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Workplace Trust in the Age of COVID

Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon Many Hands, CC BY 2.0,

Every fall Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in museum leadership for Johns Hopkins University. It's online and asynchronous so for much of the semester we know our students only through class discussion. Towards the end, though, they're asked to create a career development plan. That's the moment I frequently feel guilty because we discover how far some of them are stretched. They're working, going to graduate school, taking care of parents, parenting children, coping with illness, looking for jobs and dealing with unexpected expenses. And, of course, there's COVID.

I have been thinking about that experience of leadership--because what is teaching but another form of leadership--and how important it is to create a sense of trust, while at the same time maintaining a balance between personal and professional, friendliness and friendship. Feeling safe, seen and supported is key to a well functioning team, but where is the line between personal and workplace? And how much is too much? Where is the line between supportive and hovering?

I once had a colleague who completed a complicated divorce, at work, on the phone, sitting six feet from me. Every day she would settle in, turn on her computer, give every appearance of working, and then the phone calls would begin, endless, whispery dialogues about how to untangle a marriage. I suppose it was a compliment that she allowed me enough to hear so many intimate details, but that's not the kind of trust that builds a team. Context helps, but only when it speaks to character. And I don't know about you, but when your team is on a screen, trust building is a challenge.

When you Google workplace trust you get 265,000,000 results, and that's just the articles. Put the articles end to end and they'd stretch half way around the world. Clearly we all think it's important, and yet when the rubber hits the road, how it's implemented is a different kettle of fish. In 2019 Amy Jen Su wrote Do You Really Trust Your Team (And Do They Trust You?) for Harvard Business Review. Su identifies four areas where trust can be wonky in the workplace: Whether you trust your team's ability to perform; whether you trust their judgement, meaning do they bring good judgement to questions besetting your museum or heritage organization? Do you trust your team to represent you and your museum? Su argues answers to these questions are more data driven and less subjective than the last group which reflect "softer" more subjective behaviors like discretion. For example, being transparent is a big deal in leadership at the moment, but it's hard to be transparent if you don't trust your team to be discrete. Su also asks whether you trust your team to keep each other safe, meaning can they argue without plunging into a non-speaking marathon? Do they tolerate bullying? Are they kind and appreciative of one another? She also asks leaders whether they actually create teams from across the organization to manage projects, arguing that working collectively connects us to our organization, which in turn, builds trust.

What was interesting to me about Su's approach was that it points out in a quiet, firm way how much individual behavior affects a group. If, deep down, you don't believe your team has what it takes to make a presentation to the board, you're going to hover, micro-manage and potentially destroy whatever confidence they bring to a nerve-wracking experience. You control your behavior. Taking care of that first, avoids pigeon-holing your colleagues as not quite capable. For more on the architecture of building trust, you might also enjoy Brene Brown's Seven Elements of Trust.

This winter my team is working with an experiential educator in a series of guided workshops to help us get to know one another better. When COVID arrived, some of us had a long institutional history while some were still in a learning curve. Quarantine, masks and Zoom don't exactly break down barriers so our team building workshops provide ways to learn about one another that will hopefully lead to more confidence (and trust) as we move forward. For me though, as important as the workshops have been, working together to create a number of successful projects was equally important. Moving from idea to discussion, experimentation to implementation asks each of us--no matter where we are in the hierarchy-- to give and to get, to control and let go, to be the leader and be the follower.

How do you build trust?

Joan Baldwin


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