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  • Writer's pictureToby A. Travis, EdD

The 4 Factors of Organizational Trust... and What They Mean for Schools

by Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

A large amount of research on the value, importance, and significance of trust has been conducted over the previous decades. The research demonstrates that high levels of trust in educational institutions and their leaders, result in the following:

  • higher levels of retention of faculty and staff

  • greater levels of achievement by students

  • stronger parent and community relations

  • …and more

Without trust schools struggle to retain qualified and committed faculty and staff; the achievement levels of students in both academic and non-academic disciplines diminish; and parent and community support wanes. In some cases, students, teachers, parents, and even community members become adversarial and destructive. The Four Key Factors of Trust The largest public relations firm in the world is Edelman. They have over 5,500 employees serving in 65 cities around the world, with affiliate firms in an additional 40 cities. Their clients work in the fields of research, creativity, medical communications, and more. Edelman is also the premier researcher in the field of organizational trust. Each year they produce an annual global study called the Edelman Trust Barometer. In the 2015 edition, Richard Edelman states in the introduction that, “We see an evaporation of trust across all institutions… For the first time, two-thirds of the 27 nations we survey fall into the “distruster” category.” Note that he said “all institutions.” The lack of trust today is not just a concern of businesses and governments, but all organizations – from family-operated convenience stores to global charities and schools. So how do we begin to address this trust crisis? Perhaps, first, we need to understand the general principles or “factors” that shape trust. Edleman identifies the following factors as key to establishing trust in an organization:

  1. Industry Sector (e.g. technology-based industries are the most trusted in the world).

  2. Country of Origin (e.g. businesses based in Sweden and Canada are trusted much more than those based in Brazil or Russia).

  3. Enterprise Type (e.g. in developed countries, family-owned businesses are trusted more than big business, and in developing countries it is the opposite).

  4. Leadership (e.g. academics and technical experts are trusted as spokesmen at a far higher level than CEO’s).

Application for School Leaders Consider the application of these four fundamental factors to school leadership. 1. Industry Sector. Recent studies reveal that the Technology Sector is the most trusted at 79% with the Media Sector at just 51% (only slightly above Banks and Financial Services). If these studies were broken down by age categories we would most-likely discover that the younger the audience surveyed, the higher the trust level in technology. Most school leaders that I personally know are also in my age category, meaning they grew up in a time very different from that of their students and the majority of their faculty and staff, in relationship to technology. In education today we talk a great deal about preparing students with 21st Century Skills, however, to what extent are university administration programs focusing on developing leaders who can genuinely implement and lead in an area that perhaps they still have a difficult time trusting themselves? We must recognize that we live in a technology world, and it is not going away. As school leaders, we must also recognize that there is a large amount of research demonstrating that even though our faculty members may be receiving great amounts of training and professional development in the area of integrating technology into the classroom, without strong leadership and the support of their administrator, they will most likely be unsuccessful in the effective implementation of their training. In fact, several studies have suggested that administrative support is the most important factor in technology implementation and that without it other variables will be negatively affected (Ertmer, Bai, Dong, Khalil, Park, & Wang, 2002; Gerard, Bowyer, & Linn, 2008; Hilliard & Jackson, 2011). 2. Country of Origin. I think a crucial application for school leaders is that of being aware of, understanding, and emulating to the greatest extent that we are able, the research-based best practices of those countries who are truly leading the world in education. Here we know that bigger is not always better. The USA, for example, has trailed in the educational field for years compared to other developed nations, and yet the majority of both American and international school leaders still lean heavily upon US-style standards and methodologies for school management and program administration. According to the report, The Learning Curve, developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the United States ranks between eleventh and twentieth out of forty countries ranked in overall educational performance. Countries like Finland are leading the way in education with dramatically different structures and methods than those traditionally used in the USA (e.g., shorter school days, higher levels of teacher professional development, and elimination of nearly all homework). In order to increase our level of trust we must align our programs, methods, and practices with the programs, methods, and practices that are most effective in the world. This requires being students of global movements and keeping abreast of current research and practices. 3. Enterprise Type. In developed nations family-owned small business is trusted at 30 points above that of big business. What does that mean for school leaders? It may mean that no matter how large our schools may be, we must strive to keep them feeling and perceived as small communities. If and when school leaders are distant and locked behind multiple walls of secretaries, trust erodes. In order to create that “family-owned” sense throughout the school community, school leaders need to not only be accessible, but they need to be fluent in a deep understanding of the very essence of their unique community. 4. Leadership. It was most interesting to find in the research that when representing the business world, those from academia were identified as being the most trusted of organizational representatives. Academic spokespersons were trusted at 70% compared to CEO’s at 43% and Government Officials at just 38%. The challenge in our context, however, is that the school leader is more akin to the corporate CEO than to the university academic personality; and for those administrators who serve in the public sector, or are under compliance issues with local and federal governments, they are often viewed as part of the political administration. Thus, the inhibitor to trust is found in a perception of how the leader of the school is viewed by the school community. Does the administrator focus more on meeting the required government standards and benchmarks (ala Government Official) than on research-based learning strategies (ala Academic)? Does the administrator spend more public “face-time” addressing fiscal and physical plant topics and issues (ala CEO) than those related to student character development (ala Academic)? Here we find the value of trust research even in the intentional positioning of our role as school leaders. Trust is not a soft skill as many perceive it to be. But rather, the building, maintaining, restoring when needed, and ongoing development of this most valuable asset must be an intentional and proactive focus of our leadership development school-wide (i.e. student leadership to institutional leadership).

Authored by Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

© by SchoolRIGHT, LLC., unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.​


Additional Recommended Reading: Schrum, Lynne R.; Levin, Barbara B.. (2015). Leading 21st Century Schools: Harnessing Technology for Engagement and Achievement. SAGE Publications. Snyder, Thomas D; Hoffman, Charlene M. (2001). Digest of Education Statistics 2000. U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Edelman, Richard. (2015). Edelman Trust Barometer Executive Summary. Strike, Kenneth A.. (2007). Ethical Leadership in Schools: Creating Community in an Environment of Accountability (Leadership for Learning Series). SAGE Publications. Sullivan, John. (2002). Gain Trust by Being Consistent. Tech Republic.


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