LG7: Trust

This chapter of Leading Generously contains my first real TK TK TK — I’m not happy with how this section wraps up, in part because I’m not convinced the section goes at all far enough. I’m developing a plan for conducting interviews with folks willing to share their thoughts and stories with me; if you’ve got ideas and are open to sharing them (anonymously or in an attributed way) do contact me at kfitz @ kfitz.info.


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Without trust, there can be no community.

Transforming an organizational culture requires a deep level of trust among those working for change. They need to believe in one another’s goodwill and commitment, and they need know that the collective will have their backs in tricky moments. In a trusting community, people are able to experiment, to suggest new paths, to take risks. Without trust, they close down. They stagnate.

I’ve worked in deeply mistrustful environments in which, for instance, no one had confidence in the ways that management would receive new ideas — and so no one had new ideas. Open communication was minimal, but the backchannels were filled with discontent. And morale was terrible; everyone kept their heads down and did what they had to do, but almost no one was happy about it.

I’ve also worked in environments in which everyone felt they had the room to think differently, to disagree, to propose radical changes to ways of working. Everyone knew those ideas would be soundly critiqued and that the suggestions might finally be rejected, but they felt confident that their colleagues all shared a common mission and a set of common values with them, and that airing their disagreements would push them in a positive direction. These environments were collegial in the deepest sense: rarely in full agreement, not always “nice,” but bound by a shared trust in one another’s motives and commitments.

So this is the point at which you might be thinking, “great! How do I build that kind of trust within my team?” And this is also the point at which this book, as a manual containing anything like actionable advice, might begin to fall apart for you. Because I don’t know of any easy answers here. Building trust of the kind that lays the groundwork for a functional, flexible, agile organization can’t be done overnight. There’s no simple formula that can get you from that first environment I described to the second one.

But there are a few seeds that I can give you, seeds that have to be cultivated consistently over time in order for trust to take root. The first is in some ways the most obvious: trust is a two-way street, and you have to trust your team if they’re going to trust you in return. And one of the key ways in which you can exercise your trust in them, and build their trust in you, by working toward transparency in your processes and communications.

Transparency, in case it need to be said, doesn’t mean giving everyone control of or even access to decision-making. It means, rather, making the walls around those processes see-through. That is to say, it means giving the members of your community insight into the ways you go about making decisions. It means offering them the opportunity to share their input. It means explaining the factors that constrain decision-making. And it requires follow-through, explaining decisions where they contradict the advice or input that’s been given.

Each stage of a transparent decision-making process requires trust on all sides. We might think back to the example I mentioned in talking about vulnerability: the dean of my college has created an extensive task force, composed of faculty and staff leaders, to make recommendations to him on budget cutting in the midst of the current fiscal crisis. This task force, divided into subcommittees, has been charged with looking into a wide range of possibilities, including restructuring programs and departments, refocusing academic programs, and more besides. The goal is to find potential savings while maintaining all of the values and principles that our college holds and while continuing to work toward our most aspirational goals. The decisions about the college’s future will finally be the dean’s to make, but the people working on the task force are being asked to think deeply about very difficult questions and are being assured that their work will be taken seriously.

Opening up a question as serious as this one to community discussion requires a lot of trust. The dean has to trust that the members of the task force will understand the complexities of the question, will consider the constraints involved, will adhere to a set of communally derived values and principles in thinking through their ideas, and will finally provide constructive suggestions. The task force, for its part, has to trust that they’re being given all of the information they need to consider, that they have the freedom to investigate some perhaps unexpected possibilities, that the final report they make to the dean will be thoroughly considered, and that the dean will hold to the same set of values and principles in making his final decisions. And in the end, the dean will have to trust the people he works with by communicating his decisions in a way that reveals the reasoning behind them, and the rest of us will need to trust in the dean’s reasoning, even in the entirely likely event that we disagree with some parts of it.

The root of the trust required for transparency, and the root of the trust that transparency builds, is open, forthright communication, based in an adherence to shared values and principles and backed by a willingness to acknowledge and account for errors. Trust, at its best, is an action rather than a state; it doesn’t so much exist as it circulates, enabling better communication and growing as a result of that communication. Trust is a virtuous cycle, expanding as it is nourished.

Being such a virtuous cycle, however, makes trust far easier to break than it is to build. This happens all too frequently in organizations that claim kinds of openness that they do not follow through on, organizations that point to and then ignore the recommendations of systems of shared governance. If you open up a process in order to make it transparent, for instance, and you invite investment in that process on the part of a team, but then ultimately disregard the team’s input without a full and forthright explanation of the choice being made, you not only throw away the trust that could have been built in this process of team investment and communication but you also undermine the trust required to get a team to invest in such a process in the future.

And then there are the breaches of trust that are more serious, breaches that stem from violations of the shared values and principles on which your community is based or from failures of accountability in response to such violations. Too many institutions have experienced such breaches — often, as at my own institution, stemming from horrifying cases of sexual assault and harrassment that have been ignored or covered up in order to protect the institution. These cases not only give the lie to the administration’s claims to working within the values that our community espouses, but also demonstrate the deepest failure to understand that the institution is nothing without the people that it comprises. The institution cannot be protected if the people that make it up are not cared for first and foremost. And when it emerges that the administration thinks of the institution before its people, by allowing egregious violations of community norms to continue without holding the perpetrators accountable, trust is broken in an all but irreparable way.

In such cases, the path forward likely requires a full and painful accounting of the failures that allowed the violations to go unaddressed. This path might draw heavily on principles of restorative justice, or practices of truth and reconciliation. But until the wrong has been fully addressed, and until the circumstances and the structures that allowed the wrong to occur are transformed, the community cannot trust that it will not happen again. And without that trust, the community cannot survive.

Leadership requires trust at every level, and so the first job of the leader of an institution or a team in crisis has to be rebuilding that trust.

[There’s much more that needs to be said — more specific examples of how trust can be rebuilt, more cautionary tales about the reasons why trust is imperative — that I’m hoping will lead me to a stronger conclusion to this chapter.]

13 thoughts on “LG7: Trust

  1. Kathleen, I am wondering if building trust is akin to succession planning. Incoming leaders usually commit to listening and learning and benefitting from institutional memory. Leaders about to exit not only encourage organizations to remain true to their principles but also ensure the record of joint accomplishments carries on to inspire future members of the organization. Trust relies as you have pointed out on open communication and shared values. I wonder if that is not accomplished by a historical perspective: self and organization evolve. With the long view, change is possible. The possibility of change builds trust because a it-might-be-otherwise view leaves room for coming-together. At least it provides a ground for alternative stories. Of course, good institutional memory rests on excellent record keeping. Trust is not just about commitment to those we engage face to face but also those that come before and are to come after. A leader should be able to articulate that in a meaningful fashion.

    I hope this helps a little and sparks the elaboration you are seeking,



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