Fostering Trust in Academic Departments

It is crucial in a vibrant academic unit, and you can cultivate it in some specific ways, advise Elizabeth A. Luckman, C. K. Gunsalus, Nicholas C. Burbules and Robert A. Easter.

January 10, 2019

When it comes to identifying and overcoming problematic issues in academic departments, trust plays an essential role. Trust can be seen as the confidence people have in believing the words and actions of others. It incorporates the belief that difficult topics and conversations will not be deliberately misconstrued or used manipulatively.

How is trust undermined? As discussed in another column, faculty members may encounter strong disincentives to speak out publicly, especially where sensitive or divisive issues are concerned. That is often because a fundamental level of trust does not exist among members of the department. Most faculty members do not like to call out colleagues. Many are skeptical, and sometimes deeply cynical, about academic leadership and formal institutional processes. It takes trust to be willing to engage in discussions about change efforts intended to reinvigorate a unit's climate and culture.

Imagine some issues that can cause trouble in an academic unit: accusations of plagiarism between colleagues, perceived bias or favoritism by the unit executive, sexual misconduct, or members who are not pulling their weight in building the department’s reputation. Such issues can be hard to talk about in public, even when “everybody knows” that a problem exists. Some should be dealt with in interpersonal, nonpublic ways. Some may require confidential reporting and formal intervention by designated officials. Sometimes, trust is best built when a leader proactively intervenes when behavior is uncivil. None of that happens unless people speak up. And trust in people, and in processes, is key to that happening.

Trust is not bestowed, it is earned. Saying “trust me” does not make people trust each other. Trust requires overcoming the skepticism that is often naturally present before we have had a chance to get to know each other better. Actions that build trust start with consistent, effective communication and follow-through.

In a vibrant academic unit, unit members know what is expected of them -- and what they expect of each other. There are commonly accepted rules of engagement about “how we act here.” Official and unofficial opinion leaders cannot impose those rules through a tell-and-do approach. They must model the behavior they wish to foster and earn the trust of the other people within the department so that the rules become foundational to the regular processes of the department. In a unit with a reservoir of trust, colleagues trust each other and their leaders, and vice versa. Unit members are more motivated to participate in efforts for the overall good when that happens.

As a leader and unit member, you can improve communication and cultivate trust in some specific ways. You can:

  • Provide predictability and consistency in decision making. You can create psychological safety by establishing and maintaining principled bases for decisions, relating them where relevant to the core mission of the institution and articulating them and acting upon them consistently. Trust and safety are encouraged when people’s expectations about norms of conduct, what happens when those expectations are met and what happens when they are violated are all predictable. Similar actions -- whether good or bad -- must stimulate similar proportionate responses, whether from the highest- or lowest-status members of the unit. Consistency builds trust.
  • Be prepared to have difficult conversations. In those conversations, to borrow a mantra from negotiation literature, you should be “hard on the problems, soft on the people.” Such discussions are not for the faint of heart. People are more willing to engage in them when they believe that such efforts will produce meaningful change. Knowing that the conversations can be difficult means the individuals involved should be primed to approach the discussions with greater levels of sensitivity to others’ perceptions and beliefs. When this is done successfully, members of the unit are more likely to trust that their viewpoints will be heard.
  • Develop your ability to listen effectively and ask good questions. Improve your tools for dealing with difficult conversations. Asking thoughtful questions and listening attentively to the answers encourages trust and a willingness to provide honest answers. It is a process that builds on itself. Listening conveys respect, especially in the academic environment where so many people are afflicted with degrees of impostor syndrome. Respect is a critical intangible, and it is possible to maintain personal dignity even toward those who violate norms or underperform -- while still holding them accountable.
  • Cultivate your own emotional regulation and self-awareness at all times. Emotions are contagious, and high emotions speed up such contagion. Instinct may tell us to react in particular ways, but as a participant in difficult conversations, you must maintain your professional demeanor. That does not mean that you cannot be empathetic or sympathetic, nor does it mean you cannot tell someone when an emotional outburst is inappropriate.
  • Work to create and maintain a climate in which the members of the unit trust each other. It is not sufficient for a formal authority figure to be trusted and to have earned trust. If trust is broken between unit members and no effort is taken to rebuild it, then the problems can be even more challenging to navigate. A visible relationship in which the lack of trust is a factor can affect the entire unit, even if it only involves two people.
  • Understand the impact of trust on issues of confidentiality and transparency. Imagine a time when you discovered that a confidant had shared your secret with another. You probably felt violated and disrespected, and you immediately questioned -- if not lost -- any trust you had in that person. Trust is destroyed when unit members, especially leaders, violate personal and professional confidentiality and lose track of the appropriate boundaries for each. Learning how to set boundaries -- and to be transparent about when you may be required to share potentially private information -- is necessary to cultivating and maintaining trust.

All these elements are central to fostering trust among people in the work environment. You should also be aware that, for each of the actions listed, the converse is also true. For example, lacking predictability or consistency in decision making can erode trust -- quickly.

Helpful Tools

We’d like to suggest several tools that can also help you go a long way in building trust in your department or unit.

In a previous article, we introduced the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool (AUDiT), and in subsequent essays, we described how you can use it to assess the culture of your department and to develop strategies for improvement and growth. The AUDiT can help units and their leaders identify their strengths as well as early warning signs of potential challenges and areas that should be addressed. You can use the positive signals identified through the AUDiT as opportunities to consolidate and build on those areas -- and then to move on to conversations about more difficult topics.

If warning signs emerge that trust is not present in your department or other unit, the AUDiT can be a starting point for facilitating conversations to build such trust. Successful use of the AUDiT requires more than the formal power that accompanies a leadership title. It requires that leaders model and cultivate trust among the people in their unit, which will build a culture of transparency and respect. Consistency in behavior, honest interactions with others and modeling good communication practices are all key to using the AUDiT effectively to solve problems.

In addition, for more on the elements we’ve described of effective listening and questioning techniques, consistency in messaging, building trust, and appreciation for confidentiality, visit the NCPRE Leadership Collection. It is an online repository of information that provides research-backed guidance on listening and asking questions, setting boundaries, confidentiality and transparency, emotional intelligence, and more.

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Elizabeth A. Luckman is the lead postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, where she curates and writes for the Leadership Collection; she also develops and teaches associated curricula for students and leaders. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the NCPRE, professor emerita of business and research professor at the coordinated sciences laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nicholas C. Burbules is the education director of the NCPRE and Gutgsell Professor in the department of educational policy, organization and leadership at the university. Robert A. Easter is president emeritus and dean of agriculture, consumer and environmental sciences emeritus of the University of Illinois.

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