Trust – Broken in a Heartbeat

By Cindy Vallance

Trust is broken all too easily when expectations are violated.

There are a host of ways to damage trust. Once again, the most productive way to approach this topic is to reflect on what we can do. This is where we have control to make decisions and take actions.

So what behaviours damage trust?

Coercive or threatening behaviour will break trust and can be overt or more subtle. Blaming staff or co-workers for personal mistakes as well as making unfair or wrong accusations will also damage trust. Withholding promised support or breaking promises to others is another cause. Showing favouritism or discrimination will certainly damage trust as will lying, stealing others’ ideas, or wrongfully taking credit for others’ work. If we misuse private information or disclose others’ secrets they will hesitate to share with us again.

Eroding trust can be very easy – we can erode the trust others have in us simply by acting in a way that is overly controlling or by excluding others in an information loop. Engaging in harmful gossip with a “divide and conquer” approach will make the person on the receiving end wonder when their own actions will be the next topic on the gossiper’s lips – except this time sharing the ‘hot’ topic with someone else.

Have you ever engaged in any of these behaviors? Have I? Of course. But can I make a concentrated and conscious effort to avoid engaging in trust destroying actions? Yes but only if I make the decision to do so. The same is true for all of us.

And of course, the erosion or destruction of trust is much more complex than simply focusing on current behaviours.

Does the person whose trust we have broken have a predisposition to forgive? Has the breach been one time or is there a history of trust violation? What is the degree of the breach? Has damage been avoided or has it been incurred?

And what are the remedial measures? What is needed and what is possible? An explanation, an apology, a remedy?

My final blog on the topic of trust will look at ways to repair broken trust and manage distrust.

Now for our next trick – the “leap of abstraction”

At times of change it is tempting to try and move as quickly as possible and to apply what has been used elsewhere (as, in the best possible faith, a shortcut to success). This approach appears plausible, efficient, even sensible, but is it effective?

Look before you leap: if we make assumptions that new approaches are appropriate, we could drag people in the wrong direction!

Recent blogs on ‘facts’ and ‘knowledge’ (see ‘Change and the Knowledge Iceberg‘, ‘Beyond the Obvious‘) point out the danger of doing the obvious when in reality we should be looking for deeper knowledge to inform the ‘ifs, whys and hows’ of change. The problems arise when we make change decisions incorrectly, thereby cycling into ‘mindless change’ (Macdonald 1998). Mindless change is both destabilising and demoralising for staff and, for the organisation, damaging in terms of performance and waste.

At a recent conference, a renowned plenary speaker lamented that most of our management and leadership practice is based on 50-60 year old theory whilst the world has itself  ‘moved on so much’ in the meantime. This may seem  reasonable (there might be changes in the nuances of perception, decision-making and brain structure in human beings in the multi-media, instant-access society that has developed since the 1990s), but in my view that does rather ignore at least the last 50,000 years of  social development in homo sapiens. Good ‘management’ theory (which reaches back several decades further than the 60-years suggested by that speaker) considers basic human functioning and psychology, the dynamics of human organisations, the design of work and the mathematics and physics of output. These fundamentals apply as much in a call centre as they do in a coal mine, factory, or classroom. New ways of looking at these things may not necessarily be better nor, indeed, helpful.

What we need to examine is whether the practices we choose to apply today are based on good, ‘sound’ theory. What is ‘good, sound theory’ ? It involves ideas that hold up under scrutiny over time and are consistent with other theories (which themselves also stand up over time). The best way to test theory is by applying actions and testing evidence. In this sense, to paraphrase Deming, there is nothing as practical as a good theory; it informs actions which offer predictable outcomes. Acting on knowledge is better than second-guessing (Seddon 2005).

Unfortunately this rarely occurs. What usually happens is that ideas or practices are applied without being tested against good theory, or even against a good evidence base. A common example is when one organisation copies the things that other organisations are doing, without understanding either the impact or effectiveness of the practice as experienced by those other organisations. Some organisations label this as ‘benchmarking’ to make it appear systematic and informed, but it often merely involves the organisational equivalent of ‘cutting and pasting’; a form of wishful thinking.

