Part 1 of this blog covered the definition of trust, and its main components and characteristics. The first two components of trust; humility and empathy, were covered in great detail. In this second part of the blog, we will dive into the third characteristic of trust, which is vulnerability. Vulnerability may be the most important of the listed trust attributes, as the word itself is used in the majority of scholarly definitions of trust. An yet, while the research is clear that vulnerability is essential to trust, many people are unaware that being vulnerable is also essential in business. Vulnerability and trust are important parts of business because they are crucial to the development of good working relationships, sincerity, and dependability.

Part 2 of the blog will explain the importance of being vulnerable, as well as the roles of dependability and sincerity in developing trust. It will also take a look at the conditions necessary for trust, and the process of trust development. As you read along it may help to think about your specific organization or business. Consider areas where you may need to work on forming more trusting relationships. Reflect on the importance of sincerity and dependability, and how these concepts apply to your business.


The ability to be vulnerable provides considerable risk. And yet, that risk is precisely what is described in these definitions of trust. Nienaber et al. stated that,

“Vulnerability is the key manifestation of trust between individuals.”

This statement is also in alignment with the definition of trust used by Rosseau et al. They said that,

“Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based on positive expectations of the intentions or behavior or another.”

Mayer et al. are often cited along with Rosseau as having a complementary definition of trust. They state that trust is,

“The willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.” 

All three of the aforementioned definitions reference vulnerability as the manifestation of trust.

What Does it Mean to be Vulnerable?

It’s important to note that different disciplines have included different definitions of vulnerability. For example, when describing vulnerability in terms of natural disasters, the United Nations states,

“The concept of vulnerability stresses the fundamental importance of examining the preconditions and context of societies and communities (for example, different social groups) and elements at risk.”

In the social sciences, Chambers defined vulnerability as,

“…exposure of contingencies and stress, and difficulty in coping with them. Vulnerability has thus two sides:  an external side of risks, shocks, and stress to which an individual or household is subject; and an internal side which is defenselessness, meaning lack of means to cope without damaging loss.”

The Risks of Being Vulnerable

A strong case can be made that it is inherently risky to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable, and experiencing risks, can produce stress. The willingness to accept this risk, despite the stress, is a sign of trusting behavior. According to Nienabler et al., the acceptance of risk is also directly related to the acceptance of vulnerability, and is related to cognitive trust. For without risk, there is no need for trust, and thus, no reason for vulnerability. Mayer put it in even simpler terms by saying that without the acceptance of vulnerability, there is no trust.

When encouraging others to trust, displaying vulnerability is a crucial factor. As this vulnerability is exposed, trust can begin to develop and relationships can grow. Paul Zak said that,

“Vulnerability is a sign of strength because it signals teamwork rather than dominance.”

His view shows how critical vulnerability can be in establishing trust in business. Participants must be willing to be vulnerable and trust to perform effectively as a team. Not only that, but the act of trusting another person is also a reflection on one’s own trustworthiness. Huang and Wilkinson stated that,

“One of the ways of encouraging others to trust you is to demonstrate your trust in them by committing, in words or deed, to the action that make you potentially vulnerable to opportunistic actions by the other party.”

When examining trustworthiness and exhibiting trusting behavior, one must consider the three characteristics of trust. I have identified them as:

  • humility
  • empathy
  • vulnerability

All three characteristics play a role in the development of trust. However, there are also some conditions that must be met before trust can fully developed. In the following section, I describe the conditions for building trust, and explain why they are necessary for the establishment of trust.

Conditions for Trust

Trust development has been viewed as a slow, iterative process. It is developed through a series of positive, reciprocal acts between parties. During this process, the recognition of self-interests leads to the development of positive intentions needed for trust development. The development of trust is possible when tangible benefits are present. This happens when at least one party recognizes the benefits, and inherent risks, associated with trusting. The intention of one party must be present to begin the development cycle. 


Rousseau, et al. describe intention as having a desire to accept vulnerability, and possessing expectations or wishes of the trustee. Mayer et al. substituted intention with the term willingness. In both of these definitions, intention and willingness were used as actions related to vulnerability. Thus, it is clear that accepting vulnerability is a critical construct in the development of trust.

To provide consistency throughout this article, I use the word intention synonymously with willingness. The definitions I use for trust are grounded in the work of Mayer et al. and Rousseau et al. Both of these groups recognized that possessing an intention to be vulnerable to the acts of others is an essential condition of trust. It is also an act of faith to be vulnerable to others. This is because one must have faith that the other will not abuse that trust, and cause harm. 

For trust to be established, an intention is necessary from the trustee and the trustor. Rousseau et al. said that the vulnerability that the trustor faces is based on the intentions of the trustee. These intentions are related to willingness to complete the task, or honor the commitment to the trustee. To be trustworthy, one must also desire (possess the intention) to be worthy of trust. This intention to be trustworthy is what allows people to maintain positive relationships. It also may be the only motivation needed for the trustee to deliver on a promise.

In order for the Circle of Trust to begin, one must posses the intention to trust. This condition is essential to starting the trust cycle, and sincerity is what allows the circle to continue. However, as I will show in the next section, without the conditions of reliability or dependability, trust development is unlikely to occur.

