The word vulnerability has cropped up a number of times in this blog and elsewhere in the literature on trust. For example, the CIPD in a recent report stated:
As we know, trusting others means accepting vulnerability (Rousseau et al 1998). Human leaders recognise that in order to build trust and create sustainable trust environments, they need to share some of that vulnerability with their followers in order to signal to them their trustworthiness.
(CIPD, 2014, p18)
I agree, but there is a shadow side that is worth exploring that has implications for trust itself. On the one hand vulnerability could be seen as a ‘sugary’ term that implies goodness. I will put forward another view of vulnerability, one that is enmeshed in the goings-on of the workplace, which can be toxic and corrupt. The picture I will paint is of a fictitious police department in a small provincial city. Here there is a young moral police officer who is keen to progress through the ranks. She is new to the area and is keen to fit in. The team she is joining is longstanding and some of the members have worked with each other for many years. She is accepted politely but cautiously. Over the years it has become customary to engage in certain activities that are against rules such as clocking more overtime than actually took place and taking as much sickness leave as possible. Everyone in the department knows this goes on, even the senior managers, who did this when they were younger.
To be trusted, what does the young officer need to do? Perhaps to indulge in one of the practices she sees going on? As soon as this happens she becomes enmeshed in a web of longstanding mutual culpability. At this point she can be trusted to know more secrets, perhaps involving more serious activities. Over a period of time this once moral and honest person becomes a part of the criminality she was so keen to fight. And in a few years when a new member of the team joins she talks with them discreetly as to ‘how things are done around here’.
The point I’m making is that vulnerability is neutral, it is neither good nor bad. It only becomes so in practice. And the same goes for trust.
CIPD (2014) Experiencing trustworthy leadership Research Report September 2014.