Peter Senge (1990) calls this type of loose thinking a ‘leap of abstraction’ : “leaps of abstraction occur when we move from direct observations to generalizations without testing,” Senge includes the following behaviours as ‘leaps of abstraction’:

  • Assuming you know what people want (students, staff, etc.) without actually asking them
  • Fixing a problem without identifying its causes nor measuring how the process is performing
  • Blaming people for mistakes without understanding how the overall system is performing
  • Developing strategy with little knowledge of competitors, market, risk, or internal capability
  • Jumping on the latest management fad in the hope that it will improve things for your team

If we are managing change, the ‘leap of abstraction’ can be particularly problematic as it will demotivate the very people that we want to take with us on the change; colleagues, clients, users and partners. It will also undermine our own credibility. If we don’t have credibility in the things we do, we erode one important ingredient for successful, sustainable change – trust.

Read more on change:Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

Trust Wasn’t Built in a Day

By Cindy Vallance

I wrote recently about different types of trust: individual approaches to thinking and feeling as well as broader organisational trust. Today I am going to focus on how we can build the trust that people have in us.

It all starts with some honest self reflection.

Let’s begin with the individual level. Trust increases or decreases depending on the behaviours that we demonstrate. Ask yourself: Am I CONSISTENT between my ‘talk’ and ‘walk?’ Do I keep my promises and tell the TRUTH? Do I demonstrate this consistency over time and across situations by MEETING DEADLINES and FOLLOWING THROUGH on planned activities and promises? If so, these behaviours will help others to see that they can predictably rely on us to deliver on what we have committed to.

Trust can be developed through DELEGATION OF CONTROL as well. How can we do this? Ask: Do I ensure staff are provided with a voice and participate in decision-making by encouraging opportunities that allow them to influence areas where they have knowledge and interest?

DEMONSTRATING GENUINE CONCERN is another way to build trust. Again, some questions we can ask ourselves: Do I show consideration and sensitivity for others’ needs and interests? Do I refrain from exploiting others for my own agenda?

COMMUNICATION also builds trust. Once again,  ask: Do I provide accurate information, explanations for decisions, and take an open rather than a ‘need to know’ approach? Do I work with my team to develop a collective identity, shared goals and a commitment to commonly shared values?

When it comes to organisational trust, much depends on the perceptions people in the organisation have of JUSTICE and FAIRNESS. A balance must also be struck between CENTRALISATION and FORMALISATION of systems and processes with more general GUIDELINES that provide opportunities to make mistakes and learn. Having rules for every conceivable situation can never be successful – no policy guidebook that attempted this would ever be complete.

Organisational trust also means promoting a safe environment for RISK-TAKING with a tolerance for a certain amount of inevitable failure, as well as a sense of INCLUSIVENESS and VALUING PEOPLE.

Sadly, it can sometimes all go horribly wrong. Why? What happens when trust erodes or is even broken? And what can we do to fix it? More on that next time.


Why Bother with Blogs? Learning from U of K Students

By Cindy Vallance (Twitter @cdvallance)

Before I went on leave a couple of weeks ago, I promised to come back to the topic of trust. I will do so – because I believe that trust is a key foundational element to consider when accomplishing anything important that involves two or more people.

But today I want to share my thinking about blogs. A blog about blogs? Let me explain.

As part of the Social Sciences Change Academy initiative we agreed we wanted to find ways to communicate and build a dialogue with academic staff, professional services staff and students that went beyond emails, meetings, and standard website updates. My own decision to begin blogging and using twitter as part of Change Academy was informed in large part by the example set by Colum McGuire, Kent Union Vice President (Welfare). Colum wrote a great blog series about student housing last year that received an amazing amount of ‘hits.’ You can find Column’s blogs here:

His blogs kept me engaged and reading, even though I wasn’t looking for a new place to live! They were lively and practical, short and sharp.

Moving along, we have even more excellent student initiated blog posts. Tom Ritchie, Kent Union President, has shared his thoughts about the value of Change Academy here:

And my learning about blog writing hasn’t stopped there.

Another of our Change Academy members, Léo Wilkinson, Kent Union’s Social Sciences Student Representative, posted his first Change Academy blog on 12 May 2012.

