The 7 Ways that School Leaders Can Build Trust

by | Oct 11, 2020 | 0 comments

15 min read

Trust is the glue of life…the foundational principle that holds all relationships. ~ Stephen Covey 

Trust is a Social Contract in Schools

Trust is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon that has the ability to strengthen schools when it is high and cripple them when it is low. To dive into this topic, let us begin with a clear definition of trust: “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intention or behavior of another.”

Essentially, trust is a belief–it’s a social and organizational contract, built on a faith in positive regard for self and others. Trust gives us confidence that the people in our lives will do the right thing, especially in the absence of oversight or direction. And even though one of the best ways to build trust is to extend trust, most people don’t offer trust until they feel that it has been earned. That’s the biggest problem with trust. It’s paradoxical. On one hand, it must be gained over time in the creation of a bond; on the other hand, it needs to be demonstrated at the onset of a relationship.

The absence of trust in a school or on a team is detrimental. In the business world, it equates to the loss of revenue. In education, it means that relationships are torn and both achievement and wellbeing suffer for students. But in an altruistic environment like education, why do we suffer from diminished trust when we all came into this profession to help people, when all of us started with the same why. The answer lives within our leadership capacity to confront a culture of distrust and the 7 ways that leaders can build and restore trust in their schools.

The bottom line about the following 7 aspects of trust in schools is that each of them takes courage, candor, and compassion to execute well. To get good at being candid takes practice, and you can’t hesitate in an effort to begin if you want to transform your school into a place where people love to work and kids love to learn. That’s why we wrote Candid and Compassionate Feedback, because we know that leaders need a guide for being candid regarding teacher performance, shared decisions, and teacher leadership. For the following 7 trust scenarios to be at their best, you need candor and compassion.

7 Ways That School Leaders Build and Sustain Trust

1. With Self: The first, and most important, layer of trust is the trust that we place in ourselves to be effective in any given scenario. It’s the power of self-efficacy, and the strength to push yourself to meet your own and even higher expectations. When people say, “that took guts,” what they’re really saying is, “that took a ton of self-trust.” An extreme form of physical and mental self-trust is depicted in the picture below. That took guts!

2. With Others: The second place where leaders must learn to build trust is with others. This is the trust that a leader is able to garner with each individual person on the team. We earn trust with people by exhibiting an outward integrity–we mean what we say and we say what we mean. Our words and actions must be aligned for others to see us as honest and consistent. We must keep commitments–even the promises that others perceive us to make. The biggest fault of a leader who struggles to establish a trusting relationship with others is that they say one thing and then do something that doesn’t entirely match their words.

3. Restored With Others: This is where trust is paramount. Leaders are put in a position that often requires a decision to be made that others disagree with or might not have anticipated. Trust restoration is the layer of trust-building that effective leaders do well in order to move an organization past status quo. Whenever we have a relationship with someone, especially if that relationship is typically predictable or transactional, and we want to make a change within the organization, we put a strain on what the other person perceives as honesty. All aspects of trust require vulnerability, and, in this case, it takes a great deal of humility to restore trust once it has been strained or lost. This happens when a leader pushes a person past their level of comfort or makes an unwelcome decision that, at first, harms the relationship they have with that person, but then the leader repairs that relationship through a stronger sense of purpose, an explanation of the motives, and an understanding about the decision. Sometimes this is intentional from the outset, other times it’s brought on by a mistake. In any case, the leader restores the social contract, which strengthens the trust beyond its original form. With that said, leaders who know how to restore trust can build even greater bonds with the people they serve, even more so than leaders who create solid relationships but never put them to a test.


4. Between Others: Great leaders don’t just know how to develop a strong rapport with other people; they know how to create connections between other people. You can probably think of a leader who has a great relationship with almost everyone in the organization, but those people don’t necessarily have great relationships with one another. It’s for this reason that we built the Passionate Culture Dichotomy model in our Passionate Leadership book. It shows the distinction between high functioning schools with a dynamic work culture (high trust) from those that suffer from isolation (low trust).

