Trust : Oprah, SuperSoul Sessions, + B.R.A.V.I.N.G.


Trust! I’m blogging about TRUST this week, along with my “Blogging Buddy” colleagues Lynn Glickman and Jeff Brusso. We are trying a blogging challenge and are all addressing the same topic, so make sure to check out their posts Of Trust (Jeff) and “Trust Me” (Lynn). As I’m typing this now I have not yet seen what they’ve written, so I have no idea the direction they will take. I was also not sure the direction I wanted to take. To write about trust from an organizational culture perspective? From a leadership/management angle? Or something more personal, like trust in relationships? I spent a good hour researching “trust”, even committing a librarian’s cardinal sin by typing “trust” into Google, not a supporting keyword to be found, in the hopes of finding inspiration among the millions of search results. I read a couple of fascinating Harvard Business Review articles about the neuroscience of trust and how the decision to trust gets made, found several dozen inspirational quotes about trust, a hilarious comic about trust by my favorite cartoon The Oatmeal (mild language warning), and got sucked into the YouTube rabbit hole by watching trust-related movie clips (enjoy this “Meet the Parents” “Circle of Trust” montage).

What ended up grabbing me came from an unexpected place: Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions. While I do love Oprah and admit to having her 20th Anniversary DVD Box Set, I have never watched the OWN Network nor have I watched any of her SuperSoul Sessions. Okay, I also admit to being a willing recipient of my mom’s recycled O Magazines, but still I never thought I’d watch SuperSoul Sessions, which sound a little too “woo-woo” even for me. Enter Brené Brown. I’m aware of Brené Brown because of a powerful video on empathy shown by one of my colleagues at a meeting a few months ago. The way Brown describes the difference between sympathy and empathy struck a chord with me, so I was intrigued when I saw “The Anatomy of Trust” SuperSoul Sessions video come up in my search results.

Brown begins with a beautiful definition of trust from Charles Feltman: Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” He goes on to say that Distrust is when what I have shared with you that is important to me is not safe with you.” Using this definition, Brown went through the research on trust, synthesizing what she learned about the anatomy of trust, and created the acronym “B.R.A.V.I.N.G.”— because “when we trust, we are braving connection with someone.” In this post, I will unpack the B.R.A.V.I.N.G. acronym and talk about what makes or breaks trust in the workplace.

B is for Boundaries: All relationships have boundaries. If you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and if you are clear about the other person’s boundaries and you respect them, then that relationship can be a trusting one. At work, what are your boundaries? What boundaries do you notice others holding? Most of us can probably call to mind a colleague, past or present, who either did not respect our boundaries or who seemed not to have their own personal boundaries and made people uncomfortable with their oversharing. One of my work boundaries is Facebook. I don’t generally become Facebook friends with current work colleagues, not because I don’t think we could be true, out of work friends, but because I want to maintain a healthy separation between my work and personal lives. One of the best administrators I’ve ever known (B.F., described in my post The Mentor) was a fun-loving man who enjoyed socializing with his staff. Since we were at an international school, socializing between administrators and staff was normal, but he always knew the right time to leave. He had boundaries that never put him in a situation where he was with staff as the night wore on and we headed out to late-night festivities that might compromise the boundaries between himself as the top administrator and us as his staff. Having boundaries at work, and identifying and respecting those held by others, is a vital part of establishing trust in the workplace– particularly if you hold a leadership role.

R is for Reliability: Reliability means that you do what you say you are going to do– not once, but over and over again. This is where good intentions and the desire to be a great colleague can actually get in the way of trust. If you’ve ever found yourself overpromising but underdelivering, this is an error of reliability. It’s much better to be realistic about what you can do, but always delivering– every time. As a leader, this can be difficult. We want to be there for our staff and attend to every one of their needs. We want to solve their problems, provide them with additional resources, do whatever we can to gain their trust and respect. But overpromising on these types of things can backfire and can leave our staff distrusting us because they learn that we are not actually reliable. This is something that I have been working on for the past few years. I very much want to be there for the staff that I support, but I have had to realize that I have much more integrity and can build up trust more effectively if I am honest about what I can and can’t do, never promise something that I can’t deliver, and be as clear as I can about timelines. As a colleague, and as someone with a boss, I also work hard at reliability. If I say that I will do something by a certain time, I will do it. Reliability is so important, especially as a new employee, to establishing trust that it’s one of the first things you can focus on as you are making your initial impressions at an organization.

