There are two significant factors facing higher education leaders: the greater risks our institutions operate under, and the need to rely upon the skills of many others to navigate through those risks and sustain our goals and strategies. Our institutions depend deeply upon the collective efforts of professionals across varied disciplines to drive our missions and sustain our momentum. 

Need for Trust

Trust among leaders is a critical condition for guiding others during times of uncertainty and insecurity. Leaders in higher education face many risks. These risks include the unknown educational outcome of student learning applications, quality deterioration due to the changing characteristics of teaching professionals, access impairment through not maintaining technological capacity, and competitors entering the marketplace as online higher education providers. Trust can be a foundation for our reliance upon the knowledge, skills, and abilities of others when guiding our organization forward and mitigating these risks.

While trust often leads to higher engagement, increased creativity, and greater productivity, we need to first build a foundation for trust. Thus, we need to trust one another to execute, make decisions, guide groups, and set agendas for our institutions and constituencies. 

What Is Trust?

To build a foundation for trust, we must understand it. How does trust apply in our higher education organizations? Where do we look for trust? How can we know it exists? 

Trust in every workplace consists of four parts, what I call the HFAC of trust: honesty, fairness, accomplishment, and concern for others. Taken together, the HFAC components contribute to trust among people and among leaders.

Honesty means telling the truth in a forthright and fully informative manner. It means openness, and transparency of facts and decision criteria. Honest people reveal all the information, not just part of it or certain facets of a decision. 

Fairness means being just and conducting even treatment across units, groups, and individuals. Fair leaders consider the interests of multiple groups and the purposes of many constituents in making choices. Fairness also can mean a level of reliability and dedication to the development of others.

Accomplishment means doing the full job to get the work completed. If you’ve accomplished something, you’ve completed all the responsibilities, carried out assigned duties fully, and achieved an end. It means understanding the end, and setting goals to meet stages of completion. Accomplishment also means acknowledging a goal has been reached by recognizing all the contributors.

Concern for others means stepping in to help and support other people. It does not mean making excuses for others, or covering up for inabilities. It does mean helping others finish work and accomplish jobs when an extra hand is needed. 

All four HFAC components need to be present, with leaders behaving accordingly, for trust to arise and become sustained. We can address all four components by aligning them with the values already in place at our institutions. 

Align Trust Components With Values

All institutions of higher educational purposes determine the values that drive the norms of our institutions—the expected behaviors of all members. These values drive how people are treated, actions are taken, and leadership behavior is exhibited. For example, fairness may be expressed in our institutional values as respect across differences, inclusionary practices, or fair grading policies. These values express the clear expectations of specific behaviors as fundamental work procedures. But fairness for our leaders may be a bit more complicated. Leaders are faced with complex decisions that affect multiple units and groups significantly and simultaneously. How can a leader behave fairly when allocation decisions must be made across units with limited resources? 

I suggest establishing a clear meaning for fairness, and each of the other HFAC components, early on among the leadership group. Publish those values as foundational components to trust for your institution, and reflect on them when making decisions and coming to conclusions. Each of the trust components must be described for leadership actions that speak to the qualities expressed in your institutional values.