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The Most Basic Building Block of Cooperation and Trust

Imagine that you and a stranger ask each other the following two sets of questions:

Set A

  • What was the best gift you ever received and why?
  • Describe the last pet you owned
  • Where did you go to high school?  What was your high school like?
  • Who is your favorite actor or actress?

Set B

  • If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?  Why haven’t you done it?
  • What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  • When did you last sing to yourself?  To someone else?

At first glance, the two sets of questions have a lot in common.  Both ask you to disclose personal information, to tell stories, to share.  But the two have vast differences.  As you went through Set B, you will likely feel a bit apprehensive.  Your heart rate would increase.  You would be more uncomfortable.  You would blush, hesitate and perhaps laugh out of nervousness.  The second difference is that Set B would make you and the stranger feel closer to each other - around 24% closer than Set A, according to experimenters.  While Set A allows you to stay in your comfort zone, Set B generates confession, discomfort and authenticity that break down barriers between people and tip them into a deeper connection.  While Set A generates information, Set B generates something more powerful:  vulnerability. 

People tend to think about vulnerability in a touchy-feely way but that’s not what is happening.  It's about sending a really clear signal that you have weaknesses, that you could use help.  And if that behavior becomes a model for others, then the team can set aside insecurities and get to work, start to trust each other, and help each other.  If you never have a vulnerable moment, on the other hand, then people will try to cover up their weaknesses, and every little microtask becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.  Vulnerability is less about the send than the receiver.  The second person is the key.  Do they pick it up and reveal their own weaknesses, or do they cover up and pretend they don’t have any?  A shared exchange of openness, it’s the most basic building block of cooperation and trust and follows the same discrete steps:

  1.  Person A sends a signal of vulnerability
  2. Person B detects the signal
  3. Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability
  4. Person A detects this signal 
  5. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase 

Reference: Daniel Coyle. "The Culture Code"

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