¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Transforming an organizational culture requires a deep level of trust among those working for change. The people engaged in such work need to feel that their concerns are safe with one another, 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, and their environment deteriorates.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I know this in large part because I’ve worked in deeply mistrustful environments in which, for instance, no one had confidence in the ways that the administration would receive new ideas — and as a result, no one had new ideas. Everyone felt vulnerable, and yet no one trusted the environment enough to inhabit that vulnerability. Open communication was reduced to the strictly necessary, and was laden with formality, but the backchannels were filled with discontent. Morale was terrible; pretty much everyone kept their heads down and did what they had to do, but almost no one was happy about it. And worse, no one saw any way to make it better.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I’ve also worked in environments in which everyone felt they had the room to think differently, to disagree, to propose significant changes to ways of working. Everyone knew their ideas would be soundly critiqued and that their suggestions might finally be rejected, which at times generated nervousness and disappointment. Those feelings didn’t generally escalate into withdrawal and resentment, however, as everyone felt reasonably confident that their colleagues shared a common set of goals and values, and that airing their disagreements in an open fashion could push them in a positive direction. As Sayeed Choudhury described his own experiences in similar environments, they often produced
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 a little bit of discomfort, in some cases maybe a lot of discomfort. But upon reflection, recognizing there was nothing mean or disrespectful or anything about that conversation, and wow, it has actually given me a lot to think about. Those are the folks that I would build a web of connections with.1
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Environments like these are collegial in the deepest sense: rarely in full agreement, not always “nice,” but bound together by a shared trust in one another’s motives and a shared commitment to work toward something better.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 Having experienced these alternatives, the obvious question then surfaces: How can we build and maintain trust within an organization? Unfortunately, there aren’t easy answers to this question. Building trust of the kind that lays the groundwork for a functional, resilient, caring 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.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 There are a few seeds that leaders within an organization can work with their colleagues to sow, however, seeds that must be cultivated consistently over time in order for trust to take root. Moreover, the trust that is cultivated must be mutual: the members of an institution need to trust those leading it, but our willingness to trust others depends heavily on our feeling trusted in return. It’s too often true, as Charles Feltman has argued, that in work environments characterized by mistrust, “the problem starts with the leader’s lack of trust in the people who work for and with them.”2 Building and maintaining trust requires significant, focused effort to trust others, backed by straight-forward communication and consistent follow-through.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Feltman’s model of the decisions each of us make about whether to trust another person involves “four distinct assessments” of their care, sincerity, reliability, and competence. In this model, the choice to trust someone is based on whether we believe that they share our concerns, that they mean what they say, that they will follow through on their promises, and that they are capable of succeeding. Distrust, by contrast, is characterized by the belief that “what is important to me is not safe with this person.”3 As Feltman notes, the thing that does not feel safe can be anything: a position, a project, a personal value, or something as basic as health and well-being. Once that sense of safety is compromised, the possibilities for mutual work toward institutional change are as well.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 All of the leaders I spoke with in conducting interviews for this project mentioned the significance of trust in leadership, but only a few spoke explicitly about the work involved in building it. A college president mentioned the importance of demonstrating that you genuinely, authentically love what you do; that demonstration of care can help those around you trust your motives and your commitment.4 Likewise, Robin Schulze noted that “you work people up to a level of trust by showing what you can do.”5 And Chris Long elaborated on the deep intertwining of care and reliability:
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 When you are intentional about identifying the values you care about, and intentional about trying to put those values into practice in every decision you make, in every encounter you have, in every policy that you develop, in every bylaw you revise, and you’re also honest with yourself and your colleagues when you fail — which you do all the time, almost every day, to live up to the values you say you care most deeply about, because there are multiple values that are always operating on us, even if we could live out our values in every context. Over time the roots and the shoots of trust begin to grow. And that’s when my job as dean changed.6
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 The proof of the pudding, in other words, is in the eating: the alignment of words and actions, the demonstration of competence over time, and the consistent desire to operate from a values-based perspective, are necessary elements of building trust.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Demonstrating care, sincerity, reliability, and competence are important ways of developing trust at the individual level, but developing trust at the institutional level requires concentrated effort, and building the systems and practices that can reinforce that trust. Trust requires a set of shared values, a shared commitment to those values, and a deep belief that the commitment is in fact shared. Some elements in establishing and reinforcing that commitment include:
