Building and sustaining high trust relationships

    This is the heart of effective leadership. High trust relationships exist when leaders are respected for their deep educational knowledge, their actions and values, and the way they engage respectfully with others with empathy and humility, fostering openness in discussions. Leaders have good emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

Educational leadership capability framework, Education Council, 2018

This page summarises some thinking and research related to this capability. It is not a comprehensive or definitive background to the capability.

Why trust is important

School leaders have a strong indirect influence on student achievement. One of the factors in that influence is trust.

Bryk and Schneider’s cornerstone research (2003) demonstrated a causal relationship between the level of trust among members of a school community and the degree of improvement in student outcomes.

Megan Tschannen-Moran, another key researcher in the area of trust and educational leadership, says “few other variables examined by educational researchers come close to the level of predictive power of trust on student achievement” (2015, p258).

Research has shown that teachers’ trust in their leaders influences their trust of their colleagues, which is significantly related to student achievement (Handford, 2013). Moreover, teachers’ trust in the principal and their trust in colleagues makes it more likely they will trust their students (Tschannen-Moran, 2015).

Building relationships

    "Trust motivates individual behaviour, shapes social exchanges, and influences collective performance." (Noonan, 2008)

Trust requires confidence in a leader’s character and in their competency.

Bryk and Schneider identify four facets that underpin trust, and Tschannen-Moran five:

  • Bryk and Schneider – respect, personal regard, competence, integrity
  • Tschannen-Moran – benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, competence

In general, people are pretty ready to extend provisional trust. Nevertheless, an individual’s disposition to trust is shaped by their personal attitudes and previous experiences. Subconscious decisions to trust are influenced by perceptions of the similarity between this and previous experiences (Coleman, 2008). Leaders can’t rely on gaining everyone’s trust through the same interactions, but evidence suggests that increased familiarity and understanding deepens trust over time.

To gain trust you need to extend trust – as it is reciprocal. Leaders should take the lead in trusting others (Fox, 2013). In doing so, however, they need to use judgment. Extending trust means establishing an interdependence and making yourself vulnerable. Dealing with these feelings of vulnerability is not always easy for leaders, especially those in highly accountable environments (Noonan, 2008).

If you’re moving into a new leadership position, use the first weeks and months to build relationships. This is the period when staff, students and families are watching you closely and making up their mind about trusting you. Don’t be too impatient to get other elements of your agenda underway until you’ve built the trust and relationships.

Building trust in school communities where it is low, may require a new leader to use their authority as leader to significantly challenge problem relationships or performance, and demand commitment to a more collaborative way of working.  

Louise Anaru – building relational trust

Transcript and commentary

Clear threats to trust include such things as dishonesty, arbitrary actions, or allowing negligence or incompetence to persist.

Bryk and Scheider also identified three structural factors that can positively influence relational trust: smaller school size, stable student population, and being in a school of choice.

Sustaining relationships

    Leaders see maintaining trust as more problematic than building trust. In fact, they consider it one of the most challenging parts of leadership. 

Two of the competencies leaders see as crucial for maintaining trust are: dealing with emerging challenges in a timely manner, and being able to ask the right questions (Noonan, 2008).

Viviane Robinson's research program has analysed conversations that leaders believe will create a sense of threat or embarrassment – emotions that could damage trust.

The problem of how to balance being honest about issues and maintaining trust is never easy. But commonly observed behaviours such as being brutally frank or circling the issue using leading or loaded questions do not generally work well. What is needed in these situations is collaborative problem-solving. To do this effectively, leaders need to examine and drop the prejudgments they have about the issue. Many find that difficult. (Robinson 2017)

Viviane Robinson – Relationships and trust

Video courtesy of the Bastow Institute, Victoria, Australia – Youtube

Relational trust as a resource for school improvement

Relational trust is one of the four broad areas of leadership expertise that underpin the leadership dimensions identified in the NZ school leadership best evidence synthesis (BES). Bryk and Schneider's research is used extensively in the synthesis.

The BES describes relational trust as:

  • Integrating the needs of adults with advancing the best interests of students – not just meeting the needs of adults
  • Putting the needs of students first when their needs and the needs of staff are in conflict – not putting the needs of staff before those of students
  • Making critical decisions collectively on the basis of a unifying focus on what is best for students – not staff doing their own thing with mutual indifference or tolerance 
  • Giving transparent explanations of reasons for differential treatment of staff – not giving similar affirmation and voice to staff, regardless of their commitment or breaches of trust
  • Explaining respectfully what is and is not acceptable and why – not tolerance of and collusion with a negative status quo (for example, high rates of staff or student absence).

(Robinson, 2009, p190)

Reflective questions

  • What influences teachers to trust their principal may be different to what influences them to trust their colleagues. Leaders need to reflect on this as they move into new roles in the school. Are people going to expect something new from you in order to trust you in this role?
  • Fostering trust is now seen as a professional responsibility for leaders. It is especially important as collaboration becomes increasingly vital to tackling complex change. How much time and effort are you putting into fostering trust? What is your strategy?

Related pages

Relationships – in Leading from the middle

Healthy relationships – an interview with Megan Tschannen-Moran

Building trusting relationships for school improvement – a review of research

Tū Rangatira: Māori-medium educational leadership

This capability features strongly in two whenu (key roles of leadership):

  • He kaitiaki – the guardian
  • He kaikōtuitui – the networker

It is especially evident in the Mana tangata aho (key focus area of leadership) of the whenu. 

Tū rangatira (English)

Tū rangatira (te reo Māori)


Bryk, A. & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in Schools: a core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership 60 (6), 40-45

Coleman, A. (2008). Trust in collaborative working. NCSL

Fox, T. (2013). Stephen M. R. Covey’s guide to building trust. Washington Post, 8 November

Handford, V. & Leithwood, K. (2013). Why teachers trust school leaders. Journal of Educational Administration (2), 194-212

Noonan, B. & Walker, K. (2008). Trust in the contemporary principalship. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Issue 85

Poutama Pounamu. Ebook 8: A framework for partnerships/collaboration

Robinson, V. Hohepa, M. & Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why Best Evidence Synthesis, Ministry of Education, chapter 8, 8.3.3 Building relational trust, 181-190

Robinson, V. (2017).  Capabilities required for leading improvement: Challenges for researchers and developers. ACER conference 2017

Saphier, J. (2018). Let’s get specific about how leaders can build trust. The Learning Professional, December 2018.

Tschannen-Moran, M. & Gareis, C.R. (2015). Principals, Trust, and Cultivating Vibrant Schools. Societies, 5, 256–276, doi:10.3390/soc5020256

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2017). The importance of trust in schools. The WERA Educational Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, 3-11

Image credit: Tim Marshall, Painted red, on Unsplash

Vulnerability and trust

In his book Five dysfunctions of a team, Lencioni describes trust as the critical foundation for achieving collective results. In this video, he describes "vulnerability-based trust".

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