When I was a building principal, a teacher asked for a week off from work to take a family vacation.
Although visibly nervous, she did a great job providing her rationale. First, she explained that this could be the last time her children get to see their aging grandparents. Next, she indicated that sports commitments made it impossible to leave during winter and spring break. Finally, she clarified that she was willing to take three days of unpaid leave.
As the teacher spoke, several thoughts cycled through my mind.
On one hand, I understood the unwritten rule that teachers are expected to work when school is in session. I realized that in most schools – even schools within our own district – similar requests were often denied.
On the other hand, I knew this teacher well. Not only did she have a solid attendance record, I also knew how much her family meant to her. And for her to relinquish three days of pay, this trip was clearly important.
When the teacher was done speaking, I paused for a moment before giving a response.
I then said three simple words:
“I trust you.”
If my dad were not trusted to take vacation, we wouldn't have these fun family memories.
In education, the prevailing opinion is that employees should not be allowed to take vacation during the school year. This perspective is reasonable, as research outlines the connection between student performance and teacher attendance.
However, one can argue that another, more important variable is at play in this decision: trust.
Trusting staff to make decisions about taking time off is one small action that has a big impact on employee engagement. When administrators say “I trust you” to take time off, they are also saying “I trust you” in all aspects of your job.
That’s not to say employees should be allowed to abuse the system. When approving extended absences, leaders would be wise to document the absence and note that similar future absences may not be permitted. Furthermore, employees with poor attendance histories should not be given the same freedom as their more reliable colleagues.
Alternately, employees who have a proven track record of dependability should be trusted to make decisions about time away from work. Rather than avoid taking time away from work in fear of their boss’s reaction, employees should be empowered to use leave time and trusted to make the best decision based on personal circumstances.
In short, If staff are not trusted to make personal decisions – such as the best time to take vacation – then why would they go above and beyond in their everyday job? As leaders, our job is not to control staff, but rather to create an environment of trust.
“Spending time with people to build trust doesn’t seem like the best use of my time,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t there other things I should be doing?"
While school leaders are asked to do many things throughout the day, building trust must be a top priority.
Consider the following:
Recruitment and Retention: A trusting culture is the ultimate magnet for attracting and retaining talented employees. Why? Because people are drawn to autonomous work. Trusting cultures inspire a sense of purpose, meaning, and contribution in their employees. School leaders who are serious about staff retention must create an environment where employees feel trusted and empowered.
Taking Risks: In a high-trust culture, people are 32 times more likely to take a responsible risk than they are in a low-trust culture. They're also 11 times more likely to innovate and six times more likely to achieve higher performance. In a time where educating students has become increasingly difficult, employees must be given the confidence to try new things for the purpose of improving student outcomes.
Path of Least Resistance: Leaders who take their time to build relationships with employees find that their jobs get much easier as a result. Bosses who fail to build trust discover that employees are naturally skeptical of decisions and are especially critical when mistakes are made. Alternately, bosses who invest time to build trust discover that employees are more trusting of decisions and are willing to forgive when mistakes are made.
Scarcity < Abundance: Far too many leaders today operate with a scarcity mindset. These controlling leaders think that their success is diminished when others are successful. A scarcity mindset leads to jealousy and an unwillingness to work with others. On the other hand, trusting leaders operate with an abundance mindset. These leaders understand that their success depends on others being successful. An abundance mindset leads to generosity and a culture of collaboration.
Follow the Leader: People who receive trust are often inspired to pass along trust to others. Not only do employees who feel trusted return the favor by trusting their boss, they also follow the boss’s lead by extending their trust to others. This “pay it forward” mentality results in a virtuous cycle of trust that seeps into all parts of an organization, impacting all employees.
Humility: Humility is widely misunderstood today; it is often seen as weak, timid, and soft - the opposite of real leadership. In truth, humility is enormously strong, courageous, and firm - the very essence of leadership. Humble leaders build trust by being more concerned about what is right than being right, about acting on good ideas than having the ideas, and about recognizing contribution rather than being recognized for making it.
Red Tape: Too often, leaders focus much of their time on rules as regulations as opposed to doing what is best for kids. Bureaucracy – a process designed to maintain uniformity and control within the organization – is one of the quickest ways to lose employee trust. Trusting school administrators value creativity over compliance and go to great lengths to remove red tape from their organization.
Chill Out: On rare occasions that freedom is abused, leaders must avoid overcorrecting. Far too many administrators overact to one employee mistake by creating sweeping policy changes. Similar to how students should be treated in the classroom, employees who consistently follow the rules should never be disciplined for the inappropriate actions of a few.
Legacy: Think for a moment about a leader who oozes trust. It doesn’t take long to understand how much this person sticks out as compared to others. We feel a different level of energy when they enter the room. We feel a different level of commitment when they ask us to complete a task. Trusting leaders make everyone else around them better, leaving a lasting legacy as a result.
Upon returning from vacation, I saw the teacher standing outside her classroom. When asked about her trip, she immediately grabbed her phone and flipped through several pictures of her children with her grandparents. Her family created memories that will late a lifetime.
Not only did the teacher have a noticeable bounce in her step, her positive energy appeared to last for weeks. In fact, myself and this individual have a very strong relationship to this day.
Leaders who approach leave-time conversations with empathy as opposed to skepticism inch one step closer toward creating a culture of trust in their building.