Reliability and Dependability

Scholars have recognized reliability as a critical influence in the formation of cognition-based trust. McAllister also cited the ability to deliver on one’s promises as a condition of affective trust. Dependability differs from reliability because of the aspect of vulnerability in the definition. Dependability is where one person is dependent on another to deliver whatever outcome is necessary. The ability to deliver outcomes also requires competence in the task at hand. So logically, competence is a factor in dependability.

Research has shown that before people can be deemed reliable, it is necessary for them to complete repeated cycles to prove their dependability. This is why scholars can agree that trust is a construct that takes time to develop. Reliability and dependability are elements that complete one path of the Circle of Trust. This path leads to the party’s recognition of the other’s sincerity, beginning the next cycle in the Circle of Trust.


Sincerity is often used as a synonym of authenticity. While these terms are similar, there is a difference. Authenticity is being true to one’s self and one’s beliefs, and allowing one’s true self to be seen. It has also been described as a condition of ethical choices and a state of being. Authentic behavior is a consistent application of words and actions, based on beliefs and values. Bernard has stated that authenticity is a trait associated with the foundation of leadership. For example, in transformational leadership theory, many concepts of authentic leadership are applied to business.

So, what is the difference between authenticity and sincerity? Avolio and Gardner say that sincerity refers to,

“the extent to which one’s outward expression of feelings and thoughts are aligned with the reality experienced by the self. This definition implies that one is interaction with another besides oneself.”

R. Gill underscored the importance of sincerity in interactions when stating that,

“a mismatch between actions and espoused values denotes hypocrisy, which destroys credibility and trust.” 

In reference to organizations and business, authenticity is derived from a combination of:  transparency, honesty, experienced-informed intuition, and moral courage. Bernard states that sincerity is present when authentic characteristics translate, and are understood by others. This in turn allows trust to develop, both with individuals, and throughout an organization. In short, sincerity allows others to know where one is coming from. This perspective mitigates some risks, and allows for others to trust more readily. The recognition of sincerity, in and between participants, leads to the next cycle in the Circle of Trust. Respect is earned during this stage of the Circle of Trust process.


To respect something is to hold it in high regard. However, respect is also a multifaceted construct. Darwall defined two distinct forms of respect, recognition and appraisal. Each type of respect has its subtleties.

  • Recognition respect stems from a moral position and is the type of respect every person deserves. This kind of respect acknowledges the dignity in another human being, or respect for person. 
  • Appraisal respect is unlike recognition respect because it is earned. This kind of respect is granted based on an appraisal of another individual’s characteristics or skills. Appraisal respect requires that the rationale for giving respect is based in fact. 


The relationship between humility and respect is apparent in Schein’s book, Humble Inquiry. In the book, he described three types of humility. 

  • Basic Humility
  • Optional Humility
  • Here and Now Humility

Basic humility is where one shows deference to positional, or social, power. Schein described this humility as a condition, rather than a choice. Optional humility is when one feels a sense of respect and deference based on another person’s accomplishments. In here and now humility, one lowers their status because of a dependency one may have on another person.

In Schein’s work, the terms respect and humility are often transposed. This seems to be because all three definitions of respect translate to the action of humility, or showing deference. Humility also goes hand in hand with respect, which is a precursor to the development of trust. It’s clear that without humility and respect there can be no trust, especially in business negotiations.

Trust Development

In this last section I explore how trust has traditionally been developed, and how it fits into the Circle of Trust. The traditional approach to trust development is that it is a slow and deliberate process. The process can successfully begin if one party understands that the benefits of trust outweigh the risks of being vulnerable. It requires one party to make an intentional first step, and to enact trusting behavior. The recipient of this trusting behavior can then respond in a variety of ways. They can decide to take no action, decide to reciprocate trust, or reject the overture outright.

The cycle of trust development begins when a trusting action is reciprocated. The back-and-forth nature of trusting behavior, and reciprocity, starts with small gestures. It gradually grows, until trust has developed between the parties. While developing trust is typically a slow and deliberate process, the process can sometimes be accelerated. This happens if the parties recognize the value of their self-interest in developing trust. Both parties then take the risk to become vulnerable and develop trust, because it is in their best interests. This can often be the case in business, where goods and services are exchange to the benefit of both parties.

How to Become More Trustworthy

There is no prescribed method for teaching the characteristics of trustworthiness, humility, empathy, and vulnerability. However, with modeling, these traits can be learned. In order to develop the characteristics of trustworthiness, one must put in effort. According to Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez, the effort to gain humility, empathy, and vulnerability takes time, because these are not innate human behaviors. And while we have learned that there is no prescription for teaching trust, trusting behaviors may already be present in those who possess the propensity to trust.

This is good news for those who wish to learn and grow, and develop more vulnerable and trusting relationships. Those without the propensity to trust can learn to exhibit trusting behaviors over time. This is done through observing and modeling the acts of those who display trustworthiness. As we now know, developing trustworthiness is crucial for success and dependability in the business world. And one must be trustworthy in order to create lasting business relationships and successful partnerships.

If you would like to learn more about the Circle of Trust process, or feel that you could benefit from executive leadership coaching, contact Lead2Goals for more information. We can facilitate the process of building trust and dependability in your business relationships, and increasing trust within your team. Additionally, this blog is a revised section of a more in-depth study on trust. If you would like to read the entire body of work, or see additional citations, please let us know.

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