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date: 19 July 2018

Trust in Education

Summary and Keywords

There is a growing awareness of the crucial role that trust plays in every aspect of a school’s functioning and especially to student outcomes. To trust another person or group is to be at ease, without anxiety or worry, in a situation of interdependence in which valued outcomes depend upon the participation and contribution of others. The trustor can rest assured that their expectations will be fulfilled based on confidence in the other party’s benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competence. As citizens across the globe have become increasingly distrustful of their institutions and leaders, the trend away from trust creates a special challenge for schools because trust is so fundamental to their core mission of educating students. The philosopher Annette Baier observed that we tend to notice trust as we notice air, only when it becomes scarce or polluted. These days, it seems evident that trust in our society as a whole has indeed been disrupted and is in scarce supply. As contemporary society has grown more complex, as changing economic realities, changing demographics, and changing expectations in society have made life less predictable, we are beginning to notice trust much more. There are a number of things that make cultivating and maintaining trust in schools challenging. These include the effects of social media, and other new forms of information and the propensity for the news of potential threats to one’s well-being, as well as the well-being of one’s children and community to spread farther and faster than positive news.

Trust matters in schools and in our world because we cannot single-handedly either create or sustain many of the things we most cherish. Parents send their children to schools, trusting that they will be safe from harm, as well as guided and taught in keeping with our highest hopes for them. Schools are also invested with a significant share of a community’s collective resources in the form of tax dollars, school buildings, and local employment opportunities. In addition, schools are charged with keeping and promoting a society’s shared values and ideals. They foster and protect the collective ideals of respect, tolerance, and democracy, as well as the vision of equity of opportunity. Indeed, the future of a society rests with the quality of its schools. It is evident, then, why trust has become such a pressing issue for schools in these challenging and turbulent times.

Keywords: trust, interdependence, benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, competence, professionalism, restoring trust

Trust as a Vital Resource for Schools

There is a growing awareness of the crucial role that trust plays in every aspect of a school’s functioning. Trust is vital for all organizations, but especially schools. Trust has paradoxically been likened to both a glue and a lubricant. As glue, trust binds organizational participants to one another (Baier, 1994; Louis et al., 1996). Without it, things fall apart. To be productive and accomplish organizational goals, schools need cohesive and cooperative relationships, and trust is essential to fostering these relationships. Faculty trust has been related to the level and quality of collaboration in a school (Tschannen-Moran, 2001), teachers’ perceptions of the professionalism of their colleagues (Tschannen-Moran, 2009), and the quality of professional learning communities (Hallam, Dulaney, Hite, & Smith, 2014). Trust is also essential for leaders in binding the hearts and minds of followers to a shared mission or goal. A leader without trust may serve as a manager in enforcing minimum compliance with contract specifications, but cannot truly lead a group of teachers and staff to high levels of professionalism and performance (Tschannen-Moran, 2003, 2014a). Faculty trust in the principal has been related to both the collegial orientation of a principal’s leadership as well as to instructional leadership (Tschannen-Moran & Gareis, 2015). Furthermore, a professional orientation by the principal in his or her exercise of authority has been found to be strongly related to the level of teacher professionalism (Tschannen-Moran, 2009).

As lubricant, trust greases the machinery of an organization. Without trust, friction and heat are generated that bog down the work of the school. Trust facilitates communication and contributes to greater efficiency when people have confidence in the integrity of other people’s words and deeds (Govier, 1992). Trust has been found to support schools’ effectiveness, improvement initiatives, and persistence in reform efforts (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Cerna, 2014; Forsyth, Adams, & Hoy, 2011; Forsyth, Barnes, & Adams, 2006; Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001; Louis, 2007; Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2012). The level of trust in a school has been linked to a culture of innovation in schools (Daly, Liou, & Moolenaar, 2014). Without trust, energy is expended making alternate provisions for self-protection, such as forming teacher unions and insisting on lengthy contracts or written agreements to protect against possible or feared betrayal by others. Trust also serves to facilitate school functioning because it expands the zone of acceptance in decisions (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Hoy & Tarter, 2008). Where trust is low, teachers want a place at the decision-making table in order to guard their interests. When they trust that their interests will be well looked after, they may feel freed to invest their energies elsewhere.

