Emma Broomfield

Building the foundation of trust within the elected council

Trust is key to success 

Trust is the foundation upon which successful teams are built. It is the essential ingredient that fosters collaboration, open communication, and high performance. However, trust is not an automatic outcome when a group of individuals come together to govern a large complex organisation in a political environment. It must be intentionally nurtured and developed. It is also a fragile thing - easy to break and hard to regain. If trust has broken down between councillors and dysfunction is starting to creep into the elected body, it takes a strong and skilled leader to begin the process of repairing broken bridges.

In this blog, we will unpack why trust is the foundation of an effective elected council body and share five ways councillors can contribute to the building of trust within their council.

Defining trust within a team

Trust can be defined as a confident reliance on the integrity, character, and competence of others. In the context of a team, trust goes beyond individual relationships. It encompasses the collective belief that team members will act in the best interest of the team and fulfill their commitments. Patrick Lencioni’s model of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" illustrates the five key elements of a successful team, with trust being the scaffolding from which the other elements are built upon. In the absence of trust, a team is likely to become dysfunctional and ineffective.

Trust within an elected council

Whilst elected council bodies are teams, it is important to recognise that they are different from other teams such as a corporate team or a board of directors. Elected council bodies are unique in that they come together from a position of competition with individual councillors having competed against each other to be elected. They then must effectively achieve a collaboration within the dynamic environment of local government politics. There is always an underlying tension between personal agendas and motivations of individual councillors (i.e. what motivated them to stand for election in the first place) and these individuals governing together for the common good of their constiuents. 

There can be a lack of trust from the get go, with rifts between individual councillors arising from the election campaign never really healing. There can a break down in trust during the term as factions form and decisions are spilt over a controversial project. A loss of trust can arise unexpectedly due to a councillor bad mouthing a council decision that they don't personally agree on the local radio. 

However, just like any team, councillors are required to work together for a common purpose (of serving their communities) and will only be effective in that purpose if they work collaboratively.  So how councillors build trust amongst each other so that they ethically and effectively achieve their combined civic duties of serving their communities and delivering outcomes under the Community Strategic Plan

The building blocks of trust

In our recent webinar with our guest leadership and team expert, Blyde Neser, we discussed the complexities of building trust within the political environment of local government. Blyde shared the five key components to trust and how individual councillors will need to cross these stepping-stones to build up trust between themselves and their councillor colleagues.  

Self-awareness: The foundation of trust 

Self-awareness is the foundation of within teams and groups. It involves having a deep understanding of oneself, including strengths, weaknesses, values, and triggers. When councillors possess self-awareness, they can authentically show up, acknowledge their limitations, and seek growth opportunities. Self-awareness enables individuals to be vulnerable, admit mistakes, and ask for help, fostering an environment where trust can thrive.

Value alignment: Building common ground

When team members share similar values and a common purpose, they feel a sense of connection and trust. Aligning values means establishing clear expectations and holding a shared vision - focusing on your common purpose to serve your community is an easy one but delve a little deeper and see if you share other common passions or values. Having shared values does not mean you will always agree with each other, but you can respect each other.

Effective communication: The bridge for trust

Open and effective communication is essential for building and maintaining trust. Transparent and timely communication promotes clarity, understanding, and collaboration. Councillors should actively listen, speak mindfully, and provide constructive feedback that speaks to the issue and not be personal in nature. Empathetic communication builds trust by reducing misunderstandings and ensuring that everyone feels heard and valued. Communication is an art – gone are the days of authoritarian communication styles, modern leaders must be skilled in mindful communication. 

Feedback: A catalyst for growth

Feedback is a vital component of trust-building within teams but it can be a tricky one to navigate as a councillor, particularly when the feedback is to be given to another councillor about their behaviour. Constructive feedback promotes growth, learning, and improvement. Providing feedback to your councillor colleagues requires deeply respectful communication at a mutually agreeable time and should focus on outcomes or gaining a better understanding of each other. When feedback is given and received with trust as its foundation it fosters a culture of continuous improvement.

Self-Leadership: Trust begins within 

Self-leadership refers to taking personal responsibility for your actions, behaviours, and contributions to the team. Trust flourishes when team members demonstrate reliability, accountability, and a commitment to their role and shared goals. For example, owning up to your mistakes or being able to recognise when you may have overstepped the mark with a comment. When each councillor takes ownership of their actions, it enhances trust and creates a culture of mutual respect and support.

Summing up, when trust exists with the elected body, councillors will be better able to consider diverse perspectives and make decisions based on the best interests of the communities they serve rather than personal or partisan gain. Conversely, when trust breaks down it is likely to escalate into dyfunctional  behaviour which, in turn, gets harder to address and usually starts to hinder the performance of the organisation. 

Each of the five components of trust requires individual councillors willingness to self-reflect and fill any skills gaps they may identify within themselves, especially around mindful communication and how they navigate conflict. We work collaboratively with councillors to upskill in best practice communication and other critical modern leadership skills that the public demand of their elected representatives. You can read more about how we do this here.

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