Team Trust: why it’s hard for team members to be vulnerable

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When coworkers are open about their weaknesses and admit their mistakes, does it help you trust them more? Well, it should. Team trust is all about vulnerability.

We know trust is high when members acknowledge their weaknesses, willingly apologize, and are unguarded and genuine with one another. Without this type of trust, it’s unlikely that teams will be willing to engage in healthy conflict or commit to decisions. In part one of this three-part series, we’ll take a close look at why it’s difficult for members to acknowledge their weakness with one another. In part two, we’ll explore members’ reluctance to openly apologize, and finally in part three, we’ll hone in why members struggle being unguarded and genuine with one another.

Openly acknowledging our weaknesses – there are lots of reasons why team members might not be willing to acknowledge their weaknesses. Here are a few possibilities to consider:

  • Members are fearful of appearing incompetent. Whether it’s protecting one’s ego, having concerns about being judged, or general uncertainty about repercussions, it’s important to know that competent people still make mistakes—it’s a part of being human. A misstep doesn’t equal incompetence.  This issue isn’t just limited to making mistakes. Sometimes people fear that admitting they don’t know something will make them appear incompetent. Leaders should help their team to see that it’s okay to say “I don’t know what to do,” “I need help,” or “I want to learn from you.” Reaching out to others in this way can build trust and help strengthen the team’s overall performance. Admitting to mistakes allows them  to move forward.
  • Members doubt their own competencies. Team members may doubt their own competencies for a number of reasons: they may suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem or self-confidence, even if they are quite capable. To help strengthen their’ self-confidence, the leader should make an effort to call out members’ strengths and to mention past successes. Additionally, team members should take advantage of opportunities to acknowledge one another’s skills. In some cases, members may actually lack some skill, in which case they may benefit from additional education or professional development opportunities.
  • Members are unsure of the intentions of others. If a team is lacking in trust, members may doubt one another’s intentions. They may feel uncertain about another’s motivation and wonder whether that person is more self-oriented than team-oriented. In this case, it can be helpful for members to learn about what each person prioritizes. If everyone can come to understand one another’s priorities, members will be less likely to be suspicious of another’s intention. Further, team members can drive toward the same goal in different ways, so even if members do prioritize differently, they can still all pull in the same direction. Additional ways to increase members’ comfort with one another include trust-building activities, encouraging open conversation, and providing opportunities for them to get to know one another better.

What are some ways to help teams development this type of vulnerability-based trust? I welcome your comments and insight.


Part 1: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to be vulnerable with one another

Part 2: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to willingly apologize to one another

Part 3: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to be open and genuine with one another


*Based on Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team” a trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Tom Sullivan of ProGrowth Associates is an Accredited Facilitator and Authorized Partner of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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