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Four Key Factors to Establishing a Trusted School

Four Key Factors to Establishing a Trusted School

What is the single greatest asset of your school? The teachers? The students? The facilities? The curriculum? The methodology? All are vital to a quality school, however, a tremendous amount of research would conclude that the single most valuable asset to anyone serving in school leadership, and to any educational institution, is the level to which you as a school leader, and the level to which your institution, is TRUSTED. This was the topic of a recent workshop I presented at the AdvancED Latin American conference in Atlanta.


(Above: Presenting “Trust: The Essential Element for School Leadership” at the 2015 AdvancED Latin American Conference).

Think about the universal challenges faced by schools throughout the world; the conflicts between students and teachers, teachers with parents, parents with coaches, teachers with administration, and the administration with the broader community. At the center of all these areas of conflict, the challenges, issues, and concerns can almost always be boiled down to a lack of TRUST. Students are frequently not trusted by their teachers (and vice-versa); Teachers are hesitant to trust parents (and vice-versa); Administrators are only trusted by teachers after a significant amount of time (and vice- versa); and the community at large is negative of any institution that is marked by a lack of trust. For international schools there is an additional layer of concern, as the very nature of who we are as an educational institution, and one of the primary reasons why families choose our schools over other private or public institutions, is based largely on the fundamental assumption that we maintain a higher level of integrity, a deeper commitment to shared values, and that we can be trusted. Thus, if that trust is damaged, then so is one of the key distinctives of our “brand” that attracts the very clientele that we seek to serve.

David Horsager, in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book The Trust Edge, identifies through research that a lack of trust is the largest expense of businesses and organizations today.

Trust can accelerate and mistrust can destroy any business, organization, or relationship. The lower the trust, the more time everything takes, the more everything costs, and the lower the loyalty of everyone involved. By contrast, greater trust brings superior innovation, creativity, freedom, morale, and productivity.[1]

Horsager is not alone in his findings. A very large amount of research on the value, importance, and significance of trust has been conducted over the past twenty years. The research demonstrates that high levels of trust in educational institutions, and their leaders, results in the following:

  1. higher levels of retention of faculty and staff;

  2. greater levels of achievement by students;

  3. stronger parent and community relations with the school;

  4. …and much 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 diminishes; and parent and community support wanes. In some cases students, teachers, parents, and even community members become adversarial and destructive.

Large Amount of Trust Research – Small Amount Applied to School Administration

Watson Wyatt of WorkUSA has produced research showing that companies with high trust levels outperform companies with low trust levels by 186%.[2] Research in the value of trust, and the application and implementation of that research has become a multi-billion dollar part of corporate professional development in the world today, but what about professional development in schools?

For example, when doing a book search on using the word “trust,” you will have to sift through over 5,600 listings to find what you’re searching for. If you narrow the search to “Trust in Leadership,” the results increase with the search providing over 7,600 listings. The current production of literature on trust is tremendous, and there is some work being applied to school leadership. A search on “Trust in School Leadership” provides 122 results, although most of those are not directly related to school administration. In fact only 10 of those volumes deal directly with the relationship of trust to effective school leadership. Well, you may ask “What about from a more formal source?” Google Scholar[3] has become an indispensable research tool for many in the academic world today. A current title search on “trust and school administration or leadership” produces only 22 results out of over a 1,600,000 articles or publications that mention trust and school administration or trust and school leadership.

Therefore, based upon my own observed need for additional study and application of Trust Research to my experience as an administrator of an international school in South America, and upon the apparent lack of accessible literature on the subject, this area of study and application became a passion of mine.[4] In 2014 I secured certification as a “Trust Edge Facilitator” through Horsager Leadership ( and have already seen tremendous results through the application of this training along-side my own independent doctoral studies.

The Four Key Factors of Trust

The largest public relations firm in the world is Edelman[5]. 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, however, is also the premier researcher themselves in the area of trust in the business world. For the last 15 years they have produced 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.”[6] Note that he said “all institutions.” The lack of trust in the world today is not just a concern of businesses and governments, but all organizations – from family operated convenience stores to global charities (including international 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[7]:

  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 spokesman at a far higher level than CEO’s).

Application for School Administrators

Consider the application of these four fundamental principles or factors to our world of school administration. At first glance we may not see the connection, but I believe there are significant insights for us to gain.

