Psychiatrists and therapists face a daunting challenge. They usually have only a short time after first meeting a patient to earn their trust. Showcasing expertise and credentials helps in that process, but it only goes so far. Showing vulnerability, it turns out, can be an enormously effective tool for helping you succeed in a range of situations. Here’s how.
Tom, a psychiatrist, was one of our former executive education students. Whenever he met a new patient, rather than talking about his credentials or training, he would start off by dropping his pencil, telling a bad joke, or spilling his coffee. Other doctors, we later learned, have similar tricks–for instance, pointing to a hearing aid and explaining that their hearing isn’t very good. Why make a first impression by pointing out a weakness or making a clumsy mistake?
We can begin to answer this question by looking at a classic study led by Elliot Aronson at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1960s. Participants listened to a taped interview of a college student trying out for the College Quiz Bowl team (this was back at a time when representing your college in the Quiz Bowl was very prestigious). As part of the interview process, the “candidate” (who was really working for the interviewer) was asked 50 difficult quiz questions; they also shared some background information about themselves.
Unbeknownst to the participants, Elliot and his team created four versions of the interview. In one version, the “candidate” answered 92% of the questions correctly and had been an honors student, the yearbook editor, and a member of the track team in high school.
A second version had this exact same beginning, but tacked onto the end of the interview was a pratfall: The candidate spilled coffee. On the tape, participants heard the clatter of a cup and saucer, the scraping of a chair across the floor, and the candidate exclaiming, “Oh my goodness, I’ve spilled coffee all over my new suit.”
In a third version, the candidate only answered 30% of the questions correctly, and had earned average grades, was a proofreader for the yearbook, and had tried out for but not made the track team in high school. And the fourth version replicated the interview of the less impressive candidate, but ended with the same coffee spilling pratfall.
After listening to one of the four different interviews, who did the participants like best?
As you might expect, they liked the high-performing candidate better than the low-performing one. Yet strangely enough, it turned out that they thought most highly of the high-performing person who’d spilled their coffee.
A number of studies have since replicated these results and offered the same explanation: Highly competent people can make themselves appear more approachable by committing a pratfall. A small blunder makes them seem a little vulnerable, and this vulnerability makes them seem approachable and warm.
The effectiveness of this strategy debunks the common assumption that trust is something that can only be built slowly over time. By making yourself vulnerable, it’s possible to build trust in less time than it takes to mop up a spilled latte.
Of course, there are many ways to make ourselves vulnerable. Instead of spilling coffee, we can reveal a secret or make a mistake. One of our executive students was seen at work as highly competent yet cold in her demeanor, so she tried a new tactic: She purposely began to introduce typos and grammatical errors in some of her emails to colleagues to make herself seem more human, and thus warmer. After a while, her workplace relationships began to improve.
But not all pratfalls are good. As the Aronson study makes clear, in order to reap the benefits of appearing vulnerable, you have to establish your credibility first. It was only the high-performing student who benefited from spilling coffee. In the case of our former student, she only earned her colleagues’ trust by letting her grammar slip after she’d demonstrated her competence.
That points to a second caveat: You also have to be careful not to make yourself vulnerable in a way that undermines your credibility. Again, the context matters. Psychiatrists can build trust by spilling their coffee and saying, “I’ve never been very good with my hands.” Surgeons can’t.
It’s essential that the vulnerable episode doesn’t compromise the impression you give of your competence in the very domain where you’re trying to inspire trust.
Another one of our former clients represented an American auto manufacturer in a Japanese company in Yokohama. He was the only American in the office, and he was frustrated that he was always listed as a visitor in meeting minutes. One night, he went out on the town with his Japanese counterparts. They ate, drank, and sang karaoke. In all of the official documents issued from then on, his name appeared along with the local office staff.
Simply taking time to socialize with colleagues is an obvious way to build camaraderie and trust. But in this case, there was probably more to it than that. As most of us have learned the hard way, karaoke can be embarrassing. And that’s one reason it probably worked so well. It made the American seem more vulnerable, and therefore more trustworthy–all in a single evening.
This article is adapted from Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer. It is reprinted with permission.