Ever heard of the vulnerability loop? Here's how it can help your team

What is the vulnerability loop? And how can it help your team?
An article from our expert

What is the secret to team cohesion? How do you foster trust within a team? Most people agree that trust is essential for teamwork. And most will agree that openness and respect play a part in generating trust. But few understand the role that vulnerability plays in generating trust.

It is often said that trust comes first and vulnerability second—that you can admit to your limitations and weaknesses only if you trust your team. But it is, in fact, the other way around. In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle writes, “Normally, we think about trust and vulnerability the way we think about standing on solid ground and leaping into the unknown: First we build trust, then we leap. But science is showing us that we’ve got it backward. Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it.”

In The Culture Code, Coyle expands on the “vulnerability loop,” a foundational concept that, he explains, contributes greatly to building safe and thriving cultures. “At some level, we intuitively know that vulnerability tends to spark cooperation and trust,” says Dr Jeff Polzer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Harvard University, who points out that vulnerability is less about the sender than the receiver. The “vulnerability loop” is a shared exchange of openness and “the most basic building block of cooperation and trust”, according to Polzer:

  1. Person A sends a signal of vulnerability.
  2. Person B detects this signal.
  3. Person B responds by signaling his or her own vulnerability.
  4. Person A detects this signal.
  5. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.

The vulnerability loop presents the immense advantage of being contagious. “Science shows that when it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is not a risk but a psychological requirement,” writes Coyle. Exchanges of vulnerability, which we typically prefer to avoid, get the machinery of teamwork going. By acknowledging our limits, we signal our awareness that the complementary skills of the team are necessary. In other words, sharing vulnerability is like telling someone, “I need you.”

In his book, Coyle describes the uniqueness of US Navy SEAL team cohesion, in which every leader is used to sharing vulnerability and opening up to suggestions. As a result, SEALs can work like a hive. Draper Kauffman, the creator of the SEALs after the Second World War, focused on “the point where vulnerability meets interconnection”. He wanted every aspect of SEAL training to be team-based, and he wanted to eliminate the hierarchical distinction between officer and enlisted man.

Here are some tips on how to leverage the “vulnerability loop” to build trust and cohesion:

  • Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often. Because we generally fall prey to the “authority bias,” no moment of vulnerability carries more weight than the moment when a leader signals vulnerability. Leaders should share stories about their vulnerability.
  • Have leaders with strong listening skills. To foster cooperation, leaders should steer away from giving orders and ask lots of questions instead. “While questions comprise only 6% of verbal interactions, they generate 60% of ensuing discussions,” Coyle explains. Questions have the power to help innovative ideas to “surface” in a group. The most effective listeners behave like trampolines. By bouncing ideas back to the speaker, they add insight and create moments of mutual discovery.
  • Aim for candor, but avoid brutal honesty. Feedback that is smaller and more targeted will feel less judgmental and personal—and it will be less painful and more effective. That’s what Pixar’s creativity-inducing culture aims for, according to Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, who wrote about candid, targeted feedback in Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.
  • Align language with action. Many highly cooperative groups use language to reinforce their interdependence, which will reinforce the group’s shared identity.

Photo: WTTJ

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