Léo’s blog is a thought piece and call to action to continue to increase meaningful student involvement in decision-making.

Also on 12 May, and completely unrelated to Change Academy, is the blog I came across on twitter by Kenny Budd, Kent Union’s Vice President (Activities) about their Kent Union team development event at Medway:

Once again, a phenomenal blog – informal yet professional, personal yet factual, with great images and important messages including his remark:  “When asked if I thought the fact that we will be an all white, male sabbatical team was an issue (on the grounds of representing our diverse membership) my answer was “that it is always going to be an issue but it will only become a problem if we let it.”

So how do we look at the challenges of continuously improving communications between our diverse constituencies here at U of Kent? Is it an issue we can work on solving together or a problem? We all have our own reasons for being here but as a community Kent belongs to all of us. What can we learn from each other?

I learn every day, from students and colleagues, from reading, talking, observing, and thinking. I don’t always agree with those I interact with but I appreciate gaining insights from divergent views. In fact, a wise person once said to me “If two people always agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.”

We are all necessary, we all have valuable contributions to make to our Kent  community. As a first step, bookmark some student blogs, make comments on what you read, follow students on twitter, and see what you can learn.

The importance of Student Representation: overcoming student ‘apathy’

Involving students in the running of the Academic Departments has never been more important, and is in the interest of both staff and students in the new fee ‘régime’.


Other than one of the many parts of the University of Kent’s Code of Practice, student representation is an essential component in the running of the University. As a student representative, time and time again, I hear excuses by staff members trying to justify why they did not ask students what they thought about this or that issue because students: “do not turn up at meetings“, or because they “don’t read or respond to the emails we send them about meetings“, or that they “do not want to get involved” altogether.

But is the presence of students really properly utilised in meetings that themselves are usually staff-focused and chaired by staff? Do students feel that they are on equal grounds in meetings relative to the members of staff present, and are they encouraged to actively participate in meetings? Are the items on the agenda for the meeting explained to student representatives, and do they have any idea of what really is being discussed behind the acronym-packed University jargon? Very rarely.

Regardless where one stands in the debate about whether to consider students as “Customer” or as a “Member of the Academic Community”, it is indisputable that students’ expectations will rise with the recent tripling in tuition fees. The fact is that on whichever side of the argument one stands, involving students is equally important. If students are considered as customers seeking to get the most ‘value-for-money’ out of their degree, then they deserve to have a say in how are taught and for measures to be taken should they not be satisfied. If however one considers students as part of the scholarly community, then like academics, they also have the right to influence how their department is run.

The rights of students aside, it is in the interest of staff members and departments to involve students. First, the student’s perception of how a particular module is being taught is the most useful and accurate way to see whether or not the teaching methods are effective or not. Why wait until the results of the NSS surveys to find out? Second, I am sure many staff members will agree with me that students can bring a much fresher and down to earth viewpoint in meetings, as many of the decisions taken about Learning & Teaching directly affect them. With so many Kent students coming from many different backgrounds, they are the ones who can quite often provide a different insight complementing the perspectives of staff members. Third, meetings where students are present should be more student focused, so that they feel involved and that their contributions are needed. It is not surprising that attendance at meetings of student representatives very often drops after the first few meetings: if students do not understand half of the agenda items and therefore end up not contributing, they do not feel their presence is important -and rightly so! However it is the role of the Chair of the meeting to make sure that all feel involved, and even to prompt the most timid members present to speak.

The vicious circle of student apathy needs to be overcome by Schools. Making meetings more student-focused, actively encouraging involvement, and recognising the dedication and work of student representatives, are the only ways to reverse the vicious circle into a virtuous one. Moving forward, both academic and administrative members of staff should not only be encouraging, but also rewarding student involvement in the running of academic departments. By “encouraging” I do not mean just sending out emails, but also lecturers publicising it at the beginning of lectures and seminars; by “rewarding” I do not mean politely thanking students at the end of the meeting, but giving them official recognition of their involvement and praising their work in recommendation letters for example.


