Trending This Week: Why Vulnerability Builds Trust in Sales Leadership

Many sales leaders focus on remaining steadfastly composed at all times. But the right amount of earnest vulnerability can build significant trust.

January 26, 2018

In my experience, most people don’t like to show vulnerability on the job. The compulsion to avoid it is often magnified for business leaders who must earn and retain the confidence of their teams.

For many sales managers and execs, there is an understandable desire to appear steadfast and unflappable at all times.

Mostly those are great qualities. However, the idea that it’s not okay to show your softer side every now and then is increasingly being challenged in sales leadership circles. The latest excellent read on this subject comes from CEO Steli Efti, who wrote on his company blog that sales leaders should embrace vulnerability to be successful.  

“It’s a big part of leadership,” says Efti. “People want to know how their leaders feel, so that they better understand the business and its future.”

Navigating Tough Times

When things aren’t going well, it’s natural to react by downplaying the situation. Creating a sense of panic, where employees fear for the company’s well being or their own livelihoods, benefits neither morale nor productivity. And when a leader projects weakness or self-doubt, it can easily filter through to the rest of the sellers.

But as Efti points out, “Vulnerability isn’t showing weakness—it’s showing people how you deal with a challenge.” And when you do so in a genuine way, it is more likely to strengthen your reps’ resolve than send them into a state of alarm or dread.

Brené Brown, founder and CEO of Brave Leaders Inc, has given a TED Talk on the power of vulnerability. She calls it “the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity” and suggests that leaders who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable are far from weak; they’re courageous.

It’s easy enough to ignore a problem and hope it goes away. It’s much harder to face it head-on, transparently and honestly. But you’ll earn respect and faith with the latter approach.

Empathy and Trust

“Putting on a brave face (or avoiding the truth) means that you don’t trust your team to handle bad news,” Efti wrote on the blog. “You don’t trust them to follow your lead.”

Setting this example is important for multiple reasons.

Firstly, it helps develop a culture where team members are not afraid to be open and forthright. “They can ask questions that help to build trust,” says Efti. “They can share ideas and solutions. You can all work together to overcome whatever is in your way.”

Secondly, they’ll be more likely to incorporate this mentality into their own selling style. Heather Baldwin once wrote an article for Selling Power where she called vulnerability the secret weapon of small talk. Opening up the right amount conveys authenticity and credibility.

Think about it this way. Put yourself in the shoes of a buyer seeking a solution during a difficult economic period. It’s a major decision and you’re feeling considerable pressure to get it right. When engaging a seller, would you rather encounter someone who speaks in endless optimistic platitudes, or someone who acknowledges the challenging times, expresses empathy, and relates through their own personal trials?

Last year on this blog we asked a number of sales professionals to share with us tips they would go back and give their younger selves if they could. This response, from Shane Gibson, was particularly striking:

“Shed the blue suit, and have conversations other people are afraid to start. There’s only one of you – let ‘em out and disarm and enchant people with your authenticity and vulnerability. Be more vulnerable – say you don’t know when you don’t know. The more willing we are to learn new things, make mistakes, fail fast, and get up faster, the sooner we will reach your potential.”

All in This Together

Ultimately, vulnerability will help form cohesion and solidarity. As Efti points out, “It’s okay to communicate that you’re stressed or worried.” This will, in fact, let your reps know that it’s fine to feel the same way. As long as it doesn’t devolve into feelings of self-pity or defeat, shared trepidation can cause people to come together, prop one another up, and collectively make things better.

Strong, yet vulnerable: A worthy and timeless aspiration for any sales leader.

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