meaningful when I am choosing to risk vulnerability and trust. And my personal life is richer and more fulfilling because of it, too.
After 40 years as president of her print and marketing company, Eileen Rogers’ encore career is now as a leadership coach and business advisor through her company One Creative View. She is a seasoned and accomplished entrepreneur and recognized community leader who is fiercely passionate about supporting and growing more vulnerable and courageous leaders. She is a certified Dare to Lead™ facilitator, Integrative Enneagram practitioner and executive coach.