Hello Friends!

Since the pandemic began three years ago, we have spent a lot of time thinking about and worrying about community. Over the past 18 months in particular, schools have been working hard to build back community that was undermined not just by being off campus, but by the roller coaster ride of emotions so many of us took during this time. We want to build community because it feels good and right, particularly in schools, but we also want that community relationship because it builds and strengthens trust in our institutions.

There is a truly disconcerting lack of trust right now for many people. We struggle with trusting our news sources, the government, big business, and technology companies. In fact, trust seems to be down a bit for almost every area that Gallup is measuring right now, even relative to last year. This lack of trust makes these relationships subject to the whims of political polarization and other lenses that people project on situations when they do not feel a personal connection.

I share this not to end our March on a sour note, but to underscore that we are entering a season where trust is crucial for building and maintaining a healthy rapport with our returning and new families, our alumni, our returning and new employees, and our boards of trustees. In the past three weeks I have found myself in many conversations about maintaining community trust through transparency, communications, and consistency, and I have also been speaking with people who are worried that they have irreparably damaged that trust through missteps, many brought on by burnout and fatigue.

Trust is also essential as we look at hiring season, and the relationships we have with our teams are fundamental to building trust in the wider community. The best article I know of on this topic is this one, on the Neuroscience of Trust, by Paul J. Zak, from Harvard Business Review. He talks extensively about his research around oxytocin, including spraying it up the noses of some of his human test subjects to test the impact of oxytocin on trust. What he found was that oxytocin appears to do one thing, make it easier for subjects to trust a stranger.

Zak studied the impact of trust on employees and outcomes in-depth. Here is what he found:

  • Respondents whose companies were in the top quartile of trust indicated they had 106% more energy and were 76% more engaged at work than respondents whose firms were in the bottom quartile.
  • They also reported being 50% more productive.
  • Compared with employees at low-trust companies, 50% more of those working at high-trust organizations planned to stay with their employer over the next year, and 88% more said they would recommend their company to family and friends as a place to work.
  • Those working in high-trust companies enjoyed their jobs 60% more.
  • 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose and felt 66% closer to their colleagues.
  • The high-trust folks had 11% more empathy for their workmates, depersonalized them 41% less often, and experienced 40% less burnout from their work.
  • They felt a greater sense of accomplishment, as well—41% more.

As he focused primarily on building trust in the workplace, it is helpful to understand the behaviors they saw that directly aligned with higher trust outcomes. They are:

  • Recognize excellence. This involves recognition right after a goal has been met, preferably from peers, when it is “tangible, unexpected, personal, and public.”
  • Induce “challenge stress.” This kind of stress is triggered by difficult but attainable goals or jobs. These kinds of challenges help build teams that are working together and engaged, as opposed to jobs that are too easy and do not feel as worth the effort, or those that are so difficult that people give up before they start.
  • Give people discretion in how they do their work. I love this one because the skill I look for more than any other in job interviews is around being able to figure things out. This particular element is about trusting staff, once they have been trained and understand the expectations, to do just that.
  • Enable job crafting. This is a hard one in our field, but not impossible. Zak notes: “When companies trust employees to choose which project they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.”
  • Share information broadly. Employees who don’t understand the organization’s direction have higher levels of stress, which inhibits oxytocin and is an obstacle to better teamwork.
  • Intentionally build relationships. This is where the picnics, group outings, and other things that schools naturally do, and what many people felt a loss of during the pandemic, come into play. Even when these are socially engineered, studies show that “when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves.”
  • Facilitate whole-person growth. These conversations and connections happen naturally in many school settings, and they are about caring about how people are growing as humans and professionals.
  • Show vulnerability. This one is very much based on the leaders in the institution and is all about asking for help. This kind of outreach from leadership stimulates oxytocin in others and builds trust.

While these steps have been tested in the employment context, they are really about people working together for a common end. As schools, we engage in these kinds of exchanges constantly, with employees, but also with our boards, parents, students, and untold numbers of volunteers. As we think about the cultures we are intentionally building, bearing these suggestions in mind can only help us build greater trust in our communities so that those connections are there when we need them.

As always, if we at SAIS can do anything for you as we get closer to the end of this school year, please do not hesitate to reach out!