Building trust across cultures

One of the challenges in business these days is that teams consist of people who reside in different time-zones, countries and cultures. Project managers, commercial managers and – well – any professional have to work flawlessly with their colleagues abroad. People they never met, whose voice they know from a few hurried and messy phone conferences, and with whom they merely have contact by short and to-the-point e-mails. At the same time we know that international teams only will work when a solid foundation has been put in place: a climate of trust [Lencioni 2002]. But how to build trust by e-mail? And what do we mean with ‘trust’ anyway?

3 types of trust

According to Solomon and Flores in Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships and Life [Solomon 2003] we can discern three types of trust:

  1. Simple trust: Trust given without thinking about and reflecting on the consequences, in the way a child gives its trust to someone who approaches it with a smile.
  2. Blind trust: Trust given to someone uncritically and without questions or reservations.
  3. Authentic trust: Trust as a choice you make: a choice to be open and give your trust while being fully aware of the risks involved.

In the work environment, ‘simple trust’ and ‘blind trust’ are seldom relevant. This is an important observation: what we mean by ‘trust’ in the personal world of friends and family usually has a different meaning from that of ‘trust’ in the work environment. Whereas in private life trust is about all 3 forms of trust described above, we generally refer to the category of ‘authentic trust’ in the office: I give you trust in the sense that I accept the eventual consequences of being vulnerable and frank with you. The definition implies that you give trust to another person and thereby earn the privilege of receiving it yourself.

Do what you say you will do

Different cultures hold on to different definitions of trust. Most Anglo-Saxon countries start with the assumption that you can be trusted if you do what you say you will do. This definition of trust is very close to the concept of ‘reliability’ and it is well known that in most Northern European countries (such as the Netherlands, UK) and the US this definition of trust is unconsciously used by most people.

Different cultures mean different things when they talk about trust

It was Richard Lewis who recognized that different cultures mean different things when they talk about trust [Lewis 2006]. He developed a model that recognizes three distinctly different forms of trust, and he mapped cultures to the three sides of a triangle combining these 3 basic forms of trust:

The Lewis model

The Lewis model, outlining the 3 cultural types: linear-active, multi-active and reactive [Lewis 2006].

  1. Linear-active cultures: such as Northern Europe and the US where people trust institutions. People will trust you if you do what you say you will do, and if you are consistent (‘reliability’). The truth in these cultures is perceived as a scientific truth. Eye contact shows you are honest, open and have nothing to hide. Examples: USA, Netherlands, Austria, Germany, UK, Sweden.
  2. Multi-active cultures: such as Southern Europe where trust is built up on the basis of a strong personal relationship. To convey trust, people show their weaknesses. Compassion is important and the truth is flexible. Eye contact is strong because it supports building relationships. Examples: Italy, Spain, Latin American countries, Portugal, Greece, many African countries.
  3. Reactive cultures: mostly found in Asia. Reciprocity is the way to build trust. There is no such thing as the truth. Protecting face is of paramount importance, which is why reactive cultures avoid conflict (someone will lose face). Eye contact is perceived as provocative and therefore avoided. Examples: China, Japan, and most other Asian countries.

In our Akteos trainings we pay quite a lot of attention to this aspect of building trust: the international manager has to understand (not always adjust, but definitely to understand) the expectations about a trustful relationship of the other party. He or she should know whether to be punctual, show their weaknesses or avoid conflict and protect face.

4 tips for stimulating an environment of authentic trust

Nevertheless, a few tips hold regardless of the culture you work with [Garten 2014]. Start with these four tips for stimulating an environment of authentic trust in your cross-cultural team:

  1. Accept that we are all different. This sounds easy but is often hard to accept in a business setting. We are often convinced that our way of doing things is obviously better and superior to the way the other person does them. Force yourself to accept that people are indeed different.
  2. Pay attention to sensitive issues and do not avoid them. Before the tension-generating issue escalates, you need to have the courage to bring it out in the open. This requires cross-cultural competence: the way to bring sensitive issues to the table in Serbia or Russia is very different from the way it should be done in Thailand or Malaysia.
  3. Talk, talk, talk. Keep talking to all people involved in the team. Continuous, constructive and open communication is the best medicine against a lack of trust. If you don’t organize this aspect of work, similar cultures will stick together in the workplace, as that is the most comfortable situation for them. If you want diversity to work positively and trust to accumulate, organize the mutual communication well.
  4. Break down language barriers. Keep it simple. While English is usually the common language, it is not the mother tongue of most employees. Language difficulties can create many misunderstandings in multicultural teams, and impede the communication that is so essential to building up trust. Avoid using too much English or American vernacular: non-native speakers may not understand many expressions and typical ‘slang’. So keep it simple.

[Lencioni 2002] Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass.
[Cutcher-Gershenfeld 1997] Cutcher-Gershenfeld, J. and Kochan, T.A. (1997). Dispute Resolution and Team-Based Work Systems, in Workplace Dispute Resolution, Edited by Sandra Gleason, Michigan State University Press.
[Solomon 2003] Solomon, R.C. and Flores, F. (2003). Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships and Life. Oxford University Press.
[Lewis 2006] Lewis, R.D. (2006). When Cultures Collide. Leading Across Cultures. Nicolas Brealey International.
[Garten 2014] Garten, F. (2014). Managing through a Mirror. Successful business communication where cultures meet. Self-published.

Frank Garten

Frank deed ervaring op in verschillende technische, commerciële en general managementfunties binnen Philips, en onderhandelde over grote contracten met klanten en leveranciers in vele landen. Als consultant bij Akteos geeft Frank lezingen, trainingen en workshops over intercultureel werken. Hij put daarbij uit vele anekdotes en voorbeelden uit de eigen internationale praktijk. Frank is auteur van het boek ‘Werken met Andere Culturen’, en van het Engelse boek ‘Managing through a Mirror’ dat uitkomt in September 2014.

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