A Passionate Leadership Culture

This layer of trust-building creates true team spirit. When leaders don’t have this skill, they often don’t understand why the team isn’t functioning well despite their positive rapport with each individual. The most effective way to build relationships between others is to use active affirmations. We can create collective efficacy by communicating the mastery experiences that we observe the members of our team having and verbally recognizing them in front of others (especially when they’re not around to hear our praise).

5. Restored Between Others: Disagreement, strife, and discord will inevitably occur between two or more people on your team. If it’s not addressed quickly and directly, a minor dissension can easily grow into a deep animosity and the inability to work well together. The key to rebuilding trust is by having what we call Empathy-Centered Conversations (ECCs). ECCs are facilitated by the leader when two people aren’t getting along. The basis of the argument is likely a lack of perspective so the conversation is meant for the leader to reveal to each party the other person’s outlook about the situation that occurred. Leaders are reluctant to engage in this way for fear that they’ll make the situation worse. They either hope that the situation will resolve itself or they believe it to be a function of human resources. But that’s not helpful. ECCs are designed to get at the heart of a problem for everyone involved to see and hear a point-of-view other than their own. Leaders who are skilled at ECCs and employ the tenets of C.A.L.M. are good listeners and use effective techniques to restore relationships.

6. On A Team: Team dynamics can be intense, especially among A-players. School leadership teams are typically composed of the best and most senior teachers. These folks are both highly effective in their classrooms and socially powerful in the school. It can be tricky to congeal a team of diverse tough-minded people, but that’s exactly what you want surrounding you when things get tough or when you’re trying to change a culture. We like Blanchard’s model for the ABCDs of trust on a team (depicted below). It’s a good test for if the right people are on your leadership team or if you need to replace one or two people like we learned from Katherine in Lencioni’s fable about teamwork. If any of your people are consistently unable to serve with competence, lacking in believability or integrity, seeming to not care about people, or unreliable in their role, you need to switch out that team member. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary, and we see it all the time where school leaders hang on to steering committee members who fail at one of these four pivotal characteristics of trust.

7. Restored On A Team: Because your leadership team members are all dominant in one way or another outside of the team meeting, they can be unintentionally off-putting to one another when the team gathers. For teams, trust is almost never static. It’s either strengthening or weakening, flowing in one direction or another at all times. Scientists have demonstrated that trust is biological. Having it or not stems from a chemical reaction in the brain that prompts or diminishes trust. If your team’s trust is low, it’s likely because there’s either too much testosterone pumping in the veins of your teammates during a meeting or not enough oxytocin. Sparing you the actual science, theory of mind is one activity that supports team empathy when trust is fragile. It’s simple but effective. One team member poses a problem that they’re having with their department (or the leader exposes one), and you go around the table whereby each person starts with this sentence stem: “If I were going to tackle that, I would do it this way…” Not only does this harmonize our intentions as a group, it also coordinates our behaviors over time. The impact is that we all start to react similarly to problems. It’s far better to work on group-think than group distrust.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Take on Trust

In his typical way, Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers unravels the inherent human problems that we have with trust and with judging others by their actions. He points to truth-default theory as the presumption we make that others are telling the truth (when we don’t really have evidence of the real truth or not). At the end of the book (spoiler alert), he says that we have guilt about it, and we shouldn’t. We drive against our own default, because of that guilt, and we suspect the worst in others as a defense against assuming the best. This seems to be exacerbated in schools these days. Instead of trusting one another to have the best intentions for each other and our students, we fight our human default, which produces skepticism and even paranoia. The reason that leaders are constantly restoring trust rather than building upon it is because we default to something other than the truth.


Habits of Distrust

But we’re not strangers. We’re educators. We’re colleagues. We’re friends. And friends can default to truth, to trust, especially in a world where Gladwell is asking us to do that with people we don’t even know. The problem with trust is not that we don’t have it within us as a natural predisposition. It’s that we rage against that disposition. And when we do so for long periods of time, we build a habit of distrust that only a skilled leader can break. It’s the job of a leader to confront and alter a culture that lacks trust, a culture that needs restoration. Because collective efficacy and teacher credibility are two of the highest effect sizes for any single strategy that impacts learning, trust in schools is a moral imperative. It’s more important now than ever before, and we know that our readers are poised to make the first, next, best move to lead better and grow faster.



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TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J.


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