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:
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:
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!