John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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In their research into high performing elementary schools in Chicago, Bryk and Schneider found a high correlation between the levels of trust in a school and its capacity to improve. Schools with a high level of trust at the outset of a programme to improve maths and reading had a 1in 2 chance of improving. Schools with relatively low levels of trust had only a 1 in 7 chance of improving. Schools in the latter category which did improve made significant gains in their levels of trust as a pre-requisite to raising attainment.

The authors describe trust as the ´connective tissue´ which binds schools together and this image helps to reinforce the importance of healthy networks, neural and social, to effective learning. Bryk and Schneider (2002) distinguish between three types of trust:

  • Organic trust is based on the unquestioning acceptance by an individual of the moral and social integrity of a community.
  • Contractual trust is based on reciprocity – it is essentially transactional.
  • Relational trust is the product of human relationships and interactions – it is characterised by rich networks and high social interdependence.

In essence this is all about building social capital, creating learning communities which are exemplified in the strength of social networks, interdependency, engagement, shared purpose, parity of esteem and genuine reciprocity. It will be clear from all that has been written about systems leadership that relational trust is highly appropriate to this context. Relational trust is defined by Bryk and Schneider through the following components:

  • Respect – recognising the integrity of all of those involved in a child´s education and their mutual interdependence.
  • Competence – professional capability and the effective discharge of role and responsibility.
  • Personal regard for other – mutual dependence and caring leading to a sense of interdependence and reciprocity.
  • Integrity – consistency, reliability and a clear sense of moral purpose.

For Bryk and Schneider (2002): ‘relational trust constitutes a moral resource for school improvement’ (p34). Covey (2006) is unambiguous about the status and role of trust in personal and organizational life:

When trust is high, the dividend you receive is like a performance multiplier...In a company high trust materially improves communication, collaboration, execution, innovation ... In your personal life, high trust significantly improves your excitement, energy, passion, creativity and joy in your relationships...(p19)

Covey goes on to describe the various types of trust, what he classifies as the ‘five waves of trust’:

  • 1. Self trust – personal credibility and confidence
  • 2. Relationship trust – consistent behaviour in personal relationships
  • 3. Organizational trust – designing structures and procedures around trust
  • 4. Market trust – working through reputation and integrity
  • 5. Societal trust – interdependence and commitment(ibid pp 34/35)

Clearly each level of trust is a function of its predecessor and the building of trust is a cumulative process and this again reinforces the importance of leaders modelling in order to enable others to adopt alternative ways of behaving. The power of trust is reinforced by Hargreaves and Fink (2006)

Trust is a resource. It creates and consolidates energy, commitment, and relationships. When trust is broken, people lessen their commitment and withdraw from relationships, and entropy abounds. (Pp213-214)


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