A is for Accountability: Accountability is when you make a mistake and you own it, apologize for it, and make amends– and then when I make a mistake, I am allowed to do the same. For me, this is one of the most important qualities in a colleague, boss, and leader and is something that I try and cultivate within myself. Whenever I see someone admit to a mistake, apologize for it and make appropriate amends, my respect for them increases tenfold. Because I feel so strongly about this, it is usually fairly easy for me to admit a mistake, apologize for it, and then work hard to make it right. We have to recognize that everyone is human, and that mistakes are a natural part of the human experience. We are no more or no less for our mistakes, but our character and trustworthiness can be evidenced by our honesty about them. Equally critical is our willingness to extend the same understanding to our colleagues who would like our understanding and forgiveness if they are seeking accountability for their own mistakes.

V is for Vault: Vault is when what I share with you, you hold in confidence; and what you share with me, I hold in confidence. But that’s not all– it’s also that we don’t share things that aren’t ours to tell. This is a hard one, because sharing gossip can seem like a quick and easy way to forge connections with others. Everyone knows who in the workplace is good for dishing the dirt– but would you actually choose to be vulnerable with that person? Probably not. We need to think twice before we share something that really isn’t ours to tell. It might seem like we are solidifying our relationship with someone when we engage in gossip, but in reality we are eroding their trust in us because we’re demonstrating that we don’t respect other’ rights to their own stories. Brown’s commentary on this is worth a listen. She describes the closeness forged through gossip and talking badly about others as “Common Enemy Intimacy” and argues that it’s “counterfeit closeness.” In the workplace, this is such a common phenomena that it’s one we need to guard ourselves against. One way to do this is to be the person who does not engage in gossip. Change the subject, leave the room, do what you can to show respect for the unfortunate topic of conversation. Establish yourself as trustworthy by adopting the Michelle Obama mantra: “When they go low, we go high.” The challenge here, of course, is not seeming sanctimonious. It’s a hard balance, but if we just make a rule to consistently avoid gossiping, people will generally get the hint and avoid it while we’re around.

I is for Integrity: Brown’s definition of integrity is “choosing courage over comfort; choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.” As a leader, one of the hardest yet most important things to do is have difficult conversations with people. Over the years, I have had to have a handful of these conversations, and it’s never fun. In each of these instances, I could have avoided these conversations and instead maintained a concept of myself as “nice”, “friendly”, and “non-confrontational.” This was an attractive option for me, because part of my identity is being someone who is generally liked by others.  I knew that having these conversations could provoke a negative reaction in the other person and that it was likely that they would, at least temporarily, harbor negative feelings towards me. In each scenario, I reflected on both my personal values as well as on my responsibilities to my organization. In all cases, it was more important to me to be true to what I knew was right, so I had the conversations and was able to walk away knowing that I maintained my integrity and did not choose to do what was fun, fast or easy. I would say that one person did choose to harbor a lasting grudge, but the aftermath of the other conversations was professional and positive.

N is for Non-Judgment: Non-Judgment is when “I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle, and not be judged by you; and you can fall apart, be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me.” The tricky part of this according to Brown is that, in order for trust to be present, this non-judgment must go both ways. It’s not enough to always be the helper for someone else. Many of us, especially in a helping profession like education, pride ourselves on helping others, but find it difficult to be vulnerable ourselves. For those in leadership roles, how does this work? Can we afford to be vulnerable in front of those we support? According to Brown, this is essential for an optimally trusting relationship. Obviously we have to be vulnerable within the boundaries we’ve established for these relationships, but if we think about a time we’ve seen a boss or another leader higher than us on the organizational chart ask for help or admit some sort of vulnerability, doesn’t it draw us closer to them on a human level? Doesn’t it help us trust them more?