Trust is also important because it is a form of social capital that accrues very real benefits to those who have a network of high-trust relationships (Goddard, 2003; Horvat, Weininger, & Lareau, 2003; Moolenaar, Karsten, Sleegers, & Zijlstra, 2010). As professionals and members of the middle class, educators likely have a measure of social capital, as do families who are connected to civic organizations or religious groups. However, families from marginalized communities or parents who struggle just to meet basic survival needs may lack access to social capital or the wherewithal to tap into the resources a connected network might make available to them. In schools, a strong network of relationships grounded in trust that extends to both students and their families can be a powerful vehicle for generating social capital for students, whatever their advantages or disadvantages in life. The effects of education can make a lasting difference on the level of trust a person holds throughout life. Comparative international research across seven countries demonstrated the key role that trust plays in the quality of outcomes of these national school systems (Fink, 2016). Further, studies have demonstrated that the level of educational attainment in a society is strongly related to levels of trust held by the adults that emerge from those educational systems. Moreover, the adult graduates with higher trust were more likely to hold jobs that entailed greater teamwork and collaboration (Borgonovi & Burns, 2015). Trust is also a basis for financial capital for schools. Because schools do not generate the revenue they need to function, they must rely on the communities that sponsor and fund them. To prosper, schools need legitimacy and the trust of these communities. If schools perform poorly, there are serious negative consequences both for the individual students and for the community as a whole. Parents and communities must trust schools to protect the children in their care and keep them safe as well as to shape their thinking and behavior. Students are expected to leave school different from when they entered, in terms of habits of mind, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behavior, presumably well prepared to construct adult lives that support their personal well-being as well as the well-being of the community as a whole.

Finally, trust in schools matters because it is so closely tied to student outcomes. Ever since the publication of the Coleman Report (Coleman et al., 1966), educational researchers have been on a quest to identify variables that maintain explanatory power for student achievement even when controlling for socioeconomic status (SES). After over five decades of searching, the trust between teachers and students turns out to be just such a powerful variable (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Forsyth, Barnes, & Adams, 2006; Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001; Goddard, Salloum, & Berebitsky, 2009). Specifically, the reciprocal trust between teachers and students is key to fostering the conditions for student learning (Hoy, Tarter, & Hoy, 2006; Tschannen-Moran, Bankole, Mitchell, & Moore, 2013). Moreover, in a study of schools in an urban and a suburban district, 75% of the variance in student achievement was explained by a set of trust variables that included faculty trust in students, parents, and colleagues, as well as student trust in teachers and parent trust in schools (Tschannen-Moran, 2014b). Trust may play such a substantive role in student achievement because true education is much more than the dissemination of knowledge. To educate a student is to induct them into a community of practice such that they adopt the norms, values, and standards of excellence of that community. The teacher initially serves as a bridge to the community while the student, as a novice, learns the beginning skills of the community before adopting the standards as their own. Without trust, teachers and students are unlikely to take the risks that genuine learning entails. When students do not trust their teachers, student learning is impaired, because for much of what is learned in schools, students are asked to believe what teachers tell them and what they read without independent evidence. Students who do not trust their teachers or each other will be likely to divert energy into self-protection and away from engagement with the learning task. Furthermore, students who do not feel trusted by their teachers and administrators may distance themselves from schools and build an alienated, rebellious youth culture that creates barriers to participation in the learning task. Students may, in fact, live down to the low expectations of a distrustful school environment (Govier, 1992).

Understanding Trust

Trust must be conscientiously cultivated and sustained in relationships. It is a judgment based on evidence, but it goes beyond the evidence that would justify it (Solomon & Flores, 2001). The need for trust emerges in a situation of interdependence, in which valued outcomes cannot be achieved without the involvement of others. The decision to trust, therefore, takes a leap of faith made out of care for a joint project or outcomes at the center of this collective work. The cultivation of trust by educators is facilitated by having a clear definition: To trust another person or group is to be at ease, without anxiety or worry, in a situation of interdependence in which valued outcomes depend upon the participation and contribution of others. The trustor can rest assured that their expectations will be fulfilled based on confidence in the other party’s benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competence (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a). We will explore each of these facets of trust or trust criteria below.

Benevolence

Perhaps the most essential ingredient and commonly recognized facet of trust is a sense of caring, or benevolence. Benevolence is characterized by a mutual spirit of goodwill and a willingness to extend oneself in support of the well-being of the other. It is grounded in the confidence that one’s well-being or something one cares about will be protected and not harmed by the person in whom they have placed their trust (Baier, 1994; Zand, 1997). One can rest assured that the other person would not capitalize on an opportunity to enhance their outcomes if such an opportunity were to come at the expense of the trusting partner (Cummings & Bromily, 1996). Benevolence involves having empathy for and being responsive to the needs of the other. In an ongoing relationship, the future actions or deeds required for continued trust are typically not specified; there is simply the assumption of an attitude of mutual goodwill (Putnam, 2000). Akin to benevolence is respect, or the recognition of the inherent worth or value of another person and the contributions they have to make to the collective.

