building trust: vulnerability, risk, and relationship

in much the organizational work i do, people struggle with trust. so over these past few years, i’ve thought about it quite a bit.

a few years ago, i wrote a little bit about it, inspired by a friend’s supervisor, and now i’ve got a little more. in addition to the brittleness of trust, now i believe that:

vulnerability and risk

in work contexts where there is very little trust, people often wonder how to build trust. and, to be honest, there really are no shortcuts. it takes time and it’s hard. but one place people, myself included, often get stuck is taking the first steps.

i appreciate stephen covey’s thoughts on leadership here. he says:

The job of a leader is to go first, to extend trust first. Not a blind trust without expectations and accountability, but rather a “smart trust” with clear expectations and strong accountability built into the process. — stephen covey, how the best leaders build trust

in contexts where trust is eroded/nonexistent, someone has got to extend trust first to change the dynamic. i very agree with covey that that is the role of leaders.

complicating that, though, is the fact that leadership doesn’t require being in a position of hierarchal power. of course, in a hierarchy, i think the onus should be on the people higher in the hierarchy because there is less to lose if things go wrong. but that doesn’t mean that power in lower ranks can’t do that extension first.

and to extend trust means to be vulnerable and take a risk by giving someone(s) an opportunity to do something that isn’t currently expected. that could be making an important decision, holding/facilitating a meeting, leading some process, or something else. but whatever it is, the vulnerability is to take the risk of letting someone do something that you could or would have done. the likelihood is that they won’t do what you would have done. the risk that someone doing it will fail.

however, if leaders support folks to succeed and encourage right-sized risks to be taken, every opportunity where the “other” party/group succeeds, is another brick on the path of trust. (hm. idk how i feel about that path metaphor for trust but i’m gonna leave it alone for the moment).

relationships define how much risk people are willing to take

unfortunately, if there’s little to no trust, determining how much risk to take in the extension of trust is no simple matter.

i believe that relationships are the field that define how much risk people are willing to take with each other. so in situations where more trust is desired, the best way to move forward is to do relationship-building work. the better people know each other, the more confidence they can have in determining how big of a risk feels right to take.

there are a ZILLION articles and think pieces on how to build relationships well, so the only thing i’ll say about that here is this: my go to, always and forever, to trust-building is personal storytelling. giving people space to tell personal stories to/with each other allows each person to decide how vulnerable of a story they want to tell. and each person who tells a vulnerable story, increases the collective depth of vulnerability possible.


dang. i had more to say about that than i thought. ¯\(ツ)


words / writing / post-processing
583w / 20min / 10min