What exactly is trust and how do leaders earn it?
Trust – the firm belief in the reliability, truth,
or ability of someone or something.
Oxford English Dictionary
When we talk about leadership, often we hear about trust. But when do we really talk about what do people mean by trust? Is it trust in an individual, a group, a direction or an organization? One thing we do know for sure is that when there is no trust, there is not likely to be effective leadership. Schools are organizations built on human interactions and relationships. If those relationships aren’t built on a foundation of trust, likely little innovation will take place when educational change is considered.
As a leader, first and foremost you can earn trust by demonstrating reliability. Reliability is about engaging in a task and following through. “Closing the loop” on items for which you have assumed responsibility. It can also mean reliability in terms of just being there. People gain trust over time when you simply listen with openness to what people need and respond with sincerity. People need to trust that someone will listen and that someone will attempt to make a difference.
Reliability in actions needs to be followed up with reliability in the messages you communicate. The ability to speak with consistency and clarity will engender trust. People need to be able to trust in the messages they hear. That trust is not only in hearing consistency but in hearing that you can take complex issues and form them into a structure that makes sense for people. Leaders are often in a privileged position in that they have much more information about rationales behind large scale innovations and directions. It is the leader’s responsibility to take that additional information and to weave it together in a simplified clear version that can be enacted by those are trusted with implementation. This messaging really needs to demonstrate that you not only understand the messaging that people need, but you understand what implementation looks like in schools with all their human complexity.
Finally, trust is earned through your own competency and by showing people that you have the ability to follow through on the actions you pursue. Competency, in a recent Harvard Review was described as having three components:
- Technical knowledge – This is the “what you need to do” aspect of leadership and management. Knowing the technical aspects of the work. In school leadership, you need to know about curriculum, assessment, the school act, regulations, orders, and management aspects of the job. Budgets, staffing, and the myriad of routine details that it takes to run a school.
- Operational knowledge – taking “what you need to do” above and translating it to “how are you going to do it?” This is the leadership imperative of understanding leadership, change, and how to mobilize your staff to accomplish the task ahead.
- Political knowledge – this refers to the getting things accomplished in the political environment of the workplace. The article does not mean “politics” as in democracy and government, but politics as in the network of relationships that exist in any organization. Political knowledge is how you exercise influence in the workplace and as a leader, you are expected to be skilled in motivating, inspiring and leading people.
Earning the trust of your colleagues is a complex and time consuming task. You need to demonstrate that you are reliable in actions and in words. You need to show your competency with a combination of technical, operational and political knowledge. You need to demonstrate that you not only actually talk the talk, but you walk the walk. You need to show that despite all your skills in the above, you are not perfect by any stretch and you need to tap into the skills of those in your organization. You need to collaborate with others to help sharpen decisions and to move forward in the implementation of change. This final aspect includes the importance of transparency.
Transparency is about revealing the rationale behind your decisions. Talk to people, show them your thinking and ask questions of people within the organization as you pursue change. The questions you ask will show your technical, operational and political knowledge of leadership and tasks ahead. Don’t try to be an expert on all issues. No matter what, there are always people around you who know more than you do. When you show your interest in other people’s knowledge and expertise and you value that, your trust and influence within the organization will grow.
The way in which you handle yourself in an organization and the ways in which you work with and influence others really is how you define yourself as a leader. Note that in none of the above explanation did we talk of authority. Leadership is about influencing others through relationships. The more you believe that leadership is about exerting power as a result of position, the more you will end up working toward becoming a manager and not a leader.
If you believe that leadership is about influence, then that influence follows from people trusting in you. Through your actions, you will earn trust and in turn will acquire followers who will help you achieve the goals you wish to pursue.
It is often said that managers have subordinates while leaders have followers. If you really want to be an effective leader, that journey begins by demonstrating your technical, operational and political expertise in a transparent manner. Embrace those with whom your work, tap into their knowledge and work within your teams.
It does work and it can be tremendously rewarding for all involved.