Essential. Powerful. Fragile: How to build trust in your school

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
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Trust is essential to a successful school. There is huge power in hearing ‘I trust you’. Indeed, genuine trust is tremendously powerful. But it is also incredibly fragile. Caroline Sherwood explores how we can build trust...

The experience of having recently started at a new school has highlighted the fundamental need to trust – and be trusted. Trust sits quietly (and sometimes quite loudly) behind all things.

In his book, The Speed of Trust (2006), Stephen Covey identifies 13 behaviours that high-trust leaders consistently exhibit. It is his belief that these behaviours can be learned and then applied to build and maintain trust.

The cost of choosing to not purposefully and deliberately build trust places a hidden “tax” on every transaction. As Covey explains: “Every communication, every interaction, every strategy, every decision is taxed. My experience is that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done.”

In contrast, Covey says that the impact high-trust organisations can have – he calls it a “dividend” – is “a performance multiplier, enabling them to succeed in their communications, interactions, and decisions, and to move with incredible speed”. He cites a Watson Wyatt study showing that high-trust companies outperform low-trust companies by nearly 300 per cent.

Covey explains that when you adopt the 13 behaviours below, “it is like making deposits into a ‘trust account’ of another party”.

  1. Talk straight
  2. Show respect.
  3. Be transparent.
  4. Right wrongs.
  5. Show loyalty.
  6. Deliver results.
  7. Get better.
  8. Confront reality.
  9. State expectations.
  10. Be accountable.
  11. Listen first.
  12. Meet commitments.
  13. Extend trust.

In an interview for Six Seconds (Freedman, 2017), Covey shared the three foundations to increasing trust – all of which have been particularly important for me as I began at a new school setting this year:

  • Take the risk to care because it unlocks human connection.
  • Be deliberate with intentions so you put purpose into action.
  • Strengthen integrity to increase your credibility.

Choosing to trust takes courage – it can make you vulnerable. And at times when you feel distrust it is important to scrutinise that. Mark Divine in his book Staring Down the Wolf (2020) explains: “Staring down the wolf means facing your deepest negative conditioned qualities, or fears, and then staring them down to reduce their impact on your life.”

The wolf you might need to stare down is your willingness – or reluctance – to trust. That needs examining.

In her article, The power of trust: A steel cable, Bruna Martinuzzi outlines that our life experiences may “retune” our oxytocin – a hormone and neurotransmitter that increases our propensity to trust others in the absence of threatening signals – to a different “set point” and thus to different levels of trust throughout the course of lives (Martinuzzi, 2021).


From vision to impact: Ideas and advice for strategic school leadership. In this seven-page free download, school leader Ben Solly discusses creating a vision for your school based around trust and values (May 2021):

In teachers we must trust: Do we have a crisis of trust in teaching? As a senior leader, do you trust your teachers? As a teacher, do you feel trusted? Ben Solly looks at why we must place trust at the heart of our schools – and how we can do it (July 2021):

Take the risk to care because it unlocks human connection

Compassionate and kind leadership builds connections, which in turn builds trust. In order to nurture a culture of compassion, leaders – as the carriers of culture – have to embody compassion and inclusion in their leadership.

The King's Fund is an independent charitable organisation working to improve health and care in England. In a blog last year, they stated that “connection and compassion are certain, unchanging and provide a safe refuge in the face of this onslaught on health and care systems and our wider communities” (Bailey & West, 2020).

If the pandemic has taught school leaders anything, it is that human connection and compassion are more important than ever. Compassionate and kind leadership builds safety – a trait recognised by countless studies as a crucial driver for success.

Psychological safety is a property of the team as a whole; it becomes immediately apparent if it is not secure – you can feel it. If one person isn’t feeling safe, the team is not safe; it doesn’t come in degrees – all suffer from the consequences of a psychologically unsafe environment.

Stepping into a climate of psychological safety within my new leadership team, I was able to recognise that all team members were actively shaping the social norms in the team.

In their 2016 article Why psychological safety matters and what to do about it, Amy Edmondson and Jeff Polzer summarise that “teams are social systems in which each member plays a role in sustaining or changing the team’s trajectory”.

Seemingly insignificant behaviours can become entrenched and really difficult to shift – like shutting down a colleague who you disagree with. Working in a team that values everyone’s contributions, values healthy disagreement, and values and cares for every member unlocks human connection (thus creating motivated, higher performing teams).

Being a caring, compassionate leader doesn’t equate to a lowering of expectations or standards, in fact avoiding tough conversations or side-stepping uncomfortable situations can diminish and erode trust. Brené Brown in Dare to Lead (2018) explains that “clear is kind – unclear is unkind”.

