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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Four Essential Practices for Building Trust

Are you communicating in a way that inspires trust?

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Leaders hold challenging positions in today's schools. Often hired to initiate change and increase student performance, leaders can find it difficult to build trust with their colleagues.
Yet we know that trust is "the one thing that changes everything." In an organization with high trust, when the leader says the wrong thing or says it in the wrong way, people still understand what was intended and give the leader latitude to make mistakes. In contrast, when a leader makes a mistake in a low-trust organization, distrust of his or her intentions leads to problems and creates a barrier to meaningful change.
The presence of trust can enhance an organization's efforts to fulfill its mission, and the lack of trust can constrict those efforts. Communication is a primary tool for building trust within an organization. Here we offer four essential guidelines to help school leaders communicate in a way that builds trust.

1. Build trust by understanding trust.

An essential building block for a high-trust organization is having a leader who is aware of how his or her own behaviors may build or tear down trust. When we asked educators how leaders build trust, their answers revealed three qualities that their leaders communicated through words and actions: care, character, and competence.
Care. Leaders communicate care by expressing concern for others' well-being. For example, knowing that a faculty member is scheduled for hip surgery, a caring administrator might offer to adjust the teacher's schedule to minimize standing. Activities to build consensus or to involve others in decision making communicate that the leader cares about others' ideas.
Think about the leaders with whom you work. To what extent do these leaders care about you as a person? How does the level of care that a leader has for you affect the way you work?
Character. The complex social problems presented in our schools provide many opportunities for leaders to demonstrate character in the decisions they make for students and teachers each day. Leaders have a responsibility to ensure that students have teachers who care and the resources necessary for learning. Dealing with substandard conditions requires courage to stand up and act for those who have less power.
In your organization, what do you stand for, and what does that say about your character?
Competence. In most professional settings, competence is a prerequisite to trust. We want to work with leaders who have the knowledge and skills to handle difficult situations. Competent leaders are continual learners, improving their practice and supporting others. They can identify struggling teachers and provide support through directed conversations and assigning appropriate mentors. Moreover, competent leaders understand the change process and provide differentiated support for faculty members when change happens. In schools, teachers are more likely to trust their leaders if the leaders demonstrate competence.
Think about the leaders with whom you work. How does their competence influence your trust in them?

2. Build trust by monitoring your reactions.

As a leader, you are almost always on stage, being watched by teachers, students, administrators, or parents. These people often gauge their perceptions of a situation on the basis of your reaction to it. If you panic, a sense of worry can spread like wildfire. If you erupt in anger, that reaction can create a culture of fear. Or perhaps you wear a worried look that results in speculation across your organization about what might be wrong. Because your words and actions set the tone for the rest of the school, train yourself to maintain a poker face. Know what pushes your buttons and be aware of how you react to difficult situations. You have probably heard the saying "fake it till you make it." Heed this advice by controlling your reactions—including your voice, your words, your facial expressions, and your body language—in stressful situations. Practice maintaining your composure under pressure.
An important part of monitoring your reactions is to think about how they will affect someone else. We worked with a principal who was known for berating teachers in his office whenever a parent called to complain, without gathering more information about the situation or asking the teacher about the parent's assertion. This quick-tempered, reactionary approach led teachers to distrust the principal and avoid bringing their genuine concerns to his attention. Hurtful words spoken in anger can leave a lasting impression, even after a sincere apology.
An effective leader resists the urge to offer opinions or recommendations until he or she knows the entire story and can make an informed decision. Get the facts and then choose a calm and calculated reaction. Don't give in to pressure to speak before you know what to say. Sometimes the best option is simply to say that you will look into the situation and follow up when you have more information.
Know your moods and how you come across to others when you are in a particular state of mind. If you are grumpy or more reactive when you are tired, take extra steps to monitor your reactions when you did not get enough sleep the night before. You will certainly face days when you are in a bad mood and want to snap at someone who is not doing a good job. Choose your words and reactions carefully, and ensure that your body language conveys a thoughtful response.
Develop a support system, perhaps with another administrator, to share your concerns in confidence. Those on your support team can also help you identify facial expressions or other nonverbal cues that may communicate an unintended message.

3. Build trust by addressing concerns.

Most people dislike conflict, and many of us tend to avoid confrontation if possible. However, having the courage to address concerns builds trust. People count on your competence as a leader, and addressing concerns is an important component of competent leadership.
But do not reprimand the entire organization when the concern only involves a few individuals. If three teachers consistently arrive to school 15 minutes late, speak directly to those individuals. A reprimand to everyone in a faculty meeting or in an e-mail about arriving on time might feel like punishment to those who are arriving on time and thus might erode trust. Correcting concerns effectively means that you talk to people individually, in person and in private, about the behavior. Never try to shame or embarrass someone; instead, express empathy while making sure your expectations are clear and understood.
As a leader, it is important for you to address incompetence. Set, review, and monitor expectations. Make sure you know what competent teaching looks like and that you know the best way to manage teachers who aren't meeting expectations. Stay aware of current state laws, district policies, and appropriate personnel management techniques.
When working with a faculty member, ask questions, listen, and observe, and then provide honest and specific feedback that includes written documentation. Working with someone to discuss what he or she is not doing well is difficult; persistence and commitment are required for this time-consuming process. Your level of courage and skill in dealing with incompetence can have a direct impact on building and maintaining trust in your organization.

4. Build trust by saying "thank you."

Sincere and frequent expressions of appreciation help build trust. Although a simple thank-you is better than none, a specific and detailed expression of thanks reinforces and affirms people's actions. How frequently do you thank others? Perhaps you are like many who have thoughts of thankfulness but have difficulty with the follow-through.
Turning your thoughts of gratitude into deliberate and frequent exchanges can help you build trust. This three-step plan can help you turn appreciative thoughts into actions.
1. Check your attitude and observe. Develop an attitude of gratitude by reviewing all the events of your past week. Look at your calendar. Who helped with various events? Take a walk through your building noticing the displays of student work, teachers working with students, or staff assisting visitors. Simply observing the activities and interactions within your school can give you many ideas for individuals to thank.
2. Make a list of people to recognize. Writing a list is better than relying on memory. You can include details that will help you be specific in your praise. A list can also serve as a reminder to follow through when you can't express gratitude right away. And it can serve as a record of those you've recognized and perhaps alert you to those you've forgotten.
3. Consider your mode of delivery. Thank people in a variety of ways, through written notes, e-mails, and verbal exchanges. All these forms help others know what you value. Still, with today's focus on electronic communication, handwritten notes can be especially powerful. We know of teachers who have saved every thank-you note given to them, and these words of gratitude continue to encourage them.

Take Time to Reflect on Trust

Some leaders underestimate the power of relationships in solving their problems. Many well-intentioned leaders are simply unaware that their words and actions erode trust. Some who are aware lack the strategies to address trust issues.
We encourage you to reflect on your trust-building strategies: What are your strongest trust-building qualities (care, character, competence)? How might your quick-tempered reactions affect others' trust in you? How are you addressing problems among your teachers? How do you offer appreciation to others? And how will you express your appreciation in the future?
End Notes

1 Covey, S. M. R. (2006). The speed of trust. New York: Free Press, p. xvii.

2 Combs, J. P., Edmonson, S. L., & Harris, S. (2013). The trust factor: Strategies for school leaders. New York: Routledge.

Sandra Harris has written for Educational Leadership.

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