The Three Levers of Trust: Humility, Vulnerability, Generosity


Fostering trust is paramount for leaders and team members alike. Whether working with employees we manage or peers we must collaborate with, when trust is high, the time to results is quicker. When trust is not present, we question intentions and micromanage outcomes. Bottlenecks emerge and speed to completion suffers.

If trust were the same as reliability, it would be easy to know how to build trust: just make sure you consistently deliver on your promises. But trust and reliability are different. Reliability is a statement about our past performance. Trust is an intuitive sense of how reliable a person will be in the future. We often make judgements about trust the instant we meet people with whom we have had no prior experience. We cannot pursue trust. Like love, the more we pursue it, the further from our grasp it seems. This is because trust, like love, is not an activity. Trust is an outcome; it is the outcome of the way we behave. Behavior is the lever of trust.

Through our decades-long research into great leadership, we’ve discovered three critical levers that leaders can pull to build trust by extending their trust to others: humility, vulnerability, and generosity.

  1. Humility: Reconciling Individual Performance with Collective Contribution

Humility should not be confused with self-effacement, meekness, and certainly not with false humility. Truly humble leaders can acknowledge their own contribution while also seeing it in the broader context of a bigger system. This requires a genuine willingness to recognize that success is not solely dependent on individual performance, while also allowing one’s individual performance to build quiet confidence. This cannot be performative; it must come from an inner reconciliation of these two seemingly opposite perspectives. When a leader is self-assured enough to be humble, they earn trust.

  1. Vulnerability: Risking our Image to Build Connection

Professionals create a brand for themselves in the workplace. As they advance in the organization, many leaders button up their image with the unintended consequence of becoming so polished that people don’t know what’s real. We don’t trust what we perceive as fake. Vulnerability is the courage to risk our polished image at times to let our intuitive wisdom and authenticity shine through. Vulnerability becomes a display of strength and confidence in one’s own value. Trust is demonstrated when leaders allow themselves to be open and exposed to others. By showing vulnerability, leaders convey that they are not threatened by exposure, but rather wise and grounded even when challenged.

  1. Generosity: Overriding the fear of exploitation

People are naturally wired to help and make a difference to others. In everyday life, it is rare for a request for help, even from a stranger, to be turned down without an explanation. So, why is it that in the work environment, people do not readily step forward to generously offer their help beyond the limitations of their job descriptions?

The reason is that as much as we are wired for generosity, we also have an instinctual fear of exploitation. We often fear that going beyond the call of duty could be taken for granted by our employers and managers. There are two things we can do as leaders to assuage their fear of exploitation: Firstly, by showing vulnerability we can ask them for help. A request for help gives out the message that we need them and appreciate what they do for us. Secondly, by showing them appreciation for even the small things they do beyond their narrowly defined job, shows them that we do not and will not take their efforts for granted. This showing of gratitude is not just a response to generosity, it becomes a driver of generosity inspiring others to do far more than we expect of them.

Start the cycle of generosity by trusting others to help you and offering genuine gratitude for the generosity with which they helped.

The journey towards building trust with team members and peers is a multidimensional process that requires leaders to embody the three levers of trust: humility, vulnerability, and generosity. By seeing trust as a two-way street, leaders acknowledge that being trustworthy alone is not enough, they also need to be trusting. Extending trust to our teams and peers, fosters an environment of mutual respect, support, and growth.

As leaders embrace humility, they build their own reputation by recognizing the collective efforts of the team. Embracing vulnerability allows leaders to show an unwavering commitment to showing up authentically, whatever the circumstance. Finally, practicing generosity demonstrates a willingness to be trusting, enabling a cycle of generosity and trust.

Humility, vulnerability, and generosity form the foundation upon which trust is built.