But with human connection and psychological safety missing, “clear” conversations can hurt and will not yield the desired results. Committing to difficult conversations is evidence of your care and respect for your colleagues.

Unlocking human connection increases, what Andy Buck (2018) describes as, “discretionary effort”. He outlines that “the more positive the culture and climate you create, the more likely your team of staff are to go the extra mile”.

He continues: “This concept is known as discretionary effort. It is commonly described as the input from individuals over and above that which they need to contribute in order to keep their jobs.”

Buck goes on to clarify that it is not solely the responsibility of the senior leadership team to create this climate – and that the greatest influencers are in fact someone’s line manager. It is their “relationship with and respect for their direct line manager” that really counts.

In a traditional line management structure, this privilege falls onto the shoulders of middle leaders as line managers of their team. This highlights how important it is to have a middle leadership team who are all pulling in the same direction and who are steered by what is right and best for the students – and who are thinking and behaving like leaders and not managers.

Buck outlines behaviours which help to build discretionary effort in staff teams, one of which is “personal interest, care, and forgiveness”. This brings us back to the core, guiding concept: caring about your staff and creating a culture and climate of care and compassion unlocks both human connection and potential.

Be deliberate with intentions so you put purpose into action

In his 2016 article Three brilliant ways to communicate purpose, Jeff Boss suggests that “purpose is a powerful force”. He continues: “The allure of being ‘pulled’ toward a meaningful end state rather than being ‘pushed’ there is captivating, energising, and fulfilling all at the same time.”

Schools have never – and will never – struggle to serve a purpose greater than themselves. Our purpose is never really in question, perhaps how we establish it is where leaders should focus their attention.

Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code (2017) believes that purpose can be established thus:

  • Name and rank your priorities: The most successful groups have a small list of priorities and make their group relationships (how they treat each other) their number one priority: “Their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself.”
  • Be very clear about your priorities Most employees will only be aware of their group’s priorities if these can be heard and seen everywhere.
  • Measure what really matters.

Coyle suggests that leaders should be 10 times clearer about their priorities than they think they should be. Leaders at all levels need to trust that school improvement priorities will improve the school and are the right things to focus on – they have, after all, been chosen by a team of experienced, well-read and knowledgeable professionals who want the very best for the students (and staff) in their care.

The purpose of your organisation is something everyone orbits around; some, naturally, will be closer to the purpose than others – but everyone should be moving in the same direction. When someone’s orbit around the core purpose is not aligned, they become an obstacle that all others have to circumvent.

In his 2017 article, Eight principles of purpose-driven leadership, Kevin Cashman suggests that “purpose releases energy”. He adds: “The higher the purpose, the greater the energy. Purpose also frees us. The more profound the purpose, the greater the sense of freedom. Purpose opens up possibilities.”

We need the energy derived from purpose to be propelling us all in the same direction – possibly at different speeds but certainly in the same direction. When you are on the same journey, you can trust the process and the people with you.

Strengthen integrity to increase your credibility

In his article Leadership and integrity (2012), Michael Hopkin defines integrity as “a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations and outcomes”.

He continues: “It connotes a deep commitment to do the right thing for the right reason, regardless of the circumstances. People who live with integrity are incorruptible and incapable of breaking the trust of those who have confided in them.”

Remaining loyal to your values, ethics, and purpose creates integrity – leaders make the right decisions, not the most popular ones.

In his 2016 article Leading with character: Integrity, Michael Lee Stallard explores actions leaders can take to develop integrity as a leader – three of which are explored below:

Be a model for your team: It is critical to be consistent and clear about your ethical standards – which is both a challenge and entirely natural as a new member of staff. It is impossible to provide answers and facts when you don’t have all the answers yourself, but this does provide you with the opportunity to model not knowing – after all, it is okay not to know. Using the friction between a previous setting and a new setting can help illuminate the actions that need to be taken.

Be a risk-taker and stand up for what you believe in: Stallard believes that there is “a direct correlation between risk, success, and excellence”. Taking risks in a high-trust environment is empowering and benefits the whole team.

Be a role model for living your organisation’s values: Stallard points out that “if you demonstrate that you are a proud member of your organisation and live its values, and explicitly articulate to your team why you’re proud and why these things are important, they will soon follow”. This is challenging to do for a new member of staff as aligning your values with those of your new school can take time – to rush that would create a superficial alignment.

There is huge power in hearing “I trust you”. Trust pervades every aspect of our daily lives – it is both tremendously powerful and at the same time, incredibly fragile.

  • Caroline Sherwood is an experienced teacher and senior leader in secondary schools. She is currently working on secondment as part of the senior leadership team at Pilton Community College in Devon, part of the Ventrus Trust. Read her previous articles in SecEd, go to

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