Can You Trust Your Team with Your Weakness?

by: Rick Simmons

Successfully leading a team through choppy waters requires both confidence and humility. To make it to the other side of a significant challenge, you must demonstrate and own your strength; recognize your shortcomings or lack of knowledge and experience; and call on others for help. After all, transcendence necessitates an acknowledgment that there is farther to go. And that takes vulnerability on behalf of you and your team.

Ensuring your team trusts each other enough to be vulnerable in one another’s presence is no easy feat—especially for leaders. It’s hard to say, “I don’t know how to do that; can you help me?” They worry that showing vulnerability will make them lesser. But it doesn’t. We have to be able to trust each other with our weaknesses. It’s a crucial foundation on which to build everything else.

Author and business management expert Patrick Lencioni coined the term vulnerability-based trust to describe a vital element of successful teams. It differs greatly from what he refers to as “predictive trust,” the concept that teams come to trust each other because they’ve worked together for a long time, and can therefore predict what other members are going to do—regardless of what they say.

Meanwhile, with vulnerability-based trust, people are comfortable enough to be honest about how they feel, and what they can and can’t do. They “can and will genuinely say things to one another like ‘I don’t know the answer,’ ‘I need help,’ ‘I made a mistake.’” They trust each other inherently. But, he explains, the only way to achieve that is “if the leader goes first. People have to know that the leader is going to take that leap of faith and be vulnerable, and that is going to give [the team] permission to do so also.” As the leader, it’s up to you to set the standard.

Another key part of effectively driving change for your team is leading with empathy. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy refers to feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s situation—you feel for them, but very much from the perspective of an outsider. On the other hand, empathy involves putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, to clearly imagine what they’re going through.

Brené Brown describes empathy as “feeling with people.” In a short video, she further teases out the distinction. “Empathy is this sacred space where someone is in this deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom, ‘I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed.’ And then we look, and we say, ‘Hey, I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.’ Sympathy is ‘Oo, it’s bad, uh huh. No. You want a sandwich?’”

As you might guess, it’s much more challenging to be empathetic. As Brown explains, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” But making that choice will make all the difference.

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Patrick Lencioni, “Vulnerability-Based Trust,” YouTube, May 16, 2017.
Brené Brown, “Brené Brown on Empathy,” YouTube, December 10, 2013.