Honesty

Honesty is a fundamental facet of trust (Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Cummings & Bromily, 1996; Rotter, 1980). Honesty is anchored in moral principles and is cultivated through behaviors that demonstrate integrity, authenticity, and accountability for one’s actions (Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999). People earn a reputation for honesty from telling the truth and keeping promises. Without the confidence that a person’s word can be relied upon and can accurately predict future actions, trust is unlikely to develop. Integrity is the correspondence between the values a person expresses in words and those they express through actions. When a person says one thing but does another, trust is compromised. Authenticity comes from the revelation of one’s true personality and values, as opposed to the projection of an image that masks one’s true nature and intentions. Finally, accountability involves a person accepting responsibility for their own mistakes and not blaming others.

Openness

Openness as a facet of trust evidences the reciprocal nature of trust, as people garner trust by extending trust. In being open, people make themselves vulnerable to others by sharing information, influence, and control (Zand, 1997). It entails the sharing of facts, alternatives, intentions, judgments, and feelings. Those who are guarded with the information they share provoke suspicion as people wonder what is being hidden and why. Withholding important information is a strategy that leaders may use to maintain power or manipulate employees, but it may cost them the trust of their followers (Kramer, 1996; Mishra, 1996). Leaders can also help foster the flow of information toward themselves by being open with communication that flows from them (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). When leaders exchange thoughts and ideas freely with subordinates, it not only enhances perceptions of trustworthiness but leads to greater openness on the part of subordinates as well. Furthermore, leaders who engage in authentic forms of shared decision-making in which teachers and parents have genuine influence over decisions, as opposed to a contrived process in which they have involvement but no actual influence, foster trust (Tschannen-Moran, 2001). Delegating critical tasks without micromanaging is another way that leaders extend trust in ways that, in turn, cultivate greater trust (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

Reliability

In a situation of interdependence, when something of importance is required from another person or group that impacts joint outcomes, reliability is evidenced by a sense of confidence that the other person or party will come through with what is needed on a consistent basis and that the work will be of sufficient quality to meet joint standards (Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Mishra, 1996). The trusting party need not invest energy making mental provisions for how they will manage in case the other person should fail to follow through on agreements. Trust might survive a broken promise if a plausible explanation is given along with an apology; however, a pattern of broken agreements will likely provoke a serious threat to trust.

Competence

Competence is the ability to perform a task as expected and according to appropriate standards. We trust those whose skill we depend upon, especially professionals, to maintain their expertise and to be honest about their level of skill. These are seen as an indication of their conscientiousness and character (Solomon & Flores, 2001). Trust in the competence of an educational leader would likely involve his or her ability to set and maintain high standards, inspire action, and press for results, as well as work hard themselves and serve as a positive role model. In high-trust schools and systems, competence is evidenced in leaders who hold teachers accountable in ways that seem fair and reasonable to their staff (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). Moreover, stakeholders rely on educators at all levels to be skillful problem-solvers and to demonstrate the requisite conflict resolution skills necessary to navigate the competing needs and interests of a diverse educational community (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

Referents of Trust

Trust in education has most often been studied at the collective level, as a property of a school or school system (Forsyth, Adams, & Hoy, 2011). The study of trust in schools has focused on the intra- and intergroup relationships between four primary role groups of trust in schools: faculty, leaders (whether principals or other administrators), students, and parents. While faculty trust in the principal, in colleagues, and in students and parents has been the most widely studied, research into student trust in teachers has yielded important findings as well (Tschannen-Moran, 2014b). Studies of parent trust in schools and in the principal are still in their infancy but have the potential to alert educators to ways to better engage parents, especially those from diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds (Forsyth, Adams, & Hoy, 2011). Finally, research on the consequences of principal trust in teachers, students, and parents currently entails mostly small qualitative studies, but as this literature grows, it could inform both leadership preparation and practice.

The Context of Trust

Collective trust is socially constructed among a group of role occupants (e.g., teachers, students, parents, or principals), as they observe the behaviors of members of another group and compare these observed behaviors to those expected of a member of that group. Group members evaluate the observed behaviors against the criteria for trust, such as their goodwill, integrity, openness, reliability, and competence (Forsyth, Adams, & Hoy, 2011). The expected and observed behaviors are influenced by contextual factors, including the external context, the internal context and the task context, in a particular setting, and these contexts warrant examination. The external context includes environmental factors that have shaped and continue to shape the values, attitudes, and expectations of group members. The internal context consists of forces inside the school or school system that shape the values, attitudes, and expectations of groups and individuals. These may include elements such as the structure and size of the school or system, its history, leadership, mission, goals, facilities, and employee evaluation system. The task context has to do with the nature of the collective task, in particular the level of clarity, complexity, and how clearly defined are the measures of success. In schools, trust formation is complicated by the complexity of the work of educators, as well as by multiple competing goals (Bryk & Schneider, 2002).