G is for Generosity: This is probably my favorite letter of the B.R.A.V.I.N.G. acronym. This is presuming positive intent. Brown says that generosity is when “You can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions and behaviors, and then check in with me.” I believe that if we could be generous first in how we think about others when they disappoint us, instead of feeling hurt, offended, or self-righteous, so many relationship problems could be stopped before they began. If someone sends an email that you perceive has a “tone”, if someone forgets to say or do something that would have meant a lot to you, or if you are left out of a meeting or gathering in which you would have expected to be included, first show them generosity by presuming positive intent. When I find myself going down the rabbit hole of being upset by what someone did or didn’t do, I try and stop myself by saying, “Don’t tell a story!” If we can stop making up stories about the meaning of someone’s actions or words, and instead go to them directly, we can help keep a calm mind and also can help preserve the trusting nature of that relationship. I’ve had the opportunity to help establish norms in a few different teams over the past few years, and “Presume Positive Intent” is always one of my contributions. I think this is critical for the health of teams in the workplace!

Finally, I challenge you to work through the B.R.A.V.I.N.G. acronym for yourself. It’s an interesting exercise, because it can help uncover ways in which we may be unknowingly sabotaging our achievement of trust in the workplace. I can feel good about my strengths and also know in which areas I need to improve. Trust in the workplace is a worthy and achievable goal!

Here is Brene Brown’s full SuperSoul Session talk on “The Anatomy of Trust”:

Here is a beautifully illustrated, 2-minute version of the same talk (artwork by Isabella El-Hasan):

FORE! How Golf is Like Leadership

img_1495I’ve recently taken up golf. Apart from the short-lived, lackluster stint on my 9th grade golf team that I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve never really played, even though my dad is a lifelong golfer and I grew up to the sounds of golf on TV (I still don’t get the appeal of watching golf on TV– it’s so quiet) and old issues of Golf magazine lying around the house. It didn’t occur to me to play golf myself until I joined my new school district, which participates in an annual fundraising golf tournament that sounded like A LOT of fun, and which I missed last year since I was both a) brand new to the district and b) not a golfer. My goal was to take lessons and develop a basic skill set by the time of the tournament, held annually in early August. In order to meet this deadline, I enrolled in lessons at my local golf course, went to the driving range several times, played a round with my husband, and picked up some cute golf clothes (obviously an essential part of the experience)! I indeed participated in the tournament, joining a foursome with a colleague (Ali and I were the #teamtobeat) and her golf pro-like mother and sister. Let’s just say I need to put in a few more hours at the driving range. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is that golf is a lot like leadership. As with any new activity, I’ve been mulling over the essential elements of golf and starting to realize how it presents many parallels with leadership, both educational and otherwise.

img_2148Coach Cory, the golf pro at my local course and instructor of my adult golf lessons, reminds us to think about “G.A.S.” when we’re working through our pre-shot routine. As an intellectual exercise, I’ve come up with what I think are some serviceable metaphors for leadership.

“G” is for “Grip”
The first step of setting up a shot is establishing your grip. If you start with a poor grip, nothing else that you do in your shot will make a difference. In school leadership, “grip” is establishing those fundamentals. You’ve got to make sure that you have the education, certification, and appropriate experience for the work you plan to do.

“A” is for “Aim”
The next step is aim. Once your grip is established, you’ve got to set your club face in the right direction and then, without losing your grip, align your body to the club. We can think about “aim” by determining in what direction we are going. This might be decided by the district, the school improvement team, and by your own goals for the school or department. Even if we have a strong foundation (“grip”), we’ll be ineffective without the right vision to guide us.

“S” is for “Setup”
The final step of a pre-shot routine is setup. This means positioning your body for a strong, successful swing. In our school leadership metaphor, “setup” is how you’ve established your building or department structures. Now that you’ve established your foundation (“grip”) and know your vision (“aim”), have you fostered a culture of trust, collaboration, and risk-taking among your staff? Are teachers willing to step up and work on committees, open their classrooms to others, and come to you with issues and questions? Do you encourage and support your staff in their professional growth? You can have the greatest potential for success by having a top-notch education, a wealth of experience, and an inspiring vision, but if you don’t set up your school or department structures to capitalize on those strengths, you are guaranteed to waste time spinning your wheels.

