Are Teams Always Effective? A Look at Lack of Vulnerability-based Trust

A group of five people sit around the table in a business meeting.
Illustration of an office meeting that I made in Adobe Illustrator.
· What is Vulnerability-Based Trust?
·
A Mind Changed
Your Personal Life Can Affect Your Vulnerability
You Simply Want to Assert Dominance
·
Communicating to Enhance Vulnerability-Based Trust
Reality Check
Bureaucracy Everywhere
·
Introducing the HILL Model
What is the HILL model?
The Link Between Vulnerability-Based Trust and the HILL Model
·
Make it a Culture
·
Summing it Up

I recently watched Patrick Lencioni’s presentation on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The video is based on his book of the same title.

One of the dysfunctions that he speaks about is the lack of vulnerability-based trust, which changed my mind about how teams work. Contrary to what I thought, that we build trust over time, Lencioni dispels this view and explains that vulnerability-based trust doesn’t need time.

What is Vulnerability-Based Trust?

Let’s start by defining vulnerability-based trust. According to Lencioni, vulnerability-based trust is the ability of a leader to acknowledge their mistakes or failures and understand that they need help.

The unique characteristic of this trust is that the leaders understand their shortcomings quickly and without provocation. In other words, leaders should not be afraid to be vulnerable around subordinates.

“Vulnerability-based trust, that’s the kind of trust that comes about when human beings on a team can and will genuinely say things to one another like, ‘I don’t know the answer, I need help, I think I really messed this up’” — Patrick Lencioni.

A Mind Changed

I presumed that building trust for teams to become better takes time. But then, what about short-term teams? For example, a group of front-end back-end web developers can meet to build a website for a month without having prior interactions. You get the gist.

According to Lencioni, vulnerability-based trust is built on honesty about one’s weaknesses and their ability to admit them to other team members. He cites two examples as evidence.

Your Personal Life Can Play a Role

First, he reminisces when he received a call to assess an executive meeting for a startup company. The marketing executive would not allow others’ opinions because she thought she was right. It was difficult for her to trust other members of the team. Eventually, other team members stopped asking questions.

At dinner, the leader confessed that she learned to trust her husband after ten years of marriage. It was not her fault. She was a victim and she had problems trusting again. This issue had transitioned into her professional life, preventing her from trusting others and eventually making teamwork difficult.

You Just Want to Assert Dominance

In the other example, a well-known CEO projected himself as dominant and thought he was always right that employees just gave in.

When Lencioni surveyed the company, employees were free to talk and express issues that they could not raise in the meeting with the CEO. This experience demonstrated the leader’s lack of vulnerability in the CEO and eventually led to the company’s failure.

Now, how can you address this problem?

Communicating to Enhance Vulnerability-Based Trust

The author suggests that communication is an essential part of the solution. But I had reservations about the role of communication in solving the absence of trust and fear of conflict.

Reality Check

Let’s pause for a minute and ponder. To what extent do executives and leaders advocate honest communication and welcome positive criticism while at the same time making their employees know what they need and expect? As a leader, do you have structures to enhance vulnerability-based trust?

One thing may be holding you back — the fear of appearing vulnerable. I mean, you’re the leader. You can’t be weak, right? But there’s a cost. Being the leader you are, you may have many responsibilities that may shadow the minor but vital details.

Your employees want to bring these details up but have their own problem — the fear of conflict. Lencioni reminds us that the fear of conflicts stems from the dread of hurting other people’s feelings and wasting their time.

Bureaucracy Everywhere

Indeed, a democratic decision-making process, which accounts for conflict resolution, can take time, and some leaders prefer to make the decisions themselves to save time. So, how can we balance time and conflict resolution for an optimal outcome? Still, some leaders inherit bureaucracy that has worked in the past.

Lencioni fails to address the outcomes of bureaucracy and its role in making the team ineffective. For example, in most companies, there are precise job descriptions of the roles and responsibilities of employees. Sometimes, the only time these JDs are flexible is when an employee is required to take on additional tasks.

Often, these employees are not trained in conflict resolution because the management has developed a framework that they think will work. There is a downside to that. The employees will eventually feel controlled and obey the “system” and its words. I would have loved to hear Lencioni address the issue.

Introducing the HILL Model

I will attempt to address the issue of bureaucracy as a hindrance to vulnerability-based trust using the High Impact Learning that Lasts (HILL) model.

What is the HILL model?

Briefly, the HILL model is a learner-focused approach that places confidence in the learner while encouraging mutual benefits for both the learner and the instructor. In our case, it could be a trainer and a trainee.

The Link Between Vulnerability-Based Trust and the HILL Model

There is an essential connection between Lencioni’s assertions and the HILL model. I noticed that the HILL model has a significant role in resolving the five dysfunctions of a team in general. But our focus today is on vulnerability-based trust.

In the Hill model, the first internal function of team leadership is the establishment of pertinent structures. As I have mentioned above, bureaucracies are structures that tend to be inflexible to the workplace dynamics.

According to the HILL model, I suggest you establish a structure that allows anyone to hold another accountable when necessary. In most companies, as an employee, you’ll “report to” someone up the ladder, which implies submission rather than raising questions and concerns, let alone confrontations. I believe that changing the internal structures can change how your employees perceive you as a leader.

Of course, we all have different ways of handling conflicts. We can resolve them or avoid them. Conflict resolution is different from conflict avoidance. Conflict resolution is the desirable team element, while conflict avoidance is the hazard.

Avoiding a conflict and assuming that the issue goes away is like burying your head in the sand. It keeps the problems piling up, and they can explode into decisions to fire and even lead to eventual company failure.

Make it a Culture

It is all about the culture of your organization. It would help if you established a culture where your team members can speak openly, hold one another accountable, and welcome positive criticism.

How can this happen? You can write it down in the form of a policy. It could be a corporate dinner once in a while or a simple write-up about the expectations of each party. We tend to take policies seriously, and policies can shape the various aspects of organizational culture, including openness to criticism.

Summing it Up

As you can see, Lencioni’s presentation illustrates issues that we experience in our daily lives. We are afraid to be vulnerable, which may affect our work relationships. For subordinates, the most important one is the fear of conflict. Working with an overbearing boss may bully an employee into silence to avoid conflicts. Lencioni wants leaders to be approachable.

My addition is that instead of the old bureaucracies, establish actual structures that make this happen. We can all borrow from the HILL model and have an environment free from the fear of vulnerability by actually writing down these policies.

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