Class Act: Re-gaining trust through genuine engagement

Equal voices at the table.
Equal voices at the table.

I recently read an article by Mark Evans about the level of trust (or mistrust) many citizens in democratic nations hold towards their government. It seemed to me the arguments he made applied equally to higher education.

Evans argues that if it continues at the current rate, by 2025 less than 10 per cent of Australians will trust our government.

In the last Voice Survey at UNE (2016), only 26 per cent of people in my work area believed there was good communication across the university and 37 per cent had confidence in the management team.

The disadvantages arising from lack of trust are significant; staff have reduced capacity to meet complex, long-term challenges, are much less likely to engage and much more likely to disrespect authority.

Evans argues there are two key theoretical thrusts in trust research. One group focuses on the demand side of trust. What do staff need to feel their voice is heard?

Working together: Meaningful consultation is necessary to build trust.

Working together: Meaningful consultation is necessary to build trust.

Along with this are factors such as exploring the organisational barriers to engaging.

If we follow these approaches to trust, then programs to build trust and improve organisational culture focus on educating staff, improving staff representation on decision-making bodies, and working to empower staff so they feel their voices are heard and their work is respected and valued.

The other perspectives on trust are what Evans calls supply side theories: these theories suggest trust is best developed when attention is paid to quality and procedural fairness and the focus is on open and transparent processes and decision-making. Often attempts are made to address issues of transparency by providing performance data, but staff who are already cynical often perceive this data as twisted.

In an organisation where trust has been lost, engagement with all staff is essential. Evans argues there can be no trust without engagement. Genuine engagement.

That means reducing the distance between management and staff so that there is a real understanding of the realities of the work performed at all levels.

It means our education system must focus on the skills and attributes required by all to research issues, to develop a personal stance, and to share that perspective, along with the skills and abilities needed to listen to others, and work together to form a consensus.

Margaret Sims is a professor in early childhood at University of New England