Trust & Vulnerability – The secret to indomitable teams

Of the six core values necessary for performing teams, Trust & Vulnerability form the foundation.

In their absence, there can be no meaningful relationship between humans.

Not only are these two critical, their symbiotic interrelationship makes it impossible for one to function without the other.

Together with Candour & Communication and Commitment & Accountability they round out the necessary rules of engagement for any team.

The Power of Trust

Amongst them all, trust is the most powerful.

Trust inspires. It brings out the best in people. It raises people up. It transforms.

As Jean Valjean sings in Les Miserables’ Valjean’s Soliloquy:

“He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother”

It was the unearned trust by the Bishop of Digne in an ex-convict that converted him from ‘a thief in the night..a dog on the run’ to being human. Inspiring him to pursue goodness for the remainder of his life.

Trust is necessary for performance

The power of trust is not limited to individual transformation. When practiced universally in an organisation or team, the results are no different.

When Doug Conan was appointed CEO of Campbell Soup in 2001, he identified “Inspiring Trust” as his number one mission. The ensuing decade witnessed a turn-around of the company from laggard to leader, resulting in “cumulative shareholder returns in the top tier of the global food industry, and among the highest measured employee engagement levels in the Fortune 500.”

Rather than a soft-skill or secondary competence for leaders, Conan argued that it was important and indeed necessary for building elite performance.

Conversely, employees want trust in the workplace too, and prefer to work for organisations that embody a high level of trust. So much so, that it comprises more than two-thirds of the criteria in Fortune’s annual ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’.

In order to be effective, the level of trust in a team must be of such a standard that individuals can elicit with confidence the required help their need to accomplish their objectives.


Vulnerability, on the other hand, is about being open and transparent about one’s weaknesses. To feel safe enough to identify and communicate areas of support needed from others.

Vulnerability requires trust. The greater the level of trust, the more vulnerable individuals can be to each other. Yet by trusting someone we inherently make ourselves vulnerable.

A high Trust-Vulnerability environment allows people to grow, to go beyond their comfort zones. To reach above their existing abilities. To innovate and attempt new and difficult endeavours. To set bigger goals and know that they will not be alone or vulnerable in failure.

It allows people to make mistakes, seek and receive feedback, ask questions and explore options and opinions, and accept input and assistance.

Where Trust & Vulnerability is widespread, people are more likely to take responsible for their actions, credit other’s accomplishments, and, most importantly, offer and accept apology.

Politics and mind-games are eliminated.

Collaboration and co-operation become the norm.

Leadership by example

Whilst our theory on the power of Trust & Vulnerability in teams may seem self-evident, practicing it can be extremely difficult.

Ironically, however, it is the practice of trust and vulnerability that encourages greater acceptance, adoption and reciprocity.

In other words, the longer it is done, the deeper it is done and more people do it.

This is where managers earn their keep. It requires time (especially face time), effort and above all leading by example. It also separates good leaders from the rest.

It is a test of character.

For trust cannot be bought, mandated or demanded. It must be earned! Not through words or empty promises but by actions. It must be paid in full and in advance.

As did the Bishop of Digne to Jean Valjean.

Trust Indicators…

A good starting point is to understand the existing trust levels in an organisation.

A quick litmus test would be how often do people acknowledge their mistakes. Secrecy, blame and cover-ups are also lead indicators.

Leaders who micro-manage or limit the voice and choice of their team members with how things are done exhibit traits of mistrust.

In Practice

One of the most difficult environments to practice Trust and Vulnerability is in professional sport where athletes are often transient. Further, many adults, even the younger ones, carry scars from being exploited for trusting others or being vulnerable.

Often, if not always, during our orientation, we used the example of the traffic lights to draw attention to the fact that every time we pass a green light or drive through an intersection, we make ourselves vulnerable to total strangers, trusting them with our lives on the premise they will obey a stop sign or red light. Even if we have been in an accident where this trust has been broken, we do not stay off the roads or stop at green lights – we renew our faith in humanity and trust again.

It is up to managers and leaders to set the benchmark for Trust & Vulnerability.

Sharing information about themselves and the organisation is an effective way to frame the agenda. Sometimes there can be a misguided view amongst managers that by controlling information they gain power, when in fact, the opposite is true. Notwithstanding the required boundaries of security and governance, providing appropriate information not only empowers people and equips them to perform their roles better, it also sends a powerful message of trust.

In one sporting organisation, we used trust to subvert the paradigm of fining athletes. It is a commonly accepted policy amongst many professional sports – one that we believe to be antithetical to team performance – where management hold a view that athletes can controlled through their remuneration/conditions or their game time…or both.

On our appointment, we discontinued the entire fining system and appealed to the athletes’ better judgement, discipline and commitment to the team’s objectives instead. During our tenure, rarely was there a need to council a player more than twice for their failure to buy-in.

Becoming indomitable

Our deeply ingrained moral compass, our incessant desire to pursue goodness always triumphs over control and manipulation – certainly in the long run and definitely for most of us.

Of course, as humans we will all fail occasionally. But where Trust & Vulnerability exists, there are greater opportunities to rise up again. People are given the benefit of the doubt first. Authentic enquiry precedes rash judgement and blame.

Trust & Vulnerability work together to maximise strengths and make weaknesses irrelevant – the key to team performance.

It creates a virtuous cycle of “I’ve got your back” and when it continues to be routinely practiced it makes teams indomitable.