External Context

Trust can no longer be taken for granted in schools, if it ever was. As citizens across the globe have become increasingly distrustful of their institutions and leaders, the trend away from trust creates a special challenge for schools because trust is so fundamental to the core mission of educating students. The philosopher Annette Baier (1994) observed that we tend to notice trust as we notice air, only when it becomes scarce or polluted. These days, it seems evident that trust in societies around the globe has indeed been damaged and is in scarce supply. As contemporary society has grown more complex, as changing economic realities and changing expectations in society have made life less predictable, as acts of terrorism and mass shootings invade even the sanctuary of schools, we are beginning to notice trust much more. To function effectively, schools must garner trust and legitimacy in an era when these commodities are under threat within the society at large. Schools that cultivate high-trust environments are in a better position to accomplish the complex task of educating a diverse group of students in a changing world.

It is not uncommon for organizations to respond to a perceived threat posed by a turbulent external environment by exercising increased control over workers and enforcing rigid adherence to standard operating procedures (Daly, 2009; Staw, Sandelands, & Dutton, 1981). Becoming more rigid, however, is likely to be counterproductive. These tactics can hinder the effective operation of the organization and impair its adaptive response to the threat as workers become increasingly fearful and risk averse. High-trust environments confer an advantage to the organization in times of flux and change. Schools where trust is high can help avoid rigidity and a hunkering down mentality in the midst of crisis (Daly, 2009). Communication flows more easily and resources are shared rather than hoarded so that they can be allocated in ways that will have the greatest benefit for the survival and flourishing of the organization (Mishra, 1996).

The increasing diversity of many societies due to increased mobility also presents a challenge for schools in building trust. Schools are places where people from across the social spectrum may come together and have to work out how to engage with one another. Trust is more difficult to foster in situations of diversity because people are uncertain about the cultural norms or values of others (Kipnis, 1996). Knowledge of one another’s culture may be limited, and based on partial or misleading images. Hence, people are often unsure about what to expect. Fears about people of different racial groups, immigrants and refugees from other parts of the world, and people from differing social classes or religions may arise when people in schools come into interdependent relationships with people whose culture and values differ from their own. Moreover, in the case of refugees from war-torn regions or regions wracked by violence, children and their parents are likely suffering the effects of significant trauma, making it even more difficult for them to reach out to foster relationships.

One of the dynamics that has shaped the external environments of school in the past two decades are the means and mechanisms of information dissemination. Technologies such as web-based communication portals, social media, e-mail, and text messaging allow for information to flow more readily to and from schools. This increased communication flow can assist in the fostering of trust because it allows educators to demonstrate their competence in providing rich educational experiences and express their care for their students to parents and the community. But it can also allow for information about breaches of trust to spread further faster. Because trust is relevant only in situations of interdependence, when an outcome one cares about depends to some extent on the actions of others, people tend to be more alert to negative information than to positive, leading to a negative bias in information dissemination (Burt & Knez, 1996). The propensity of the news media to capitalize on the desire for negative information has made the cultivation of trust between schools and their publics even more difficult. Fostering trust under these circumstances of increasing societal distrust, turbulent external environments, increased diversity, and greater information flow present significant challenges for educators.

Internal Context

Trust in organizational settings such as schools is bolstered by the belief that the necessary organizational structures are in place to allow one to anticipate successful working relationships (McKnight, Cummings, & Chervany, 1998; Shapiro, 1987; Zucker, 1986). Formal organizational policies, as well as the norms and values fostered by the culture, support developing trust and sustain a cycle of risk-taking and fulfillment that facilitates the deepening of trust (Creed & Miles, 1996; Gulati, 1995; Sitkin, 1995). The mechanisms involved in the hiring process can be key institutional supports for building initial trust if participants feel confident that a new colleague has been subjected to a rigorous vetting process designed to unearth instances of malfeasance or unethical behavior. This is especially important in schools because a failure to detect untrustworthiness is a breach of the trust that parents and taxpayers have placed in the system.

