These are tough times for trust. Well before the pandemic, doubt and skepticism were growing in our society as a whole, and particularly in politics. Doubt and skepticism are contagious. What grows in one area can quickly spread to others.
Education and schools have not been immune. For generations, parents and the public consistently expressed high levels of confidence and trust in education. The public generally saw education as a way to improve our society and create opportunities for success so young people could do better than their parents. Taxes for public purposes, including education, were seen as investments in our collective future.
Consistent with erosion of trust in other public institutions, over the past few decades, doubts have grown about the performance of schools. Educators have often been blamed for the perceived lack of progress achieved by schools, despite dramatic expansion in the scope of the population being educated and significant shifts in the demographics of students attending our schools. Of course, education has not always progressed at a pace consistent with the needs of our society. Yet, there is more evidence that the problem is rooted in how our schools are designed and organized than there is that educators are not doing their best to serve the needs of students.
On the surface, the challenge of building and maintaining trust can seem insurmountable, even if we have done nothing to undermine or violate the trust of those we serve. Yet, while the challenge is significant there are steps and strategies we can employ to build trust and diminish skepticism over time. Here are five ways to build and sustain trust, even in the midst of controversy and conflict.
Start by keeping the focus of your decisions and communication on the core mission of your organization. Decisions that prioritize the interests of learners and learning are more likely to be accepted than decisions that do not include a “why,” or reasons that are not clearly aligned with and supportive of the mission. Don’t assume that constituents can see the connection by themselves. Consistently reference the core mission of learning and learners when making key decisions and communicating about direction. Conditions may change and the challenges may shift, but the more consistent you can be about what drives your decisions the more trust you will build, especially when the core is what is best for learners and learning. When learning and learners at the center, it is much more difficult for skeptics to pushback, even when they may prefer another option.
Establish decision criteria in advance where possible. Discussing what should drive considerations in advance of a decision can help constituents understand why certain criteria are important to evaluating options. Availability of decision criteria in advance can also help to prepare people for what may lie ahead. When a key decision is made, refer to the criteria as part of the rationale and confirm the decision with criteria-related data and evidence. Of course, be sure that the criteria are reflective of the purpose of the organization. Depending on the specific situation, you might even consider engaging constituents in discussions about the best criteria to use.
Be visible. Apart from any specific controversy or decision, be physically or virtually present throughout the organization and community. Be sure that people see and can easily engage you. There is a direct correlation between leaders who people often see as engaged in constructive, non-controversial things and the level of trust they offer when difficult decisions have to be made. You can build a “benefit of the doubt” quotient well in advance of having to make difficult or controversial decisions.
Anticipate questions and provide full information when announcing and communicating about challenging decisions. Don’t wait for people to ask. Anticipating questions allows you to frame answers and provide reassurance before doubt and rumors begins to emerge. Further, having thought about the concerns and perspectives of others offers reassurance that the decision is well-thought out and is more likely to be trusted.
Be ready to listen and open to feedback and criticism. How we respond to questions, doubts, and criticism can send important signals to listeners about how confident we are in actions we are taking. Defensiveness can undermine and even sink workable solutions and credible paths forward. Of course, there are times when we might miss key implications or fail to anticipate some outcomes resulting from our decisions. Our willingness to listen, consider, and even make needed adjustments can go a long way to build trust and counter skepticism.
Building trust takes time. It cannot be taken for granted. Winning over skeptics may require patience. However, consistent, mission-focused decisions supported by openness, flexibility, and listening will win over, or at least mute, most skeptics while building your credibility and making the case for trusting you and your leadership.