Leaders who pretend to be invulnerable aren’t helping themselves
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Leaders who pretend to be invulnerable aren’t helping themselves

Most managers have heard that it’s important to project an image of invulnerability, right? People don’t want to follow somebody they perceive as weak.

Actually, this isn’t the case at all. In fact, behavioral research shows that leaders who reveal themselves as vulnerable human beings are more likely to earn trust and inspire high performance than those who act like there are no chinks in their armor.

The research we’re talking about is based on experiments led by psychology professors at Northeastern University in Boston.

Games and speeches

In an initial experiment, participants played a trust game, called the Give-Some Game. Players were given four tokens, each valued at $1 if they kept it for themselves but $2 if they gave it to another player. By giving away $1 tokens, players trust that others will give them $2 tokens, which makes everyone better off. On average, people gave away 2.5 tokens, indicating a slight bias toward trust vs. distrust.

But the second experiment was the really interesting part. Here, participants gave a presentation to an audience that was instructed to remain totally unresponsive. The poor speakers didn’t know their audience had been tampered with. But as you might expect, once they’d had the jarring experience of radio silence from the whole room, the speakers felt deeply vulnerable.

Then the researchers pounced. They had these poor souls play the Give-Some Game right after their unsettling experience, and guess what? The participants gave away 50% more tokens than the group in the first experiment.

Vulnerability makes people more trusting

This is pretty counter-intuitive stuff. You might think that when people are made to feel vulnerable, they grow defensive and are less likely to trust others. After all, once bitten twice shy, right?

But that’s not what the researched showed. In fact, it demonstrated the exact opposite. Vulnerability makes us more trusting.

And here’s the key implication for leaders: The trust that vulnerability triggers is contagious. If your subordinates or team members see your vulnerability, they are influenced to emulate it. This means that when you acknowledge vulnerability, your people will believe it’s safe to take risks and make mistakes. They won’t be driven by fear that others will take advantage of them.

And if your people aren’t afraid of making honest mistakes, they’re naturally going to be more daring, more innovative and more versatile — priceless qualities and ones that will make you look good to your own bosses.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Vulnerability: Why It Drives Trust and Innovation on Teams,” based on the following research study:

DeSteno, D., Bartlett, M. Y., Baumann, J., Williams, L. A., & Dickens, L. (2010). Gratitude as moral sentiment: Emotion-guided cooperation in economic exchange. Emotion, 10(2), 289–293.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get a demo of all our training features

Connect with an expert for a one-on-one demonstration of how Rapid Learning can help develop your team.