One of the most critical decisions that policymakers and senior leaders in schools face is the perennial challenge of adopting the most productive structure, in particular the most effective level of centralization for the organization. Decisions about structure are informed by the level of trust leaders hold for organizational participants, and also influence the level of trust cultivated. On the one hand, bureaucratic elements such as a division of labor with specialization, a hierarchy of authority with a chain of command, written rules and policies, and the standardization of work processes (i.e., the curriculum) are useful ways to organize the joint work of large numbers of people around a shared goal. On the other hand, in organizations such as schools where the primary work is done by professionals, highly centralized structures and standardized work processes may inhibit the discretion necessary for professionals to be responsive to the individualized needs of their clients (Creed & Miles, 1996). Embedded in these two competing orientations are contrasting levels of trust based on divergent assumptions about the capacity of workers that lead to divergent stances toward control. Although not inherent in the elements of a bureaucratic structure, a culture of distrust can take hold in the hierarchical relationships within a centralized organizational structure. Distrust is evidenced when those in higher positions within a hierarchy consider those below them to be in need of close supervision. For those in the lower position, fear and distrust of those in higher positions who hold coercive authority can lead to problem hiding and the inclination to convey situations in a more positive light than is actually the case. This can give decision makers at the top of the organization an inaccurate sense of the conditions on the ground. Taken to the extreme, the hierarchical nature of a bureaucratic structure can lead to an authoritarian culture of control and fear-based compliance on the part of teachers and staff. These, in turn, are likely to lower motivation and morale, and stifle the very effectiveness and efficiency that administrators had hoped to achieve (Cloke & Goldsmith, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

Rules are a necessary part of organizational life. Schools adopt rules, procedures, and other formal mechanisms to guide the behavior of organizational participants. School districts must find ways to balance extending trust to employees at various levels of the organization with the creation of safeguards against self-serving, dishonest, or abusive behavior. When trust is broken, one likely organizational response is the creation of new rules to serve as a substitute for trust (Shapiro, 1987; Sitkin & Stickel, 1996; Zucker, 1986). The proliferation of rules, however, is likely to impair organizational effectiveness. Excessive elaboration of rules and a lack of flexibility in their application communicate distrust to those at whom they are directed. Teachers and students may respond to a heavily rule-bound school environment with feelings of alienation, disloyalty, and lack of commitment, which ironically can make dishonesty and cheating more prevalent (Govier, 1992; Kramer & Cook, 2004). A cycle of distrust can ensue as more rules are put into place in response to increasing instances of broken trust (Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998). To foster trust, the policies in a school must demonstrate an expectation of trustworthy behavior on the part of teachers, staff, and students. They must also provide means to be responsive to breaches of trust with appropriate consequences for those who violate trust so as to constrain behavior within acceptable bounds (Sitkin & Stickel, 1996). Trust is supported by credible, but relatively unused, threats and sanctions (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). Trustworthy school leaders do not abuse their power to enforce these policies, through manipulation or over-reliance on coercive punishments, but neither do they abdicate their responsibility for leadership.

In turbulent environments with high levels of uncertainty like those schools currently face, a decentralized structure is considered to be more flexible and adaptive. However, decentralized educational systems have not always produced equitable results for all students. The relinquishing of bureaucratic control could be construed as negligence, unless teachers demonstrate a strong commitment to serving the needs of students and can be relied upon to act on that commitment, and not to simply pursue what is easiest or more expedient. A profession is characterized by members who possess specialized expert knowledge and who pledge their first and primary responsibility to the welfare of those they serve. In addition, members are socialized into standards of practice and professional ethics that are monitored by the profession (Darling-Hammond, 1988; Sykes, 1999). These norms and standards provide the foundation for high-trust school environments.

Task Context

Although there have been numerous efforts to standardize the work of educators, the task of fostering the cognitive, social, and emotional growth of diverse young humans is inherently much too complex for these efforts to succeed. Likewise, the work of teachers and school leaders is too complex to be easily measured, despite concerted efforts as part of the accountability movement. In the absence of standardized processes, we must rely on the professionalism of teachers and educational leaders to exercise their specialized knowledge to design differentiated interventions in the service of the discrepant needs of their students, and that requires trust. A hallmark of professional practice is the ability to apply professional judgment in non-routine circumstances, taking relevant considerations into account. Because certainty about practice does not exist, practitioners engage in ongoing disciplined inquiry to discover the most responsible course of action (Darling-Hammond, 1988). This leads to the independent exercise of choice in selecting from an array of potential options in response to the needs of students (Morris, 2001). Respect for the shared knowledge base within the profession is then bolstered by collective scrutiny and reflection. School leaders who operate from a professional stance engage in coaching and collaboration to bring underperforming teachers into alignment with professional standards; to be successful, both of these processes require trust (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a). Thus, the task context is both shaped by and shapes the level of trust in the school.

