Want to Build Trust? It Helps to Embarrass Yourself

Oh, those feelings of embarrassment! You feel your body start to sweat, your face turning red, and it feels as if every person in sight is staring at you while you make a buffoon of yourself.

Those embarrassing moments you experience may actually help build trust with others. A recent study by researchers at U.C. Berkeley suggests that the display of embarrassment may increase others’ perceptions of you as a trustworthy individual. Participants in this research watched videos of people describing their embarrassing moments and reported that they perceived those individuals as more generous and trustworthy compared to individuals who tried to downplay the situation and pretend they weren’t embarrassed.

I can’t say the results of this research are terribly surprising, but they do reinforce some fundamental truths about building trust.

  • Being “real” builds trust – We trust people when we perceive them as being authentic and down to earth. When people try to put on airs and pretend to be something or someone they aren’t, we immediately label them as being a fake, a phony, or a poser (pick your adjective). What’s the advice that virtually every parent gives their child who’s nervous about attending the first day of school and making new friends? “Just be yourself.” Displaying emotions of embarrassment tells others that you’re being real, that you acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation, and that you aren’t trying to be someone you’re not by pretending you’re not embarrassed.
  • Vulnerability builds trust – Being embarrassed is a moment of vulnerability when you can no longer hide behind your public persona and you’re subject to the reactions of those around you. People who try to hide their feelings of embarrassment probably have a low-level of trust in how they will be received by others in their social circle. Because of that lack of trust and unwillingness to be vulnerable, they try to hide their embarrassment so they don’t run the risk of being looked at as “less than” the people around them. Willingness to be embarrassed shows others that you are confident in your self-image and standing within the group and a few minutes of embarrassment won’t change the dynamics of your relationship.
  • Shared experiences build trust – Bonding occurs in a group of people when they all go through a common experience and embarrassing moments can serve as one of those community building events. This happened with my team a few years ago when I was given a surprise birthday gift during a team meeting. It was my 40th birthday and the team put together a PowerPoint presentation with embarrassing pictures from my childhood (courtesy of the covert help of my wife), one of which included a side-by-side comparison of my 9th grade high school photo with that of the movie character Napoleon Dynamite (there is a striking resemblance!). It was quite embarrassing and we all had a good laugh, but it brought us closer together and it lives on in the lore of our team.

So the next time one of those embarrassing moments comes along, don’t be a poser and try to pretend it didn’t happen. Embrace the moment, acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation, and use it as an opportunity to build trust and deeper relationships with those around you.

10 Comments on “Want to Build Trust? It Helps to Embarrass Yourself

  1. Great post Randy. As a professional performer/songwriter, I found out years ago that my mistakes on stage often led to the best moments of a performance, accidentally inviting the audience in to a more human view of who we were.

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    • Thanks for your comments Billy. Odd that you would mention that…in church this past Sunday the band started a song off-tempo and it just wasn’t going well. Instead of muddling through it, the leader just said “Hold on here. None of us are perfect here in this church so let’s just start this one over and try it again.” You’re right that admitting our mistakes puts us all on the same playing field.

      Take care,

      Randy

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  2. I fully agree with the three fundamental truths mentioned in your post. It is necessary for people to perceive leaders as being authentic, down to earth real people, instead of living on a pedestal. When the Leader comes down from the pedestal, it is much easier and more acceptable to show and share vulnerability and experiences.
    Insightful post!

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    • Hi Stephan. Being placed on a pedestal can be harmful for both the leader and follower. As you mentioned, I think that being authentic and down to earth with people builds more trust and respect in the long run and increases the value of your relationships. Thanks for your comments, I appreciate it.

      Best regards,

      Randy

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  3. This reminds me of when, as a young man, my boss asked me to take him to collect on of his vintage cars from a workshop. We went in his car and my job was to take his Audi home while he took the Jaguar e-type. I wasn’t familiar with the car and was so busy trying to figure out the controls that I bumped it as I pulled out of the workshop. Highly embarassing! In any event, even with this difficult personality, it didn’t complicate the relationship. If anything, we got aloong better afterward.

    I must warn against people who will abuse your vulnerability though. Some people are destructive by nature, and while they thrive on others’ embarrassment and vulnerability, they also use it to belittle and trample them. When these people are in authority, even good news is turned into catastrophe, and fixing the fault is more important than fixing the problem. I know you’ve met such a person – I’ve been told there are only three such people in the world, and I’ve met all three. One of these seem to get around quite a bit though, as everyone seems to have met her.

    If you do have the misfortune of meeting her, just remember that she has no right to trample or belittle you. You should also be assertive enough to tel her that it just isn’t OK, irrespective if others hear it or not. Perhaps something to the extent of; “I know I made a bit of a fool of myself, but don’t rub it in. I have apologised, what more do you want?” should do the trick nicely and put the embarrassment right back on her. People also respect and trust people who can stand up for themselves in these situations.

    Your articles are really good. I find it awesome that you focus on this one aspect of leadership and have so much to share that is insightful and helpful. I’ll keep coming for more.

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    • Hi Daryl. Thanks for your reply. You always have thoughtful feedback and I’m glad you find my blog helpful.

      You bring up an excellent point that we need appropriate boundaries in relationships and each of us is responsible for setting the expectations of how we want others to treat us.

      Best regards,

      Randy

      Sent from my iPad

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  4. Pingback: Embrace Your Embarrassment | Lawyerist

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