Want to Build Trust in the Workplace? Practice Vulnerable Leadership.


The once popular team-building activity known as the “trust fall” requires an individual to blindly descend backward while relying on their teammates to catch them. In many ways, it illustrates that trust is a requisite for effective teamwork, and building that kind of bond starts with vulnerability. If you don’t keep your body calm, you are likely to flail and end up on the floor, whereas if you take the plunge confidently, more than likely you’ll be cushioned by waiting hands.

While this activity has taken its own fall out of favor (not everyone got caught, despite the best intentions), this kind of trust remains vital to successful organizations. The problem is that trust is in short supply.

A Gallup panel survey found that only 23% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organization. That means most employees have some level of doubt when it comes to leadership — a disconnect that can erode psychological safety, innovation, and employee confidence.

So how do we account for this deficit in trust? When leaders are willing to show authenticity and honesty, employees are more motivated to rally behind them and the organization, no matter how tough things get. Thus, leaders who want to create high-trust cultures would do well to embrace vulnerability in leadership over more traditional (i.e. outdated) hierarchical styles that position leaders as unshakably superhuman.


Why trust matters in the workplace

In high-trust cultures, employees feel comfortable and empowered, and that makes them more likely to advocate for new ideas and go above and beyond. They won’t waste energy questioning leadership or flirting with the temptation to disengage from the workplace.

When employees don’t trust leadership, both employee and business growth stagnate. As Amanda Setili, president of the consulting company Setili & Associates, explains: “If we don’t believe that the other person is going to do what they led us to expect them to do, then we’re not going to put ourselves at risk. And if we don’t put ourselves at risk, then we’re not going to be successful. And the company…is going to slowly erode and die.”

Trust is also vital for employee engagement, according to Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of management at Claremont Graduate University. In an article for HBR, Zak says that trust improves workplace retention and performance more than any other factor.

According to his research, people at high-trust companies report

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more life satisfaction, and
  • 40% less burnout.

While most leaders intuitively know that trust matters, Zak’s research gives scientific credibility to that feeling. He found that higher levels of oxytocin in the body generate stronger feelings of trust and facilitate better teamwork and collaboration.

Zak also identifies vulnerability as one of the eight leadership behaviors that trigger increased oxytocin in the system, meaning that vulnerability is scientifically proven to support high-trust cultures. For example, when employees see a leader ask for help, they perceive that leader as secure and confident. That willingness to reach out stimulates oxytocin production in employees and builds trust.


What does vulnerability in leadership look like?

Yet even with science connecting vulnerability to improved workplace culture, it may still be difficult to practice vulnerability if you don’t know what it looks like in action.

It’s time to flip the script on vulnerability as a sign of weakness and see it instead as a show of strength. Below are three ways to reframe vulnerability and put it into practice.


Vulnerability is about being human.

In the Spring of 2020, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson addressed the entire organization via video to explain the impact of COVID-19 on the company, including layoffs and pay cuts. His message exemplifies vulnerability in action and what it means to bring humanness into the workplace.

Sorenson opens by recognizing that the film crew hesitated to put him on camera because recent cancer treatments had left him bald, but Sorenson knew the importance of being visible and creating a human connection with employees. By the end of the message, Sorenson is clearly emotional as he speaks about the devastating impact of the pandemic on the Marriott workforce.

From beginning to end, Sorenson is open, honest, and unequivocally human. He illustrates what Brené Brown describes as brave leadership. As Brown says, “We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”


Vulnerability is about honesty and transparency.

When 77% of employees don’t fully trust their organizations, they worry that promises will be broken and leaders will say one thing but do another. Nothing erodes trust faster than a disconnect between words and actions.

In contrast, high-trust cultures are built on an unwavering commitment to honesty and transparency.

In Sorenson’s video, he is clear, direct, and upfront about the impact of COVID-19, including his own decision to cut his entire salary for 2020. While the message he delivered was difficult, he did not try to sugarcoat it or spin bad news as good.

It’s especially important to share difficult news and tell hard truths rather than remain silent. Employees appreciate candor. When people feel in the loop, they are better primed to help solve problems and persevere when the company faces setbacks.


Vulnerability is about focusing on others.

Practicing vulnerability in leadership requires a new perspective that shifts from focusing on one’s own goals and visions to an emphasis on how to best empower and uplift people.

For leaders, this means frequently giving and receiving feedback, checking in on both the wellness and productivity of employees, and practicing authentic empathy through close listening.

In fact, Gallup research shows that employees are twice as likely to trust leadership when they receive feedback, and four times as likely to trust leadership when that feedback is paired with good listening. 

Therefore, as a first step to building more trust, holding regular check-ins with employees and frequently seeking input from across the organization is vital. Leadership should also be clear and honest in their own feedback to employees about performance, so there is never any doubt about where employees stand in meeting their responsibilities.

Ultimately, it’s easier to remain quiet, stay distant, and sidestep honest communication, but the reality is those behaviors can undermine trust and detract from business success. Vulnerability is hard because it takes strength and honest self-awareness. In Brown’s words, “A brave leader is someone who says I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions.”


Want to learn more about creating a workplace culture of better engagement and productivity? Check out these additional resources from The Forem:

How Peer-to-Peer Learning Benefits Business Success

From Grit to Quit: Knowing When Walking Away is OK

Why Businesses Fear Career Pivots (and Why They Don’t Have To)