Vulnerability, Trust, and a Thriving Business

Simon Sinek tells the story of a time he was waiting to board a flight when one customer committed the unforgivable sin of attempting to gain access before his group was called. The gate agent tore into the man rudely, prompting Sinek to ask her, "Why can't you speak to us like humans?" The attendant replied that if she did not follow the rules she would be disciplined and possibly lose her job. Sinek reflected and surmised that the true problem he observed was that this airline did not trust their employees to manage what is in front of them and handle it competently.

The same thought crossed my mind months ago, when United Airlines overbooked flight 3411 out of O'Hare, dreadfully leading to Dr. David Dao being bloodied and dragged off of the plane. At the ticket counter, United employees' hands were tied to a maximum $1,350 offer to passengers (now raised to $10,000). With no passengers willing to accept the proposition, the only available option they felt they could select was force. United representatives had no discretion, and therefore no alternative choices. While Dao's settlement is confidential, estimates range from $5-10 million, and rumors in China list it at $140 million (a spurious figure). Failure to trust ground-level employees to make the right decision cost United a thousandfold in immediate expenses. Consequently, stocks dropped over 6% and much more was lost in their image.


Sinek states that one principle he looks for in successful companies is vulnerable teams.

He defines "vulnerable" as the allowance to raise your hand, admit a mistake, make a decision, and not fear for your safety.

Vulnerable employees are unguarded and empowered. Managers believe in their hires and grant them the liberty to live in autonomy. The gate attendant at Sinek's flight, on the other hand, did not have the trust of her company. She could follow the script or face punishment. Those were the strict alternatives.

Trust says that I believe my interests are looked out for without any superintending. The opposite would be shackling, overseeing . . . perhaps micromanaging. To trust is to be direct with surety. The Hebrew word for trust is "batach," meaning complacent or careless. Its Arabic cousin means "to lie extended on the ground." It depicts how a person might be bare and incautious in their confidence, presenting an exposed back without fear, suggesting a strong feeling of security. Therefore, a vulnerable team feels safety in self-determination, and managers feel safety in their employees' decisions.


When I think of explicit trust, I recall watching a TV special with Joan Lunden years ago, featuring the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team. Formed in 1982 as a type of domestic Delta team, HRT trains daily and rigorously at its facilities in Quantico, Virginia, in scenarios that demand complete faith in the man next to you. Lunden interviewed the operators who took turns as hostages, sitting in a chair as live fire tore through paper targets just over their shoulders. Because they had been through the same selection process and had trained relentlessly together, these men had exposed their backs to their colleagues in unabbreviated trust.

How can we create vulnerable teams, willing to expose their backs with that kind of carelessness?

Do you trust your hires? If you don't, then it may be best to reconsider your selection process. In that initial phase of hiring or promoting, make the determined choice to place people who are reliable. Then believe in your choice.

Can you empower your people? What does your workforce need to make the decisions at the ground level? When employees experience the potency of freedom and managers experience benefit from their autonomy, one promotes the other dynamically and the business thrives.

Are you pulling back control? Giving employees free course, only to take the reins again, makes them hesitant and unsure. It will also train them to wait for someone else to make the hard calls and hinder growth. Roadblocks are created and clients become frustrated with a company run through fear and uncertainty.

Vulnerability carries a very negative nuance in our culture, but it should be fundamental in the business culture.

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