Feb 17, 2023 | Traci Baird

Trust in Feminist Leadership

As the conversation on Feminist Leadership gains momentum in the global development sector, we are seeing more attention to values like inclusivity, equity, respect, sharing power, and diversity. But what about trust?

I lead an organisation, EngenderHealth, which works on issues of gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights – and I do so as a feminist. As an organisation, EngenderHealth shares the values mentioned above, and we use them to guide our policies, practices, and partnerships. But another central tenant to my leadership approach and a way I demonstrate my values, both within my organisation and with external partners, is trust – both trusting others and working to be trustworthy. I believe that our ability to live our values and achieve our core goals is predicated on there being multi-directional trust in organisations, and that the deeper the trust, the more effective individuals and organisations will be in applying feminist principles and ultimately, achieving their goals.

“Trust is accelerated when we can identify our commonalities – our commitment to our mission, our values, our work, and each other – while sincerely recognising and appreciating our differences.”

Studies have shown[i] that we are more likely to trust those who resemble us. But EngenderHealth isn’t a homogenous environment, and nor would we want it to be. Like many of our peers in the sector, EngenderHealth is global in nature, with staff located in more than a dozen countries around the world – so trusting people of different racial backgrounds, genders, religions, generations, and abilities is paramount. Trust is accelerated when we can identify our commonalities – our commitment to our mission, our values, our work, and each other – while sincerely recognising and appreciating our differences. This also means that to fulfil any organisational goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, trust is a key component.

Trust will also take on a newfound urgency as the sector undergoes a period of meaningful change, with many (including EngenderHealth, the organisation I lead) engaged in reimagining and shifting the power dynamics of the sector to better recognise and strengthen local capacity. As we embrace models consistent with the priority of localisation and shift power, resources, and roles to national and local partners, we must display and earn trust. The theme of trust has come up in our work with the TIME (Transforming INGO Models for Equity) Initiative, where a lack of trust was identified as a key barrier to equitable partnerships. I am eager to identify the gaps in trust in partnerships, and articulate what behaviours we need to do to build trust, at an individual, organisational, and sector level.

What trust can look like

So what does that look like in practice? Trust is something we can do, have, or feel – it’s a verb, a noun, and an emotion. As we think about how we do trust, I look to Stephen Covey who has broken down trust into thirteen behaviours. Five of these he refers to as character behaviours (talk straight, demonstrate concern, create transparency, right wrongs, show loyalty), five he calls competency behaviours (deliver results, get better, confront reality, clarify expectations, practice accountability) and three of which are a blend of character and competence (listen first, keep commitments, extend trust). By breaking down trust into a series of behaviours, each leader can assess what comes naturally, what will require effort, and what will require different systems to support the behaviour.

When one’s team is comprised of skilled, talented, and committed colleagues, it is easy to offer trust to staff and partners. But we may need to first demonstrate our trust to give people the space and opportunity to show us their skills, talents, and commitments. This gives people a chance to show what they can do, and how they will do it, while giving them the confidence that leadership supports them.

I try to demonstrate my trust in others by providing information, by inviting and listening to people’s ideas, by facilitating the sharing of information across teams, and celebrating individual and team accomplishments. I also recognise – and appreciate! – that EngenderHealth’s teams make decisions and engage in a lot of activities I’m not aware of in the moment, and that’s fantastic. I trust those activities will be done well and have good impact, and I trust that my colleagues will let me know if they need my support. By trusting staff, teams, and partners, people have a chance to soar.

“Shared leadership glued with trust was indeed the key during this most challenging time of human history.”

For example, when EngenderHealth shifted to remote work in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my executive team and I trusted our staff to be productive from home on flexible schedules. We trusted our country representatives – some of whom we hadn’t met because of pandemic-related travel restrictions – to be aligned with our organisational priorities and ensure that our staff’s safety was paramount while still being a great partner and implementing our programs. On the two-year anniversary of the pandemic a colleague in our India office commented: “Shared leadership glued with trust was indeed the key during this most challenging time of human history.” Together, with trust, we led, managed, and implemented our work.

An ongoing practice

Of course, we don’t always succeed, despite good intentions. There are times when I can’t share information people want, or times when I don’t share it fast enough to beat the grapevine, and people feel I’ve withheld something from them. There are times when I ask too many questions or jump in when I’m not needed, and people feel I don’t trust them. Demonstrating the trust that I feel in a way that people know I trust them is important to me, and I always aim to do better.

As I explore Feminist Leadership approaches (and as a feminist who is a leader), I aim to incorporate trust more deeply and visibly into my leadership practices and discussions with colleagues. I hope more trust, in all directions, will further unlock our potential, collective impact, and the joy and satisfaction we take in our work.

[i] “Facial Resemblance enhances trust”, Lisa M. De Bruine, The Royal Society (2002) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691034/pdf/12079651.pdf; H. Farmer, R. McKay, M. Tsakiris. Trust in Me: Trustworthy Others Are Seen as More Physically Similar to the Self. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494852

EngenderHealth is a Committed Organisation

Over 30 international social impact organisations like CARE International, Oxfam International and Amref Health Africa have made the FAIR SHARE Commitment. In doing so, they pledge to participate in the annual FAIR SHARE Monitor and achieve gender equity in their leadership by 2030.

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