One of my coachees brought up the topic of vulnerability and trust between people at work. As I processed our conversation later, I had some additional thoughts I wanted to take notes on.

Vulnerability that is volunteered is different than vulnerability that is imposed upon someone by a colleague or superior. The effect of vulnerability on building trust is different and requires a different pathway to establish it. There is a difference between you bringing up a personal problem or error on your own initiative and someone else pointing it out to you on their initiative which then obligates you to deal with the confrontation. Voluntary vulnerability (or humility) builds trust far better than imposed vulnerability.

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

The best kind of voluntary vulnerable sharing is because the person is concerned their personal problem is negatively affecting the other person and cares enough to show they are aware of their behavior and its possible effect on the other – it demonstrates self-awareness and other-awareness.

The best kind of imposed vulnerability (someone imposing their negative feedback upon the other) is because the feedback giver genuinely cares for the well-being of the receiver and is hoping the information will be useful to the receiver, that the receiver will welcome it and put it to use in modifying behavior in a beneficial way. In the best kind of imposed vulnerability, the giver offers the information and then supports the receiver’s autonomy in how they will handle that information and respond to it.

Trust is well-built gradually, in increments, not all given up front, though some initial, start-up trust is often necessary or asked for, to get a relationship going. One person offers voluntary disclosure or vulnerable sharing and the other handles that in a safe and respectful way. It is not the single act that creates high trust, but a consistent experience of vulnerable sharing that is met with respectful handling. The more positive interactions of vulnerability there are in the bank of experience, the more likely that relationship can handle an occasional rupture-and-repair of trust.

In the best scenarios among peers, it is an exchange where each person reciprocates some vulnerable sharing and respectful handling. In a power-differential relationship, the least that is required is the consistent pattern of vulnerable sharing (by the lower-power person) and respectful handling (by the higher-power person) – child/parent, student/teacher, patient/practitioner, employee/manager, etc – to establish a hierarchical trust.

Imposed vulnerability is easier to receive and deal with when those above are a) consistent in handling that disclosure with great respect, and b) even more radical with both voluntary and imposed vulnerability than they expect of those below.