Schools face many challenges in cultivating and maintaining high-trust relationships. Schools are made up of a myriad of interpersonal relationships and relationships across role groups, each with divergent interests and needs. Finding ways to sustain trust in the midst of the rapidly changing societal expectations and new technologies presents a special challenge. In the face of these changing environmental forces, schools need to become more flexible, innovative, and adaptive to a turbulent external environment. These processes become more likely in an atmosphere of high trust (Mishra, 1996). Principals and teachers who trust each other can better work together in the service of solving the challenging problems of schooling. Trustworthy school leaders create a bond that helps inspire teachers to move to higher levels of effort and achievement. These leaders also create the conditions that foster trust between teachers, including collaborative structures and professional norms for behavior, and they assist them in resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise. Even more importantly, they cultivate a culture of high trust between students and teachers through their attitudes, example, and policies (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

The Dynamics of Trust

Organizations exist to accomplish tasks that are too big, complex, and costly for individuals alone to accomplish. When a new teacher joins the faculty of a school, a level of interdependence immediately exists by virtue of the shared purpose embodied in the school’s mission. A new staff member’s success depends on the ability to forge workable relationships with the existing faculty and staff and to serve the school’s purposes. Yet trust is a dynamic process that changes over time. It may be built up gradually over time, or it may be destroyed in an instant. Below, we explore the dynamics of trust, including initial trust, deepening trust, differentiated trust, and the optimal level of trust. We also explore the dynamics of betrayal as well as the mechanisms for restoring trust that has been damaged.

Initial Trust

Although it makes intuitive sense that trust grows gradually over time, researchers have been surprised to find higher levels of initial trust than expected, even when the parties have very little knowledge of or experience with one another. Scholars have asserted that this preference for provisional trust over initial distrust makes sense because trust is the easier option. Distrust requires that energy be expended in anticipating possible harm and in planning ways to avert it (Berg, Dickhaut, & McCabe, 1995; Jones & George, 1998). People are inclined to overlook the possibility that another person may not share their values and consequently fail to meet their expectations in the relationship. As individuals interact, experience either reinforces these trusting assumptions or dispels initial impressions of trustworthiness. Once people have evidence that leads them to perceive differences in values, distrust is likely to emerge (Sitkin & Roth, 1993).

As trust develops in newly forming work relationships, such as when a new principal assumes leadership of a school, there is an initial phase in which each party is assessing the trustworthiness of the other. Trust is established during a commitment period during which each partner has the opportunity to signal to the other a willingness to accept personal risk and not exploit the vulnerability of the other for personal gain. A kind of courtship takes place in which each party is careful not to violate the other’s developing trust (Shapiro, Sheppard, & Cheraskin, 1992). This commitment period extends until participants know each other well enough to predict one another’s values and behavior. As participants begin to feel more comfortable with one another, there may be a tacit testing of the limits of trust and influence and attempts to arrive at a mutual set of expectations.

The Deepening of Trust

Initially, trust relies on assumptions, institutional structures, and deterrents (Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998). Trust between members of a school community develops and becomes more authentic as they interact with one another and get to know one another over time (Zucker, 1986). With a greater history of met expectations, as well as the growth of a sense of caring about the relationship, trust may deepen. As interdependent partners in an ongoing relationship gather experience with one another, they develop a growing pool of trust-relevant evidence to draw upon. As the frequency and duration of interactions increases, and with the increasing diversity of challenges that relationship partners face together, a history of fulfilled expectations accumulates and leads to a reputation for trustworthiness that can then deepen trust over time. A self-reinforcing pattern of trust emerges as repeated cycles of exchange, risk-taking, and successful fulfillment of expectations strengthen the willingness of trusting parties to rely upon each other (Creed & Miles, 1996). When people have grown to have a deep and abiding trust in one another, they comfortably rely on one another without anxiety. There is a mutual understanding of the other person’s intentions and desires that leads to effective action in service of joint work (Jones, & George, 1998; Lewicki & Bunker, 1996). At this point, trust is robust enough that it can endure an occasional disappointment, disagreement, or difference in values, provided it leaves intact the sense that both parties care enough to protect and continue the relationship. Trust can rebound, particularly if both parties make an effort to restore a sense of good faith and fair dealing in their interactions (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998). Each can recognize that the other is only human and bound to err, and nevertheless decide to go on trusting (Solomon & Flores, 2001).

Differentiated Trust

As trust develops, it evolves from impressionistic and undifferentiated to more finely grained and differentiated across the specific facets of trust. Trust may gel at different levels, depending on the nature of the relationship that has developed as the parties have interacted over time. It may not be necessary to have a high level of confidence in all facets of trust, however—just in those areas where there are critical interdependencies. There are crucial thresholds across which trust turns to distrust, and different facets of trust may have different thresholds depending on the nature of the interdependence and consequent vulnerability in the relationship, as well as the consequences of one’s expectations being disappointed. A person may trust another in some matters and not in others, so that trust and distrust are simultaneously present in the same relationship (Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998). In schools, the nature of the interdependence is such that all five facets of trust matter. Research using both quantitative and qualitative methods has demonstrated empirically that all five of these facets of trust are important in the relationships in schools (Cosner, 2009; Tschannen-Moran, 2014b). Factor analyses have demonstrated that the five facets of trust co-vary, whether the respondents of the surveys or the referents of trust were teachers, principals, students, or parents (Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999; Tschannen-Moran, 2001, 2009; Tschannen-Moran et al., 2013). So where trust is violated in one facet of trust, trust across all five facets is likely to decline.