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 Transparency. I’ll discuss transparency in more detail shortly, but for now it’s important to note that the goal of transparency is to keep everyone fully informed about the circumstances that support and constrain decision-making, the principles and processes that will be used as those decisions are made, and the outcomes once they are arrived at. One important example of such transparency is open book finance, first explored by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham in The Great Game of Business. Open book finance in the corporate context asks business leaders to fully educate their employees — not just the executives, and not just the finance department, but all of their employees — about the business’s financial position, its metrics for success, and its means and constraints in achieving them. The “great game” part of Stack and Burlingham’s model, however, refers to what comes next: getting everyone involved in working toward the business’s success, by ensuring that everyone has a real, material stake in the outcome.7 This model of open book finance has been expanded by others, including my friends at Zingerman’s, into “open book management,” which applies the same principles to decision-making throughout the organization, keeping employees invested and involved in the organization’s direction.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 This kind of transparency begins with opening up the black boxes of institutional operations, sharing the clearest possible picture of the institution’s present state, the path ahead, and the work necessary to successfully accomplish institutional goals. The purpose of sharing that information, however, is not simply to say that you have done so, but to seek the active involvement of those who make up the institution in achieving its ends. Stack notes, somewhat optimistically, that “[b]ecause you have trusted individuals with the information, they feel a commitment and a sense of ownership to act on it.” But he goes on to point out the absolute certainty of the contrary: “Why would people commit to action or making a decision if they haven’t been given enough information?”8 Ensuring that everyone involved understands the information guiding decisions, and the processes through which decisions are made, is a necessary prerequisite for trust in those decisions’ outcomes.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Such transparency is particularly important for creating trust in difficult times. As Katherine Skinner told me of her deeply collaborative work in Educopia’s early days, “when things were hard, we didn’t try to pretend to the other partners that those things weren’t happening. We didn’t bad-mouth. There was no point in doing that. But we did make sure that people knew what they needed to know, so that there wouldn’t be kind of grapevine-ish junk happening in the background.”9 Eliminating the grapevine requires ensuring that everyone has a first-hand view of what’s happening.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 Documentation. In the complex organizational environments we work in today, however, it’s not enough to communicate openly regarding the organization’s status and plans. Our teams operate in a state of flux, with new members joining and existing members moving on to new opportunities. If key information or decisions are conveyed in meetings or other conversations but aren’t documented in written form, they’re all too likely to evaporate, leading to confusion, contradictions, and chronic wheel-reinvention. Almost as bad: if that information is written down but isn’t readily findable or accessible, it may as well not exist.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In order to build a coherent, reliable organizational memory, thorough documentation needs to be created and maintained, including records of meetings and their outcomes, of processes and policies, and more. Of course, the passive voice in the preceding sentence hides a lot of labor: who has the time to create such documentation, much less maintain it? And of course documentation is only as good as the systems that organize it. As software developers can attest, however, the only thing worse than writing documentation is not having written it.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Producing and maintaining a clear, complete, coherent record of policies, processes, decisions, and more becomes increasingly important as collaborations grow, as teams become distributed, and as more and more team members work remotely. The software company GitLab, which describes its work environment as “all-remote,”10 includes within its extensive guide to building and sustaining all-remote teams a detailed argument for what they refer to as “handbook-first documentation.”11 The creation of this handbook, which is intended to be a “single source of truth” for all team members, is itself a collective project, designed to ensure shared ownership of team processes and goals and shared commitment to the agreements that govern the team’s work.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 Accountability. Perhaps the most important element of building and sustaining trust is acknowledging the moments at which it has failed. By and large we (and by “we” here, I mean humans) are not good at this. We tend to overlook the ways in which we’ve breached the spoken and unspoken agreements we’ve made with one another, and as a result we generally believe that we are more trusted by others than we actually are. Surfacing the small failures of care, sincerity, reliability, and confidence that lead to breaches of trust can be extremely painful. The deep root of trust, however, 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.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 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.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 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 harassment 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.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 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.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 2 Communities fail for lack of trust in no small part because distrust is contagious: when I see that you don’t trust someone, I wonder whether I should trust them, and in fact may begin to ask myself whether I should trust either of you. The repercussions of such questions shouldn’t be underestimated; as Feltman notes, “[t]he disaster of distrust in the workplace is that the strategies people use to protect themselves inevitably get in the way of their ability to work with others.”12 Building trust, and often rebuilding it, must be the first priority of anyone working toward institutional transformation.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
- ¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0
- Which decision-making processes in your position are most difficult and least understood? How might the people you work with be included in those processes so that they begin to develop trust in your reasoning? What would help you to trust your team enough to be able to open up those processes to their input?
- How have failures of documentation complicated trust-building in your institution? What forms of documentation might help develop trust, and how can you and your team work to create them?
- Where have you seen the effects of failures of accountability in your organization? How have those failures produced or reinforced a sense of distrust, and what might be required in order to rectify them?
- ¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0
- Choudhury, Interview. ↩
- Feltman, The Thin Book of Trust. ↩
- Feltman. ↩
- Respondent 5, Interview. ↩
- Schulze, Interview. ↩
- Long et al., Interview. ↩
- Stack, The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company. ↩
- Stack. ↩
- Skinner, Interview. ↩
- GitLab, “GitLab’s Guide to All-Remote.” ↩
- GitLab, “The Importance of a Handbook-First Approach to Documentation.” ↩
- Feltman, The Thin Book of Trust. ↩