An exchange on Twitter today made me thoughtful.

Trust tweets 2

I recognise that building trust is key to positive professional (and personal!) relationships, and trust is something which can take time to establish, and yet can be very quickly damaged.  When you become a leader, whether internally or externally appointed, you have to demonstrate that you are worthy of trust.  You will not be infallible, and I do not believe those we lead expect us to be perfect.  However, they do expect us to be honest, and when we get things wrong to apologise, learn and move forward.  I have said elsewhere that a degree of self-doubt and the capacity for humility make us stronger leaders.  I would suggest that admitting to your mistakes, not blaming others for your own failings, not taking credit for the ideas and achievements of others, and stepping up to take responsibility for the team as a whole are all an important part of earning the trust which should enable you to build and develop a strong team.  You do have to show you are capable and credible, so that those you lead have confidence in your judgement, your integrity and your leadership.

And what about trusting others?  I believe that if you take on the leadership of a new team, you have to assume you can trust those within it unless you have clear evidence to the contrary.  If you withhold trust until others have won it, this suggests that you are expecting the worst and it always seems to me that sending out the message that you do not trust people is a very negative beginning.  I can honestly say that during my 30 years in schools, and in the eight years since then working with teachers and leaders at all levels, I have known far more competent and committed professionals than weak, unscrupulous or lazy ones.  Most of us, I believe, care about our students and colleagues and want to do the best job we can.  Many unhelpful working practices in the past (constant checking on marking, planning and through lesson observation – to grade/judge rather than to learn/develop) seem to me to be based on the premise that staff cannot be trusted and have to be constantly closely monitored so that they don’t “get away with it.”

But what happens if you do have leadership responsibility for someone you aren’t confident you can trust?  As I said in the Twitter exchange, blind trust or naivety will lead us down a difficult and dangerous path.  If we want the team we lead to be effective, to develop positively over time and to achieve all it can, then mutual, well-deserved trust is important.  And if anyone is not worthy of trust, that has to be addressed.  Consider the following:

  • If you have doubts about whether or not you can trust someone, there needs to be at some stage a challenging conversation so that the issue can be tackled.  The conversation needs to be thoroughly prepared for and sensitively handled.  The aim should be to try to achieve a win/win so that both parties feel more positive, rather than less positive, at the end of it.  It shouldn’t be an adversarial exchange from which you are determined to emerge the victor.
  • Everyone needs an appropriate balance of support and challenge and you need to be invested in working with every colleague you lead to help them to fulfil their professional potential.  Explore what they need from you, and what is within their own control.  Do not fail to recognise that often those who are in some way under-performing may be motivated by fear.  You need to be open, honest and clear so that messages are successfully communicated and unambiguous – and this can still be done in a way which shows your humanity and empathy.
  • Consider this as a journey with measurable steps through which you can gauge progress and offer encouragement so that there is evidence of improvement over time and, perhaps slowly, a measure of trust can build and strengthen.  Knowing you are on the right track can be hugely motivating.
  • Recognise that people can change, and resist the impulse to hold fixed views where you do not give others credit for what they have tried and how they may have moved forward.

I do accept that there may be some who are not cut out for the profession (though I would always advise trying a change of school/context before anyone walks away from teaching. See here) and occasionally I have known colleagues who have needed to be counselled out.  But this is very rare, in my experience, and, especially as we face the current challenges with respect to teacher recruitment and retention, working hard to help those who need particular support to become the professionals they could be – capable, respected, trusted – is crucial.  And it is how everyone deserves to be treated.

What do you think?

For further reading on the subject of trust, look up what Megan Tschannen-Moran has to say, including in ‘Trust Matters’ (second edition 2016):

Photo credit: John Berry



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