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Build Trust: Be Reliable, Competent and Sincere

STRATEGY: Understand that personal and professional relationships need to be nurtured on an ongoing basis and that trust can easily be broken.

Trust is frequently rated high in polls and surveys on leadership characteristics. A 2016 McQuaig Global Talent Recruitment Survey ranked building trust as the second most important leadership characteristic (behind empowering others), and a Pew Research Center survey shows honesty to be the most important trait. In terms of school leadership, Education World’s survey of forty-three principals reported that trustworthiness and credibility were viewed as highly important qualities for schools. According to Greater Good Berkeley, trust in schools comes down to one thing: psychological safety, which is the safety to speak one’s mind, to discuss with openness and honesty what is and isn’t working, to make collective decisions, to take risks, and to fail. These together form a school community of reliance and integrity that researchers, such as Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, suggest are required for deep organizational change and transformation.


There are external as well as intrinsic rewards for building a culture of trust within a school system. Trust lowers teachers’ stress levels, and teachers report feeling calmer and more confident. A trusting organizational culture encourages more staff participation in decisionmaking, greater collaboration between administrators and instructors, more impactful professional development, and teachers who report connecting better with their students and are more attuned to students’ relational needs.

Human capital coach Margie Warrell defines trust as the culmination of three factors: reliability, competency, and sincerity. Reliability concerns the degree to which colleagues can count on someone to manage and honor their commitments. Competency is “domain specific,” in that it depends on a certain content area or skill set that someone is being assessed in. Sincerity relates directly to an evaluation of someone’s character and integrity. Of all three factors of trust, Warrell cites sincerity as the hardest to build and to repair. Consequently, she poses a core question underlining professional relationships: “Can I trust this person’s integrity; are they someone who’ll do what’s right even if it costs them?” Warrell encourages professionals to reflect on how they inadvertently have allowed trust to falter through neglect or underperformance. A key behavior that undermines trust among colleagues is overpromising tasks when they lack the time, resources, or genuine commitment to properly deliver.

First Steps to Consider

Below are steps school leaders can take to build a culture of trust, as informed by Connected Principals.

  • Be clear, open, and honest with the decisions that educators make. Provide the rationale for change and plan for it properly. Leaders need to show the “right” motivation for why they make certain decisions in order to be trusted by staff and faculty.
  • When possible, consultation with teachers should occur before leaders make a decision. Be open to respectfully disagreeing when consensus cannot be reached.
  • Give timely, appropriate, and honest feedback to others. Focus on how they can improve and provide opportunities for others to do the same to you. Act on feedback given to you.
  • Do not promise something that you cannot deliver. If people mistake your intentions, then be quick to correct them before it is too late. Make sure promises are kept.
  • Follow up and follow through. If tasks are assigned to teachers, then make sure the tasks are completed properly and that appropriate conversations occur with anyone who struggles with the offering of support.
  • Engage in professional learning with teachers. If something is important, then teachers expect to have leaders present and actively involved.
  • Put others first, but don’t be a martyr about it. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to leadership.
  • Leadership is not about seeking credit for what you do. Acknowledge the role that others play in making things happen and celebrate their successes even if you yourself made a large contribution.
  • Avoid double standards. If a rule or norm is set, then leaders must model the way. If it is too inconvenient, then consider getting rid of the rule. If a leader’s actions do not back up their words, then they will not be trusted.
  • Joanne Collins, vice president of relationship management at StoneRiver, emphasizes that open intent is a prerequisite to building trust. She quotes Ernest Hemingway’s advice—“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”—before outlining strategies for building trust in an organization.
  • Be candid and authentic: Always be open and honest about your motives.
  • Open yourself up to input: Listen and ask for feedback.
  • Put yourself in their shoes: Try to understand what’s motivating the other person.
  • Give as much as you get: A relationship is built on the value of both parties; this can’t be a one-way street.
  • Don’t vent to others: Instead, communicate directly with the individual involved.
  • Steer clear of making assumptions: Seek clarification and understanding about someone’s motivation for their behavior.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Education policy has yet to prioritize the idea of building trust in school environments, and trust, like many qualitative psycho-social dimensions, is difficult to measure. Rating trustworthiness of schools requires organizations be honest and introspective, and most administrators are not trained in trust building. Another challenge is temporality—how past experiences and perceptions about leaders are difficult to modify, regardless of how effective the new leader may be. Accordingly, teachers moving to a new school may not immediately trust the school’s

leadership, and a new leader arriving at a school with low trust will be challenged to rebuild that trust. Furthermore, without providing a clear rationale for decision making, changes, or operations, school leaders will not be trusted.

A key component to building a culture of trust is allowing a gradual pace to build lasting relationships. As Vicki Zakrzewski, director of the Greater Good Science Center, stated, “Building trust doesn’t happen overnight … Being in relationship with each other is harder than rocket science. And it’s something that you always have to be working on.”

Guiding Questions

In what ways does your school currently facilitate a culture of trust?

Looking back over the past academic year, what are the biggest barriers to trust in your school?

How can trust, if broken, be prepared?