Vulnerable and Teamwork

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Recently, while part of an Executive Coaching assignment at HBS (Harvard Business School), I was struck by how a team of leaders when, once given the space to be vulnerable with each other, the commitment and productivity of the group soared.productivity One of my tasks in working with this group of 8 diverse senior global business leaders was ensuring they work as a cohesive team. Though we focused on understanding cultural differences, agreeing the rules engagement, expectations, etc., it was the exercise where people opened up and were vulnerable, that had the most profound impact on gelling the group together.

This is supported by the work of Patrick Lencioni in the Five Dysfunctions of a Team where he suggests that vulnerability will greatly enhance a trusting environment, which he defines as “the confidence among team members that their peer intentions are good”.   As a result, this team over the course of 8 weeks demonstrated tremendous commitment to each other (not let anyone down mentality), great work ethic, really smart collaborative ideas and, ultimately an environment where they learned so much from each other. Why did this happen?

Firstly, as the old adage goes “you are most likely to tell your darkest secrets to total strangers” plays out because there is minimal risk that of any perceived or otherwise consequence; therefore, it is easy to be vulnerable. Most human beings really do care and when somebody shows some degree of vulnerability, people naturally want to support and help. But surely this can work to some degree with work colleagues also who, for the most part, have no personal affiliation.

Secondly, it puts everybody on a very even keel. Being vulnerable is a great equalizer, it shows you are human and what is really going on beneath that exterior. When people feel that they are among equals, they are more likely to open up and support each other.

Finally, what was clearly apparent with all the leaders at HBS was an individual strength and confidence, which worked perfectly in alignment with vulnerability. Perhaps it was this unique blend of strength and vulnerability (similar to Collins’ resolve and humility) that provided the basis for optimal teamwork based on dependability/reliability (outward strength) as well as trust/believability (inward vulnerability).

It is important to mention that being vulnerable is not about exposing weaknesses, but rather being truthful about who you are – what’s your real story??

Positive Power

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When people get promoted, it is a wonderful thing. It often comes with prestige, more money, exciting challenges and just the general recognition that is associated with it. It also comes with more responsibility and sometimes the added concern that what got you to this position may not necessarily allow you do it. Think of the best sales person becoming sales manager. So how do you bridge that gap? Some might argue that with greater responsibility comes greater power. In simple terms it means that you can exert greater influence on somebody in order to get a task complete. And with most things in life there is a right way and wrong way of doing that.
34482001 - executive businessman accuses one of his employees

Let’s briefly discuss the wrong way, which sadly for some might come very natural. This is where you force your opinion, demand results, berate people in public and, for the most part, the minimum gets done. There is a short term-ism to this approach and results will only be forthcoming if you keep re-enforcing this behavior. However, eventually people will get tired of it and fight back or they will leave. There are countless studies to support the fact that people typically tend to leave their jobs because of the abuse of “power” by a supervisor or manager.

Thankfully there is an alternative use of power bearing in mind that, when you rise to a new position, what you say or do can be viewed very differently. In his study of power and how to use it in a positive way, Dacher Keltner proposes that “practicing empathy, generosity and gratitude” are a much more effective way of getting things done. There’s a novel thought; be a decent person. Sadly, these virtues often do not come easy to people and its requires hard work, or does it really? Interestingly, going back to the sales person who became sales manager, empathy, generosity and gratitude were probably very common with customers, so what not just do the same with your reports? These virtues (or skills) exists within the vast majority of us, therefore all we simply need to is recognize their value and utility within leadership.

This does not pre-suppose either that this type of leader is soft or not willing to hold people accountability. If anything, they can be quite demanding and challenging, but its more about how they go about it, and the appropriate behaviors they demonstrate. They exhibit strong emotional intelligence and, in so doing, not alone possess self-awareness, but also great awareness of others. They see their success as being predicated on the success of others and therefore channel their power in that direction.


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In a recent HBR article by David DeSteno, he provided four cautionary insights into evaluating whether somebody was trustworthy or not.

1. Integrity can vary and is typically based on long and short term consequences

2. Power does corrupt, subject to absence or presence of vulnerability

3. Confidence often masks incompetence

4. It’s ok to trust your gut

Bearing all of these in mind, to what degree then does trustworthiness effectively influence our decision making process

Within the realms of Emotional Intelligence and specifically the Genos International model, there is a skill called Emotional Reasoning.  This assesses the degree to which we use emotions in the decision making process.  For many people there is a tendency to over rely on the facts – “in God we trust; all others bring data” and many would contend that emotions, such as trustworthiness, don’t factor in at all.  However in reality, they do. Will you respond the same way to a request from somebody you like versus somebody you dislike?  Our emotions do influence the decisions we make and trustworthiness is a key component of this.  All of which then brings us back to DeSteno’s work.

The degree to which somebody is trustworthy has an enormous impact on how we respond.  Where this trust exists, relationships are strong and the “benefit of the doubt” prevails.  However we also need to be careful not to over rely on this as sometimes trust can be miscalculated and lead to bad decisions.  We have all heard ourselves saying ‘I thought I could trust him” and be left bitterly disappointed.  As you assess the trustworthiness of people, be mindful of what DeSteno is suggesting to ensure your assessment is sound and the decisions you make correct.

Trust and Work

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The Webster dictionary defines trust as “an assured reliance on the character, ability, or truth of someone or something”. Trust is one the key foundational blocks upon which most groups, teams and organizations exist. It forms the basis for open dialogue, honesty, collaboration and a sense of collectivism towards a common purpose. However sometimes “trust” is misinterpreted and so it’s important to understand the sub elements to clarify where the issue might be. Consequently breakdowns in “trust” can more easily be addressed through this better understanding. Let’s look at all three based on the definition above.


This speaks to a person’s integrity which for most is an essential value. One may not necessarily agree with or like everything somebody does but there is an expectation or a given around always telling the truth. This is the cornerstone of trust.


How you show up and present yourself suggests a certain personality or character. But it’s typically only when presented in a genuine and authentic fashion over time does it earn the trust of others. This too is viewed as very important at a personal level to an individual. Read more

Keys To Success No. 5 – Building Relationships of Trust

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All sales start with a simple conversation. An effective sales cycle, according to Michael Port, author of Book Yourself Solid, is based on turning these simple conversations into relationships of trust with your potential clients over time. We know that people buy from those they like and trust.

If you don’t have trust, then it doesn’t matter how well you’ve planned, what you’re offering, or whether you’ve created a wide variety of buying options to meet varying budgets. If a potential client doesn’t trust you, nothing else matters. They aren’t going to buy from you—period. If you think about it, this may be one of the main reasons you say you hate marketing and selling. You may be trying to market and sell to people with whom you have not yet built trust.

  • What are your potential clients thinking?
  • Do they really believe you can deliver what you say you can?
  • Read more