Building Trust

Louie has a very annoying habit while we walk—he whines! Not constantly—just when we exit the garage, when we see one of his buddies (considering his excellent eyesight and keen sense of smell, that buddy could be down the street, around the bend and over the hill), or when an alpha male is in the area—and there are a lot of those around.

At first I thought he was just excited and wanted to see his friend or worse, fight his foe. But I found out from our dog trainer, Zig that it is actually quite the contrary. Louie is still somewhat fearful (although he is gotten significantly better), and his whining is due to uncertainty. While I have become a very competent alpha and have provided a tremendous amount of security, Louie’s still a bit skittish and not completely sure of his surroundings. He is extremely smart and learns quickly—and he remembers everything. I am sure his memory goes to a dark place when he’s uncertain.

Because of this personality trait, my trainer shared with me something I found fascinating. One particular day, while our dogs were playing, Louie would occasionally look over at Zig with that uncertain look, dropping his head, not really sure he wanted Zig in his space. Zig quietly proceeded to move to a sitting position on the floor, and then to a lying position. He explained that this was an extremely vulnerable position for animals, when they expose their belly. Louie, still somewhat unsure, seemed to ease up and approach Zig more easily. Zig’s willingness to be vulnerable helped Louie move beyond his uncertainty and build trust.

As leaders, are we willing to be vulnerable with our teams? Are we afraid to “expose our belly,” so to speak, for fear we will be seen as weak? This could be the most powerful tool in building trust within your team. And there is a delicate balance between sharing authentically and vulnerably and maintaining healthy boundaries. If a willingness to be vulnerable is not in your leadership development strategy, rethink your strategy.

Many leaders espouse appreciation for Brené Brown, author of several bestselling books on vulnerability and authenticity, but few truly walk out what she teaches. Why? Because many of us don’t know how to take the first step in putting down our masks and being real. “Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect,” she says. We are so concerned about appearing to be perfect; we post perfect Facebook pictures, we wear perfect clothes, our hair is perfectly coifed, and we insist others fall in line with our perfectionism, all for the sake of protecting our images. But please do not confuse excellence with perfectionism; they are completely different!

Successful organizations maintain cultures built on trust. This happens because courageous and confident leaders have a strong sense of love and belonging, and have removed their masks and aren’t afraid to “expose their bellies.” These leaders have a healthy balance of professionalism and transparency and enjoy truly deep, trusting relationships with their teams.

Louie whines because of doubt and uncertainty, but almost immediately after I adopted him, we began to build trust because I’ve learned from our trainer how to be vulnerable. Of course, with everything there are extremes and the key word here is balance. My buddy Louie seems to think that exposing his belly to me is the solution for everything. When he’s done something wrong or behaves badly, I clear my throat, stand up straight, and hold one finger up in the air as I look at him. He immediately falls down to the ground and rolls over—exposing his belly. We’re still working on balance.

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