Blog Post

Listen Up Leaders

Two-Way Communication Is Important in Establishing Trust

An Interview with Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, associate vice president for strategy and organizational effectiveness, Georgia Institute of Technology

The fall 2023 edition of Trends for Higher Education includes an item about how leaders can build trust with employees. To gain additional insight into strategies for establishing trust between stakeholders and their leaders, we turned to Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, associate vice president for strategy and organizational effectiveness, Georgia Institute of Technology.

For almost three decades, Alvarez-Robinson has helped organizations create high-performing cultures by engaging and mobilizing people. Since 2014, she has led Georgia Tech’s organizational effectiveness consulting team, which serves academic, research, learner support, and administrative units by providing strategy development, process improvement, change management, organizational design, and services to strengthen the culture. She also serves as the principal empowerment officer for Georgia Tech’s Resilience Employee Resource Group where she leads programs to build personal and organizational resilience among students, faculty, and staff.

Alvarez-Robinson graciously accepted our invitation to address some questions about how leaders in higher education can build a culture of trust.

Based on one survey, only 40 percent of managers see their organizations’ top ranks as high-quality leaders. According to another poll, only 21 percent of US employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organizations. Do these findings surprise you?

Neither of those findings is surprising to me. Leadership decisions are based on very complicated background contexts. Sometimes it’s not prudent or appropriate to share all the details, especially for public institutions. There, people [might] question the justification for decisions, which can erode trust in leadership. In addition, I have also observed that leaders are reluctant to be vulnerable, especially about change. That permeates the rest of the organization. If leaders aren’t willing to be vulnerable, employees of the organization won’t be either.

In what ways can organizations cultivate trust and confidence in their leadership?

Engage [the] people impacted by change. Tell them what you know, when you know it. Listening and willingness to accept input are critical. Leaders must create safe spaces and a way for people to provide input. And there’s a difference between input and feedback. It’s the difference between saying, “What do you think we should do about X?” (input) and “Here’s the decision I made. How are you feeling about it?” (feedback).

What are some pitfalls to avoid in creating a culture where employees have confidence in their leaders?

There’s both confidence and competence. Leaders need to demonstrate that they are confident in leading the group. But competence is important as well, which is demonstrating knowledge of the work. Trust is built through connection, and you can’t make it when you’re only talking and not listening. In this regard, many organizations under-invest in leaders. In my work, I have observed a gap in leaders’ attitude and aptitude around having candid conversations. Leaders must have the core competencies of self-awareness and the ability to show authentic empathy for people.

What are some strategies you would recommend or suggest for establishing two-way communication between employees and leaders?

I am a strong believer in 360 feedback (Wikipedia), where feedback comes from so many directions—supervisors, subordinates, peers, etc.—because it helps leaders see their blind spots. We show up for ourselves in the mirror differently than others see us. Use those results to jumpstart conversations: Here’s what I heard, here’s what I understand, and here’s what I plan to do about it. I share my 360 feedback with my team, and they hold me accountable. I have asked them to check me when they see inconsistency between my words and my actions. And they have! Leaders must be willing to accept feedback, even when it’s critical. How leaders handle feedback is key. As an example, one of our values is cultivating well-being, and we have set an expectation that we will take care of ourselves. I responded to an email while on medical leave, and a member of my team called me on it in front of everyone. It was a crucial moment to set the tone for my team and make sure people know their feedback is welcome.

Regarding “leading and supporting change,” what would be your most important advice to leaders in higher education about doing this effectively?

Helping people to understand the why behind change is crucial. Be prepared for their questions. What is the expected benefit? What could they gain? What could they lose? What’s in it for them? Be honest about potential losses and gains. It’s not [the] change that people don’t like. It’s [the] loss, so give people space to grieve. Show compassion and empathy for them as they grieve that loss, whether it’s an office space, a colleague, or a way of doing their jobs. Then, engage them in being part of co-creating the future.

Read all of the trends and analysis from the fall 2023 issue of Trends for Higher Education.
Communication is a key competency for successful integrated planning. Grab your copy of the SCUP Integrated Planning Competencies toolkit to learn more about the knowledge, dispositions, and skills needed to perform integrated planning in higher education.