How to Build a Culture of Trust in your School

This blog comes from the CEO of Dunraven Educational Trust, David Boyle.

“Without respect, love is lost. Without caring, love is boring. Without honesty, love is unhappy. Without trust, love is unstable.” 

The quotation is powerful for a number of reasons. Not least because we instinctively know it to be true. However, for schools it works just as well if you replace ‘love’ with ‘leadership’ (in fact, some would argue that great leadership is like love anyway – selfless, empowering, sustaining, unconditional – but that’s for another blog).
Great leadership in schools is underpinned by the ability to form great relationships with colleagues, families and children: without healthy relationships, we’re at a significant disadvantage. And, more importantly, the young people and adults with whom we work won’t get the experiences or the opportunities they need to thrive.
At the heart of any healthy relationship sits trust: and without trust, leadership is unstable, unhappy and lost.
A number of far more articulate and knowledgeable people than I have written about the power of trust: from Jim Collins to Stephen Covey to Patrick Lencioni, so there is plenty material to get hold of and reflect upon.
And yet, despite this, when things aren’t working well in school culture, very often a lack of trust is the single biggest cause of the difficulty: be it students unwilling to moderate their behaviour, families wanting to challenge necessary innovations or staff unwilling to release the ‘discretionary’ effort it takes to create a really great school.
So what can leaders do to ensure that this is not the case and to help generate a culture of trust in their school?
1. Showing you care – Showing you care about others is a strong way to build trust: you show this by supporting them to get better at what they do by providing honest and timely feedback on their performance. This takes effort to do effectively but will bring greater capacity and impact in the long term. Feedback can range from comments on an assembly they led to a meeting they chaired or on the tone of a conversation overheard.
It can be developmental over time around a project they’re leading, moving from mentoring to coaching as their confidence increases. The person will always take what is said seriously as long as they trust that the comments are given in a spirit of wanting them to do better, of caring about them. If trust is weak, those comments will be viewed with suspicion and, at best, ignored or, at worst, seen as a act of personal hostility.
2. Take an interest – Central to developing trust is showing an interest in your team as people. This involves finding out any points of similarity between you (shared interests, ideas, experiences) as well as remembering things which are really important when you can – from birthdays to anniversaries.
3. Be consistent – To build trust as a leader, you need to always do what you say you’ll do and say thank you when others do that too.  This also involves being clear and consistent in your expectations of others and the ways in which you expect them to behave. Although remember, trusting is not the same as liking although the former will usually lead to the latter (but not, I think, vice versa).
4. Competence – It also helps build trust if you are very good at what you do – as a line manager, mentor and coach and, of course, as a classroom practitioner! – but make sure you are self-aware enough as to avoid arrogance.
5. Vulnerability – You show that you don’t have to be perfect to be excellent and acknowledge areas where you can improve your performance; others won’t take risks unless they feel safe and they don’t take risks if their boss never takes any either.
6. Compassion – as a leader, it’s important that you treat people kindly whenever you can and never give yourself the benefit of the doubt where you wouldn’t offer that to others (this is what Lencioni refers to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ in The Advantage). If you genuinely want people to do better and care for them, all this is much more straightforward as it’s always easier when you mean it.
As a leader, you can work on developing these qualities and making them part of your team’s and your school’s culture; but to get better at them, you’ll need to trust others to give you feedback as to how well you’re doing with them.
As after all, if others don’t trust you, you can’t lead. It’s as simple and as complex as that.

In my years of working with School Leaders, I’ve learned that one of the most important skills any School Leader can have is the ability to effectively manage and nurture personalities and relationships within their school. This is because quite simply, when school relationships are positive – the outcomes tend to be more positive too.
Conversely, when relationships are strained or neglected, school teams can struggle to effectively work together and staff can find themselves increasingly becoming disconnected from what the school and their leaders are trying to achieve. In turn, leaders can find themselves spending a large amount of their time dealing with people management issues, rather than focussing on the more strategic aspects of the role.
Yet in spite of this, many leaders have not received significant training or opportunities to develop skills that could help them to deal with difficult conversations, identify how best to manage and maximise staff performance.
That’s why one of the key ways that we support School Leaders fulfil their vision is by offering a 4 Day Coaching Programme designed to provide Senior School Leaders with the knowledge, skills and confidence to apply a range of coaching skills that can help improve the performance of those they lead and manage.
Our four-day coaching programme that will equip you with the skills for:
– Managing difficult conversations
– Understanding how to get the best out of individuals with challenging behaviours
– Understanding yourself better and knowing how to draw upon your strengths to get the best out of others
– Developing your relationship management skills by helping you understand how to identify and respond to different personality types
– Nurturing a Coaching Culture in your School so that you can support members of your team

Find out More



Leave a Reply