The Optimal Level of Trust

Discerning the proper level of trust requires wisdom and discernment. More trust is not always better. There are dangers in both trusting too little and trusting too much. In schools, trusting too little is undesirable because schools miss out on the potential of trust to confer a competitive advantage through greater adaptability, innovation, lowered costs, and reduced uncertainty (Barney & Hansen, 1994; Mishra, 1996). Too little trust can also be dangerous because one’s trust attitudes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Organizational participants may begin to live down to the low expectations held for them. Resentment at being treated with suspicion can leave teachers and students feeling that if they are already presumed guilty, there is little reason not to, in fact, act in untrustworthy ways (Fox, 1974). Conversely, trusting too much can leave open too wide the gates of temptation. It provides too few incentives to teachers, staff members, and students to deter their inclinations toward opportunism and to look out for their own interests at the expense of the collective mission (Langsfred, 2004; Wicks, Berman, & Jones, 1999). Optimal trust is prudent, measured, and conditional. Trust levels should be appropriate to the context and may fall anywhere on the spectrum from minimal trust to high trust depending on the person and situation (Wicks et al., 1999). Trust needs to be tempered by a willingness to confront and punish exploitive behavior. A bias toward trust, shaped by prudence, offers an appropriate balance for relationships within schools (Fink, 2016; Solomon & Flores, 2001).

Breaches in Trust

Betrayal is a voluntary violation of mutually understood expectations that has the potential to threaten the well-being of the trusting person. Whatever its cause, betrayal disrupts trust and damages relationships. The sudden loss of trust can be a very painful experience and the effects of betrayal can be lasting. People generally do not forget a betrayal even if they forgive and find a way to move on (Rachman, 2010). In one study focusing on betrayal in the workplace, over half of the incidents recounted by participants had occurred more than two decades earlier, and yet they recalled them in great detail (Jones & Burdette, 1994). Interestingly, the level of trust prior to the betrayal can have an impact on the response to a violation. Where previous trust has been high, employees have been found to be more likely to overlook evidence of a betrayal, making excuses for the transgression as a misunderstanding, an unintentional event, or a temporary lapse. In low-trust relationships, however, the act was more likely to be seen as intentional and malevolent. Once the evidence of a betrayal was sufficiently strong that it could no longer be ignored, however, the emotional reaction of the previously trusting party was much more potent than those with previously low trust, resulting in a stronger motivation to seek revenge (Robinson, Dirks, & Ozcelik, 2004).

Breakdowns in trust stem from a variety of behaviors on the part of any organizational actor. These breaches in trust can be classified into two broad categories: damage to the civic order and damage to one’s sense of identity (Bies & Tripp, 1996). Trust violations that result in a damaged sense of civic order involve a breach of rules or norms governing behavior and the expectations of what people owe to one another in a relationship. These include honor violations such as lying, broken promises, stealing ideas or credit from others, or the shirking of job responsibilities. For those with organizational authority, trust can be damaged from the abusive exercise of authority, such as coercive or threatening behavior, favoritism, changing the rules after the fact, sexual harassment, or improper dismissal (Harris, 1994). The second category of trust violations involves a sense of damaged identity. Harm can be done to one’s dignity as a result of public criticism, wrong or unfair accusations, blaming of others for personal mistakes, or insults to one’s self or the collective of which one is a part. When one’s trust has been damaged, a person often feels duty-bound to redress the wrong and may invest energy in conjuring up a plan for revenge. Although betrayal involves a violation of trust, it is not necessarily unethical, such as when a colleague, based on principle, discloses information shared in confidence about behavior of a colleague that violates personal principles or organizational norms (Elangovan & Shapiro, 1998).

Restoring Damaged Trust

Given the importance of trust to effective school functioning, as well as the challenges to cultivating and sustaining trust, it is important to consider how trust that has been damaged can be restored. Although research and experience suggest that damaged trust may sometimes be rebuilt, trust repair is an arduous process that requires effort and humility and may extend over a long period of time. Trust is fundamental to cooperation, yet trust can be difficult to establish once a cycle of suspicion, competition, and retaliation has begun. Even in the midst of tension and conflict, however, trust can be fostered through the conciliatory initiatives of one party acting unilaterally, signaling the desire to establish (or reestablish) trust without sacrificing the genuine need to protect his or her interests (Fisher & Brown, 1988). Trust repair is a two-way process in which each side must perceive that the short-term or long-term benefits to be gained from the relationship are sufficiently valued to be worth the investment of time and energy required by the repair process. Each party must decide that the benefits of restoring the relationship are preferable to finding other ways to meet the needs that were once met by the relationship (Hurley, 2012; Lewicki & Bunker, 1996). The violator and the victim have different roles and responsibilities in the reestablishment of trust. Trust repair often is initiated by the victim, who verbally or nonverbally confronts the violator and makes him or her aware of the sense of betrayal. But it can also be initiated by a perpetrator who feels contrite and wants to make things right again in the relationship.

