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Image by Peter Secan

Teams and Vulnerability


In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team Lencioni identifies trust as the most important element in developing a successful team. When trust is absent, team members can become immersed in conflict or reluctant to express an idea or even have an opinion because they don’t trust other team members to take them seriously. It’s just too frustrating to argue the merits of an idea and stay focused on team or project needs while being dismissed and/or ridiculed. Under these conditions, no team can be fully successful.


In conflict resolution trust is defined as “dependability over time,” and that is vitally important, but there may not be enough time to develop trust if an urgent project presents itself. Other aspects of behavior then become equally important in establishing trust.


Recently, the idea of “vulnerability” has become important in discussing trust, but I’m not sure that word conveys the right meaning in this context. “Vulnerable” has the connotation of being weak, exposed, helpless, at risk, and who wants to convey those ideas deliberately and put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of, to imply a lack of competence or even a willingness to be hurt?


The intended meaning, I think, is “open to criticism” or “open to another perspective,” which means “open to potentially negative feedback.” These definitions imply not weakness, but the strength to absorb the feedback so that it can be examined and responded to appropriately using critical thinking skills.


The idea of others being OK with negative responses is a good one when we are making the criticism, but what about when that criticism is directed at us? Are we able to look at the logic and value of that criticism and respond to it or do we feel personally hurt or undermined? Sometimes we need to develop thicker skins and the ability to distinguish between “my idea” and “me.” We also need to think about the concept of “resilience,” the ability to see life beyond the criticism. The world doesn’t end because someone doesn’t think much of an idea. In fact, it might become the catalyst for a different, terrific idea, even if it’s someone else’s.


Maybe this is the place where the concept of “mutual vulnerability” comes into play, but I still don’t like that word, especially if we are talking about using critical thinking skills: collecting information, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, comparing. There is nothing vulnerable in those concepts.


Teams will function even if there is little trust, but they will never be high performing and they might even go out of business because they do not produce enough value for the organization. However you choose to define it, teams still need to trust each other to do their best possible work and reach the best possible outcome.

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