First, consider the application of the research focused upon trust in various “Industry Sectors.” In a 2012 the Technology Sector was the most trusted at 79% with the Media Sector at just 51% (only slightly above Banks and Financial Services).[8] Although I have not found the research to back it, I would also guess that if these studies were broken down by age categories we would discover that the younger the audience surveyed, the higher the trust level in technology. Most school administrators that I personally know are also in my age category, meaning they grew up in a time very different from that of their students in relationship to technology. “Because today’s students grew up in the digital age and have never known a world without the internet, cell phones, video games, on-demand videos, and portable computing devices, school and district leaders need to consider who their students are and how they are learning. They use digital devices daily, and most have never known a time when information was not available from Google.”[9] 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 international school leaders we must understand 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.[10] “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).[11]

The second general principle or factor that leads to trust is that of “Country of Origin.” Here I believe a crucial application for school leaders is that of being aware, 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 administrators still lean heavy 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.[12] 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, elimination of nearly all homework, etc.). 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.

The third principle or factor revolves around “Enterprise Type.” In developed nations family-owned small business is trusted at 30 points above that of big business.[13] What does that mean for school administrators? 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 administrators are distant and locked behind multiple walls of secretaries, trust erodes. Writing to school leaders, Kenneth Strike states that, “Creating healthy and effective deliberative communities is the very center of your job.”[14] In order to create that “family-owned” sense throughout the school community, we need to not only be accessible, but we need to be fluent in a deep understanding of the very essence of our unique community.

We must know something about the fundamental goods at which the community aims and the moral principles that govern interaction in the community. Communities are associations in which individuals cooperate to realize shared aims. Good communities pursue worthy aims, and, if they are to function well, they must have a shared conception of the rules and principles that govern the cooperation of their members in the pursuit of these aims.[15]

The fourth principal or factor is that of “Leadership” itself. It was most interesting to find in the research that when representing the business world, those from academics were identified as being the most trusted of spokesman. Academic spokesman were trusted at 70% compared to CEO’s at 43% and Government Officials at just 38%.[16] The challenge in our context, however, is that the school administrator 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 administrators.

Trust Takes Time

As a final example of the importance and value of applying Trust Research to school administration, consider this study conducted by Manchester Consulting demonstrating that, “It took an average of seven months for employees to build their trust in a leader but less than half that time for them to lose it.”[17] The application of this research to school administration may be obvious, but if not clearly understood and applied, the results can be disastrous.

Consider the new administrator who has been brought in to revitalize a struggling school. If in the first 6 months of his administration he begins by slashing budgets, laying off faculty and staff, and fundamentally discarding or changing long-held and practiced policies and programs – he most-likely will face not only a disgruntled staff, but may have to fight for his contract to be renewed at the end of his first school-year. Simply knowing and understanding that the research shows it takes at least 7 months for trust to be established in any role should guide the new administrator to take it slow in those first months. The research shows that the time is much better invested in watching, observing and spending large amounts of hours in the building of relationships with, and shoring up support of, the faculty and staff. This doesn’t mean that major programmatic overhauls aren’t urgent and necessary, but in order to lead an organization through change, there must first be a grounded level of trust; and that takes time.

All of this to say that 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). When we do so, we gain the “Trust Edge” benefits such as higher levels of teacher and student engagement, greater retention of quality teachers, deeper connection with the broader community, and a healthier financial bottom line.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The organizational and leadership experience of Toby Travis spans nearly thirty years and includes working in senior leadership roles of several international corporations. His work as a speaker and trainer with schools and universities has taken Toby coast-to-coast in the USA, as well as to Canada, Mexico, England, Ireland, Wales, Poland, Germany, India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Belize, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador (see Currently Toby also serves as the Head of School for Colegio Menor – Campus Samborondón in Ecuador.

[1] Horsager, David (2012). The Trust Edge: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships (Kindle Locations 162-164). Free Press.

[4] The application of trust research to school administration is the subject of my doctoral dissertation.

[7] Edelman Trust Barometer 2015 Executive Summary. Page 6.

[8] Edelman Trust Barometer 2012 Executive Summary. Page 6.

[9] Schrum, Lynne R.; Levin, Barbara B.. (2015). Leading 21st Century Schools: Harnessing Technology for Engagement and Achievement (Kindle Locations 212-214). SAGE Publications.

[10] Snyder, Thomas D; Hoffman, Charlene M. (2001). Digest of Education Statistics2000. U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

[11] Schrum, Lynne R.; Levin, Barbara B.. (2015). Leading 21st Century Schools: Harnessing Technology for Engagement and Achievement. (Kindle Locations 221-225). SAGE Publications.

[13] Edelman, Richard. (2015). Edelman Trust Barometer Executive Summary. Page 7.

[14] Strike, Kenneth A.. (2007). Ethical Leadership in Schools: Creating Community in an Environment of Accountability (Leadership for Learning Series). Page 17. SAGE Publications.

[15] Ibid. Page 7.

[16] Edleman, Richard. (2015). Page 7.

[17] Sullivan, John. (2002). Gain Trust by Being Consistent. Tech Republic. html.


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