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Vulnerability and trust in leader-follower relationships

Ann-Marie Nienaber (Center for Trust Research and Ethical Behaviour, Coventry University, Coventry, UK)
Marcel Hofeditz (Center for Management, University of Muenster, Muenster, Germany,)
Philipp Daniel Romeike (Research Centre Trust and Communication in a Digitized World, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Muenster, Germany)

Personnel Review

ISSN: 0048-3486

Article publication date: 1 June 2015




Vulnerability is a concept that lies at the core of the most prevalent academic trust definitions. Accordingly, a vast amount of scholars refers to vulnerability when studying trust. Surprisingly, there is almost no conceptual nor empirical work explicitly directed at understanding vulnerability itself. The purpose of this paper is to summarize and critique the existing base of knowledge of vulnerability with a particular focus on the leader-follower relationship and to open avenues for future research.


In the process of a very systematic literature search, the authors identified 49 studies that refer to vulnerability when studying trust at the interpersonal level. The authors coded the literature into conceptualizations, antecedents and consequences of vulnerability – with a particular focus on the leader-follower relationship.


The authors introduce a theoretical framework which allows the authors to structure the rather fuzzy discussed concept of vulnerability. The development of such a theoretical framework allows the authors to distinguish between trusting beliefs and actual trusting behaviour so that it is possible to separate the constructs of willingness-to-be-vulnerable and actual vulnerability.

Research limitations/implications

With the help of the developed framework, the authors point to the need for more work on vulnerability in order to take the study of trust to the next level. In this respect, the authors formulate several propositions that should be tested in future research.

Practical implications

Practitioners are made aware of the need to risk willingness to be vulnerable as a base for trusting behaviour. There is no way around being willing to be vulnerable.


This literature review provides a holistic understanding of the concept of vulnerability. The intention is to show the different understandings and interpretations of this term within the literature and identify which antecedents and consequences are related to the concept of vulnerability.



The authors would like to thank Greta Budde for her help in collecting and coding the studies underlying this review.


Nienaber, A.-M., Hofeditz, M. and Romeike, P.D. (2015), "Vulnerability and trust in leader-follower relationships", Personnel Review, Vol. 44 No. 4, pp. 567-591.



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Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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