When one looks at the number of societies and sports clubs that are run by students, the thousands of volunteering hours which students are rewarded for each year, and the quantity and range of extra-curricular activities which Kent students get involved with, it is saddening that so many Schools do not do their best to make use of this huge ‘volunteering capital’ which students are willing to invest in worthy causes.

Give students a real chance to get involved and make a difference, make them an essential part of decision-making within departments and you will be surprised by how well they will rise up to the challenge; overcome apathy and place value on participation in civic duties, thus preparing them to be the engaged citizens of tomorrow.


Léo Wilkinson

Social Sciences Faculty Representative

Kent Union

Beyond the obvious: from symptoms to causes

Organisations are complex places and change can become a complex business. We cannot simply expect to make a change here and see an outcome there; outcomes are rarely as simple as ‘cause and effect’. There are many reasons for this, one of which is the fact that different people will see things (and respond) in different ways.

Focusing on the obvious can sometimes be unhelpful


My last blog presented the basic ideas concerning the ‘theory of knowledge’.

One key point was that although many people can see or know the obvious, often the important knowledge is what is largely unknown (to some degree). We need to look further than just what fictional hotelier Basil Fawlty would call ‘the bleedin’ obvious’.


This means that we must ask the right questions. Deming gives a great example of how to improve performance, describing a children’s charity which raises money for medical care and food support, using appeals run through mailing lists (Deming 1993). He points that final performance (how much money is donated to the charity) is largely unaffected by the efficiency of the steps of printing, mailing, payment, receipt, acknowledgement; improvement effort in these areas will be largely irrelevant. The important step which impacts on the willingness of donors to give money is the quality of the message which has been written to them (and which is formulated right at the start of the process); zero defects in the rest of process is of much less importance. This is where a lot of today’s approaches, like ‘lean’, ‘benchmarking’ and ‘process-re-engineering’ fall down – they encourage people to apply tools to a situation – dealing with the obvious; efficiency, flow and defects, without thinking about purpose and what affects the system as a whole. The result is that, after the initial rush of enthusiasm, people do not see great benefits in the change.

This is a warning to those looking at change – are we fiddling around the edges or are we dealing with fundamental change that will make a real difference?

This is not to say that statements of the obvious are unimportant – we can be blind to things that are abundantly clear to our users. People’s observations and opinions of the obvious are not trivial, the key is to examine what sits behind those phenomena and understand them properly.

In a higher education institution, the notion of involving students, although understood and welcomed can nevertheless be accompanied by a little hesitation or even reservation. This suggests to me a degree of discomfort on the part of staff (Will students understand the constraints that we have to work under? Will they have unrealistic expectations? Can students really understand what they themselves need?). Let’s face it, life would be simpler if we didn’t involve students – but that wouldn’t make things better either. We need to challenge our discomfort, face up to the weaknesses, illogicalities and frustrations that continually haunt our work and face up to the need to think differently and make new efforts.

Why? Because any discomfort we have in involving our users in the change process (whether they are students, partners, clients or customers) probably reveals our unrecognised, unknown or deliberately concealed concerns with how the system is currently under-performing for those very people. It challenges the way we work now and how we should work in the future. Basil Fawlty’s chaotic hotel would be fundamentally improved if he and his wife Sybil really worked out how they could together offer great hospitality to their guests – whereas instead they usually (hilariously and painfully) fiddle around the fringes of service, battling against each other.

So let’s not focus on the obvious and superficial. Deming, himself a well-renowned teacher (he won the US National Medal of Technology 1987 and the National Academy of Science, Distinguished Career in Science award 1987), makes an interesting observation on university teaching  “I have seen a teacher hold a hundred and fifty students spellbound, teaching what is wrong. His students rated him as a great teacher.  In contrast, two of my own greatest teachers in universities would be rated poor teachers on every count. Then why did people come from all over the world to study with them, including me? For the simple reason that these men had something to teach. They inspired their students to carry on further research” (Deming 1982).

In other words, in some cases the obvious (“a good approach”) masked the fundamentals (“poor content”), whereas the real value lies in delivering what people are really looking for. A university could ask students to rate it on trivial and obvious matters and think it is doing great, when in reality it is letting its students down – do we always ask the right questions?

Now that would be a challenge for change…


Read more here:

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.