How leaders can create 'vulnerability-based trust'

An ENGAGE EUROPE 2021 speaker sets out how trust — the principal building block of a healthy, cohesive team — can be developed.

Leadership has many definitions, but for Liz Lugt, “Leadership is influence. It's influencing people to move from point A to point B. Whether that’s meeting a deadline, buying into a vision, or engaging in a project, leadership is influence.”

Lugt is a leadership and workplace culture expert who is speaking on “Expanding Your Sphere of Influence” at the AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE EUROPE 2021 conference on 19 May and was also the guest on the recent FM podcast episode “How Leaders Can Build Trust and a Cohesive Team”. She said the COVID-19 pandemic made people more aware of the importance of leadership in all organisations.

To be effective, Lugt said leaders should concentrate on three actions:

  • Build connections with team members and others in their sphere of influence.
  • Set expectations of their team that are credible, clear, communicated, and, importantly, confirmed.
  • Avoid “meeting stew”. Instead of combining a regular check-in with team members with a discussion of tactical and strategic issues, separate out the different types of meetings to maximise their effectiveness.

Building trust

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, writer and founder of the Table Group consultancy Patrick Lencioni identifies how a lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and an inattention to results form a pyramid structure — the components of an unhealthy team.

For Lugt, key in this structure is building trust. “Don't try and overwhelm yourself by trying to get all the behaviours [to prevent the dysfunctions] in place, because, actually, without trust you’re never going to be able to progress up that pyramid.”

This is not “predictive trust”, the kind of trust that develops when someone knows how someone else is going to react in any given situation because they know them well, Lugt said.

Rather, leaders should focus on “vulnerability-based trust”. She explained: “That’s the kind of trust that is not afraid to be vulnerable around the group, and particularly in being able to say things like ‘I'm sorry’, ‘I messed up’, or ‘I need help’, or ‘You're better at this than me’. It’s also when we don't fear being careful around the group or protective about what we say or don't say.”

“That’s really the level of trust that teams really need to work on,” she advised.

Lugt added that it’s helpful to have productive dialogue with team members on things that might be hurting trust within the team and things that might be helpful to build the team’s trust.

Questions for leaders

In addition, Lugt said leaders should consider questions such as:

  • How much gossip is there on the team? Do people end a Zoom call and immediately pick up the phone to another colleague to gossip about the team’s members?
  • Are everybody’s successes on the team celebrated?
  • Do team members acknowledge their weaknesses to one another?
  • Do teams share their professional successes and professional failures?

An unhealthy culture, Lugt said, is characterised by a “higher degree of politics in the organisation, and also when morale is low, and when productivity is low, and when staff turnover is high”.

She added: “[Often] my ears always prick up when someone tells me ‘Oh, so-and-so’s left, so-and-so’s left. Oh, that person’s leaving, or that person has left.’ That is often an indication that culture is unhealthy.” The formation of silos within the business, a lack of clarity in leadership, and a high degree of confusion are also signs of an unhealthy culture, she said.

Lugt is clear that “culture flows from the top down”. She said: “We can run great programmes. We can get HR involved to help us with that, but unless the leader takes active steps to buy into that and address culture, those things will fall flat on their face. It will only result in cynicism within the workplace.”

Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.