What is required to restore trust will depend on what caused the disruption of trust in the first place. Whether distrust has grown from resentment over a perceived insult, disillusionment with broken rules or norms, or the recognition of real differences in basic values, attention will need to be paid to these issues in the restoration of trust. In every instance, the beginning of a transformation from distrust to trust requires a conversation that starts with an assessment of the problem (Solomon & Flores, 2001). Such conversations are by no means easy or comfortable. The willingness to initiate and engage in them, however, is a concrete and powerful way to demonstrate care and the willingness to do what is necessary to repair broken trust. Trust repair is facilitated by a combination of inquiry and advocacy, seeking to understand and communicate empathy to the other party while assertively articulating one’s own position and needs (Hurley, 2012). This process will be aided by adopting unconditionally constructive attitudes, establishing clear boundaries, and communicating promises and credible threats. It is also facilitated by working for good communication and using constructive conflict resolution strategies, being meticulously reliable in following through with commitments that are made during this process (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

Conflict is an inevitable part of the organizational change process. Even where there is agreement on the goals of the change, there are often differences of opinion as to how to achieve those goals. Breakdowns in trust may emerge in the midst of a change process around issues of misunderstanding the purpose of the change process, what behaviors and outcomes will be expected and how and when the success of the change will be assessed (Ford & Ford, 1995). Change disrupts the power dynamics within a school, advantaging some and disadvantaging others. Change also involves loss. It disrupts the way people make meaning of their lives at work. As people in a school cope with the loss inherent in change, it is important to recognize their reactions as normal grief responses and not to take them as evidence that the change is somehow in the wrong direction, or as a sign that those resisting are malevolent or incompetent if they are initially less than enthusiastic at the prospect of doing things differently. Listening skillfully to people as they react to change can be a powerful way to foster trust in the midst of a change process. The health of a school community is dependent upon a leader who can mediate the inevitable conflicts inherent in the vital and complex work of schools. It is also important for leaders to assist teachers and students to learn constructive conflict-management strategies (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

When distrust has spread beyond the interpersonal dynamics between a few individuals to a culture of distrust that pervades an entire school, a larger set of conversations about trust may be both appropriate and necessary for trust to be restored. Keeping those conversations constructive, however, takes great care and a sound, structural framework. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) provides one such research-based framework (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010). AI is a process for fostering whole-system change by focusing on strengths and what is going well rather than on problems, gaps, or discrepancies between the aspirations of people and the current reality of their relationships. This counter-intuitive approach has been found to be surprisingly effective, especially when dealing with an issue as distressing as distrust in a workplace setting (Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

Trust is a key distinguishing mark of relationships in successful schools. It is unlikely that the mission of a school can be accomplished without trust. When trust has been disrupted, and when conflicts have resulted in feelings of betrayal, it is important for mechanisms to be in place to help members of the school community to restore their broken relationships. School leaders therefore have a special responsibility to make sure that these mechanisms are not only in place but also utilized so that the distrust resulting from unresolved disputes does not impair the ability of a school community to fulfill its mission and goals. Findings ways to overcome broken trust and to rebuild damaged relationships will pay strong dividends in supporting the positive outcomes a school can achieve.

Our Students, Our Future

Trust matters in schools and in our world because we cannot single-handedly either create or sustain many of the things we care most about (Baier, 1994). As a society we invest much of what we most cherish in our schools. Parents send their children to schools, trusting that they will be safe from harm, as well as guided and taught in keeping with our highest hopes for them. Schools are also invested with a significant share of a community’s collective resources in the form of tax dollars, school buildings, and local employment opportunities. In addition, schools are charged with keeping and promoting a society’s shared values and ideals. They foster and protect the collective ideals of respect, tolerance, and democracy, as well as the vision of equity of opportunity. Indeed, the future of a society rests with the quality of its schools. It is evident why trust has become such a pressing issue for schools in these challenging and turbulent times.

Further Reading

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for school improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Find this resource:

Forsyth, P. B., Adams, C. M., & Hoy, W. K. (2011). Collective trust: Why schools can’t improve without it. New York: Teachers College Press.Find this resource:

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014a). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools (2d ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

Van Maele, D., Forsyth, P. B., & Van Houtte, M. (Eds.). (2014). Trust and school life: The role of trust for learning, teaching, leading, and bridging. London: Springer Publisher.Find this resource:

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