Trust Me

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We began reaching out to Finnish teachers this past August to see if we could visit their classrooms. As I began communicating regularly with a small group of teachers, I realized right away that no one asked permission from their headmasters for us to visit. The teachers let us know if they had the capacity to host us, and if they did, the dates that worked best. When we arrived at the schools, we spent our days entirely with the teachers, only saying hello to the headmasters if we happened to run into them.

On a second or third visit to see Pauliina, an upper secondary teacher, she offered to pick us up at the train station the following day at 10 am. We told her thank you, but we would walk because we didn’t want her to use her skip class (prep period) to pick us up. She explained that it was no trouble at all. Her first class on Tuesdays didn’t start until 11 am. We still didn’t entirely get it and asked, “Would you prefer to stay at school and get your work finished?” To which she said, “Why would I be at school? I don’t have any classes until 11.” Finally, we understood.

In Finland, teachers arrive at school when their first classes begin and leave when their final classes end. Teachers stay if they have meetings or work that needs to be done at school; otherwise, they go home. They are not required to be at school at a certain time or stay until a specified time.

It’s not that Finnish teachers have less work – they don’t. It’s just that they are given the autonomy to choose how, when, and where they do it.

Just those two things – scheduling visitors and teachers’ daily schedules – have stuck with me. In and of themselves, they are meaningless. But as pieces to a larger puzzle, they speak to a crazy important reality – teachers in Finland are trusted. Trusted to show up on time, trusted to be present for meetings, trusted to schedule visitors, trusted to be professionals.

And I could tell it made a difference, a big difference – in the way the teachers operate and how they see themselves, how they see their work, and how Finnish society views the role of the teacher.

This sparked my interest in the research around trust. I spent a day exploring and reading, trying to stay away (as much as possible) from popular science articles. So instead, I started in academia, the University of Illinois, to be exact.

The research began, interestingly enough, with rodents, and specifically with a hamster-looking rodent called a prairie vole. Scientists accidentally discovered in the 1970s that prairie voles engage in monogamous lifetime partnerships (unlike 97% of all other mammals). When they set out to determine why, they zeroed in on the hormone oxytocin as the major reason. From there, different researchers (more popular science type people) began experiments to see if increased oxytocin had the same effect on humans. It did. Basically, when this chemical is present in the brain, we let our guard down. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable, open, and we’re more likely to bond with others. In other words, we trust.

And when people self-report that they feel trusted in their respective jobs, all the important metrics go up – productivity, creativity, engagement, longevity, and overall happiness. And when the opposite is true, everything on that list plummets, and stress and burnout steadily rise.

Building trust is not a straightforward task, in fact it’s not a task at all. Simon Sinek, author and leadership consultant, put it like this:

The problem with concepts of trust and cooperation is that they are feelings, they are not instructions. I can’t simply say to you, “Trust me,” and you will…It’s not how it works. It’s a feeling.

There are many Harvard Business Review Articles (one referenced at the bottom of the post) that will give you research-backed methods for building trust – focus on authentic relationships, show vulnerability, etc. etc. And then there’s a whole section on “The Return on Trust.” The premise being the major reason you should build trust is an economic one. That turns my stomach. Of course, there’s an economic reason, but the most important reason and the one that motivates the leaders I want to work for and with is the ethical reason. Building trust is the right thing to do.

Returning to the Finnish model, in the National Core Curriculum, the word “trust” appears 24 times. In comparison, in the American Common Core State Standards, the word “trust” appears zero times. In fact, you can search the entire website, supplementary materials included, and you’ll find that the word “trust” never appears.

The Finnish National Agency of Education, the on-the-ground action arm of the Ministry of Education and Culture, states explicitly, “Finnish teachers are trusted professionals…Teachers have pedagogical autonomy. They can decide themselves the methods of teaching as well as textbooks.”

And that is true. Finnish teachers are given complete autonomy, much the same way university professors are given in the states. But I do not think complete autonomy is one of the replicable cross-cultural systems discussed in the opening post. Nor do I personally think it should be a goal for the U.S. I believe in collaboration and alignment, so long as teachers’ voices are part of that process.

Instead, I wonder, what would happen if we made a conscious effort to focus on building trust in our schools, divorced from larger philosophical questions of how much autonomy there should be in pedagogy and curriculum (which are huge, worthy questions to consider, but are not the only way to build trust). What if teachers were given more space and choices? What if teachers felt that their managers weren’t keeping a mental checklist of when they did and didn’t meet the expectations? What if the default were trust? (And mind you, the default setting can be quickly changed for individuals who are not yet worthy of trust. But why make everyone pay for a few individuals, who are the exception, not the rule? Leadership 101 is that you don’t manage to the exception. Treat the exception as exactly that, and manage those individuals differently.)

Building this culture of trust requires anyone in a leadership role to practice more empathy – to remember how terrible it feels to have a boss who doesn’t make trust the default setting, how stifling that is – to your creativity, your willingness to take risks, and most importantly your morale. And when the opposite is true, when you feel trusted, what an extraordinary, uplifting, and at times inspiring that feeling can be – how motivated you feel to do your best work and be the best version of yourself for your students.

I firmly believe that if teachers felt trusted themselves and trusted their leaders, we could see big changes in our schools. But gaining someone’s trust is not a checklist of activities, but an ongoing commitment to treating others as colleagues, not subordinates, giving more freedom not less, abandoning mechanisms of control, and focusing on building a culture of trust, not because it is economically advantageous, but because it’s the right thing to do.


  • Sue Carter, University of Illinois
  • Lowell Getz, University of Illinois
  • Larry Young, Emory University,
  • Simon Sinek, Independent Consultant and Author
  • Paul J. Zak, Claremont Graduate University

Further Reading:

Relevant Research:

  • Employees who work in “high-trust” organizations have 106% more energy at work, 76% more engagement, 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, and 40% less burnout than employees who work in “low-trust” organizations (Paul J. Zak).


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Profound. Well written and powerful. I will do more to embrace the concept in managing my business. Thank you!

  2. Ozzie Crocco


  3. Jillian

    I’m so grateful to still have a way to be connected to your work. So powerful, and inspiring to keep on.

  4. Nyah Lynn Edwards

    Commendable. I see more global connections because of your work!

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