Developing Trust

I spoke at a conference earlier this week (NUTN Network 2013, to be exact) and in one of the discussions, a faculty member mentioned that, for 2 hours every week, everyone on campus was expected to shadow someone in a separate division to see their job and learn how they add value to the institution.  There was a lot of nodding in response.  I don’t really have a poker face so I’m sure I looked something like this–

–because that’s bananas to me. Two hours across the entire campus adds up to A LOT of ill-spent time and money.  It says a lot about the campus culture, which in a nutshell might sound like

I don’t know or understand what you do, so I doubt you’re making valuable contributions. Or at least not as valuable as my contributions.

At my previous institution, this was hugely common, and a I have a feeling that it’s not an uncommon perception at a lot of higher education institutions. Birnbaum’s How Colleges Work details different college dynamics, particularly between faculty and administration, but he leaves out the trickle down effect that’s described in my *nutshell* above.  The heavily silo-ed nature of most institutions makes it hard to know or maybe even understand what everyone’s job entails, but why isn’t it enough to accept that these are working, responsible adults, and if they aren’t performing, then it’s an issue between them and their supervisor. Certainly not between them and the rest of the institution.

Where this becomes especially problematic is in cross-functional teams. Members might not understand the role of everyone participating, and while the sponsor or leader should be able to moderate and ensure everyone’s talents are utilized, it’s been my experience that even those folks don’t always know how to delegate, or leave it to the group itself.  Again, these are responsible adults. They should be able to create goals with tasks to reach them, minor time management, and through these create the metrics and create a baseline for assessment, and then sunset the team when necessary.



The question changes from What do you DO all day? to How can we build trust between departments and individuals–or at least enough to complete the task of the cross-functional team? Everyone has heard the basic foundation of teamwork, that whole form-storm-norm-perform business, but there’s not always time for that, and (again, in my experience) higher ed peeps are notoriously bad at taking their own advice.

In the corporate world (I know, I know, I KNOW–education is not corporate, students are not customers, yada yada yada–just let me finish) and particularly the project management sector, the concept of swift trust is applied to short term teams who are brought together to solve a problem.  There’s not enough time to build relationships and trust, or maybe it’s primarily a virtual team which doesn’t allow for in-person contact.  In the corporate world, team members tend to presuppose trust, mending disagreements or differences in style on the fly and focusing on creating the finished products.  Lynda Bourne (PMI) adds other scenarios to the idea of swift trust, like patients in a hospital are unlikely to request the credentials of the doctor treating them, which makes that transaction one of swift trust in the presence of a recognized expert. Another method to create swift trust is to outline the specific roles and responsibilities of each team member, so it’s immediately clear what everyone’s role is to be, and team members can naturally fall into patterns.

We can use some of these ideas when forming work groups in higher education.  It’s not necessary for the leader or project sponsor to take on the expert role, but it definitely helps to have that person be the focus, or at least the rapport-builder, within a group. They should be the go-to person for issues, and a recognized figure by the group as a whole.  The person in that role will also typically take up the creation of a charter for the group which lays out goals, strategic action, group members, etc. In this document, consider listing members not by their job title, but by their function in the group. What is their role, and how does it relate to others? This fulfills the second part of Bourne’s criteria for helping swift trust to form.

Note that these are simply environmental factors to consider in building swift trust. Trust in and of itself is an organic energy, extremely fragile but powerful when channeled effectively. We tend to focus so much on building processes or programs like the one described in the beginning that we lose sight of the true, systemic roots that are causing the problems. Sometimes, building trust is more important than processes.


  1. I work in corporate, not higher ed, and I see this all the time. All the time. “What does so and so even DO around here?” I love the suggestion to identify team members not by their job title (which are rarely descriptive enough) but by their function within the group.


    1. Thanks, Sara! I think its key to not only answering the “what do they do here” Q but also removing possible barriers created by positions hierarchy.


  2. Whatever happened to Plato’s Mind your own business? Attorneys are expensive so don’t make too many real life acquaintances. Join a church. The scandinavian & German culture is mostly Lutheran.


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