4 Ways Trust Enhances Performance in Schools

"...most people at work, even in high performing organisations, divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company today. What would happen if people felt no need to do this second job?" 
Robert Kegan et al.Making Business Personal, Harvard Business Review. April, 2014

An interesting comment from the current issue of HBR goes to the heart of trust and its important contribution to organisational effectiveness –either by its presence or by its absence. Trust is an important part of the relationship between coach and coach – it is central to the GCI GROWTH model - and it now increasingly receiving attention as a significant influence on school effectiveness.

It’s well recognised that successful school leaders are able to develop a culture of trust in their schools. In fact, the Australian Professional Standard for Principals describes two capacities that are evident in the work of successful school principals and that relate to trust: “They foster trust and release creativity by developing leadership in others…” (Developing self and others) (AITSL 2011, p9) and “They are able to build trust across the school community…” (Personal qualities and social and interpersonal skills) (AITSL 2011, p7).

But does a culture of trust enhance school performance? Recent research suggests that it does. AITSL commissioned a literature review on this topic, which was published in June 2013:Literature review: A culture of trust enhances performance (Dr Jessica Harris, Professor Brian Caldwell and Ms Fiona Longmuir). The paper confirms the crucial role played by school leaders in this area

The authors start by exploring the definition of trust. They found that most of the studies included in their review were concerned with relational trust, defined as “the trust a person puts in another person or group of people…a generalised type of trust usually established over time.” They note that a key aspect of relational trust involves a willingness to be vulnerable with one’s peers or colleagues and the likelihood to be involved in collaborative problem-solving. However, they also warn that while trust can take years to develop, it can take but a moment to lose! 

The concept of relational trust was a feature of the study undertaken by Anthony Bryk and colleagues in Chicago schools during the 1990’s. That study found a strong association between the level of trust in a school and the extent of improvement. Trust, in and of itself, is not the cause of improvement, but “it creates the basic social fabric within which the members of school communities can initiate and sustain efforts at building the essential supports for school improvement.”

The authors of the literature review identify four categories of trust relationships and their impact on performance in schools, using a modified version of the elements outlined in the Chicago study. They are, in summary:

1. School-Community Trust

Frequent contact between the school and parents helps establish a relationship of trust between parents and the school and can support the development of common goals and expectations for student performance.

2. Teacher-Principal Trust

The behaviour and attributes of the school leader have a profound influence on the development of a culture of trust in a school. Those who are successful in developing a culture of trust make relationship-building a priority. They demonstrate personal integrity, commitment and honesty. Furthermore, they trust and encourage their staff to engage in shared decision-making processes, creating a safe environment where staff “can initiate and trial new ideas and practices without fear of criticism or retribution.”

3. Teacher-Teacher Trust

School leaders are also responsible for helping to build trust between teachers. By providing the time and conditions for teachers to engage in collaborative relationships, they can create a safe space for teachers “to exchange ideas, share knowledge and work together to improve professional practice…that enhances student achievement.” The authors also quote Hattie who believes that trust is central to the effective implementation of his 138 ‘influences’ on learning.

4. Student-Teacher Trust

While the authors admit there is limited evidence to suggest there is a relationship between student-teacher trust and academic outcomes, research does indicate that trusting relationships between students and teachers can support students’ engagement, wellbeing, and identification with their school.

In conclusion, the authors find that there is “ample if not overwhelming evidence” that a culture of trust enhances performance in schools. They also make two important points:

  • Trust does not stand alone as a discrete capacity. It permeates every structure and process in a school that involves the leader. For that reason, one-off efforts to create trust are unlikely to succeed. Trust takes time to develop.
  • The quality of relationships is central to the creation of trust, but that quality is influenced by many factors, including the competence of the leader. Trust will be lost very quickly if a leader is perceived to be incompetent. So a culture of trust can enhance school performance and the school leader plays a critical role in establishing that culture. Similarly, unless we establish trust in our coaching relationships, our coachees will be less inclined to improve their performance by exploring new ideas and moving out of their comfort zone.

What’s one thing you could do this month to progress a culture of trust in your school?


  • 1 Harris, J, Caldwell, B and Longmuir, F (2013), Literature review: A culture of trust enhances performance, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership
  • 1 Bryk, AS & Schneider, BL (2002), Trust in Schools: a core resource for improvement, Russell Sage Foundation, New York
  • 1 Bryk, AS, Bender Sebring, P, Allensworth, E, Luppescu, S & Easton, JQ (2010), Organising schools for improvement: lessons from Chicago, Kindle version, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London