What follows are a few others golf/leadership metaphors:

When you’re taking the first shot at a hole, you tee up your ball. This helps elevate the ball so you have a better chance at a long, strong drive. As you progress through the fairway toward the green, you no longer have the option for a tee. In leadership, sometimes things are set up nicely for you, but usually you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and negotiate yourself out of the weeds, around the hazards, and back onto the fairway.

img_2008Short Game
People say that the short game, especially putting, is where golf is won or lost. You can have the longest, straightest drive, but if you don’t pay attention to your short game, you’ll never get it right. Coach Cory also says that no one goes to the putting green to practice– people just want to go to the driving range and whack the hell out of the ball with their driver. In schools, as I describe above, you can be a superstar leader with the greatest credentials and experience, but if you don’t pay attention to people, and invest time in your culture, you’ll never have true success. This takes time and patience, however– getting to know your staff, spending time with students in and out of the classroom, establishing a healthy and safe culture– it all takes time, and not everyone has the patience to master their “short game.”  The leaders in my career who have been the best (see my post “The Mentors”) have had a killer short game.

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a golfer like a hole with strategically placed hazards. Water hazards, sand traps, trees– these can throw a wrench into what could have been an easy hole. Sometimes just the presence of a hazard can get into a golfer’s head and throw them off. Now, I don’t know if this is what an actual golfer would say, but it seems to me that the best way to confront a hazard is to stick to your basics, focus on the green, and swing nice and easy. As a school leader, hazards are many and are often unpredictable. An unruly staff member, confrontational parent, community crisis, new state mandate, all of these can be experienced in the course of a school year. In order be best prepared to handle these hazards, we must be aware that they might happen and then when they do, we stick to the basics, focus on our vision, and confront the issue in a calm and controlled manner.

In golf, you may have a few “one in a million” shots, but usually you’ve just got to progress down the fairway, putting in the work with consistent but shorter shots, sometimes hitting a wild slice off to the side, but then correcting your aim, keeping your head down, and getting back on track with the next swing. The school leadership metaphor here is basically the same. You will experience the occasional shining moment in the sun, but a lifetime of success only comes from a constant correcting, re-aligning yourself to vision, and putting in consistent effort.

Golf is more fun with friends. So is school leadership. Find your people, enjoy them, lean on them, and learn from one another.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to work with a great caddy. This metaphor might be a bit of a stretch, as I don’t ever anticipate getting to the level where I’ll actually have someone carry my clubs, but if you do, use them! Listen to their advice, treat them well, and allow them to help you carry your bag. As an administrator, you will be surrounded by people who can help you. These people might have official roles as “assistant principal/superintendent/etc.”, or they might be someone in your building on whom can rely and in whom you place trust. Let them help you, ask their advice, and support them in their own professional growth.

Everyone knows that walking is healthier and better exercise, but carts are so much fun and allow your game to progress faster. In professional leadership life, you will have many opportunities to take shortcuts and go the easy route. It’s generally a better idea to do the work, take a “slow and steady” approach, make sure to cross your t’s and dot your i’s, but sometimes it’s okay to have fun and take the fast track!

Tournaments, Foursomes, and Solo Play
Many structures exist in which you enjoy a round of golf. You can play in a serious tournament for cash, in a no-stakes scramble for charity, with friends for fun, or even alone. Same with leadership. Sometimes you’ll be interacting with others at a large conference, or with members of an Admin Team, as a building, with a small group of staff, or by yourself. It’s important to mix it up and learn how to get the most out of everything you do so that you can are constantly experiencing professional growth.

Golf Pro
Even the best golfers know that they can learn from even better, more experienced players. My dad, even though he’s played golf for fifty years, still watches “how to” golf videos and embraces a beginner’s mindset when it comes to learning new techniques. As leaders, it’s easy to think we’ve got it all figured out and that since we’ve risen to a certain organizational level, we don’t have anything to learn. On the contrary, leaders need coaches and mentors. There is always someone who knows more than us, and who can look at us objectively and point out our blind spots in a compassionate, yet specific way. These people should be sought out– no matter our job title.

Well, that’s about all the golf metaphors I can wring out at the moment. Have more? Leave a comment below!

In conclusion, I’ve loved learning about the game of golf and challenging myself with an activity that’s so different than anything else I do. Being outside, usually with friends, engaging in moderately physical activity, sometimes with a cold beverage, is a pretty great way to spend an afternoon. Like school leadership, you do what you can to prepare yourself by establishing a solid foundation of skills, practice when you can, keep the end in mind, enjoy the hard drives but don’t forget about the short game, appreciate the people who can help you and treat them well, and above all, have fun and enjoy the Game!