Building trust in teams across cultures

Perhaps the most important outcome of cross-cultural training is a person or team’s ability to build and sustain trust with colleagues, customers, and suppliers.


If you think about it for a moment Trust is very mysterious. If anyone asked you how or why you trust someone you might be a little stymied.  Trust means many different things to different people and cultures. The manner in which we give trust to others and obtain it is influenced by our life experiences, family environment, religion, professional background and cultural filters. In our international organizations today, building trust across cultures is probably one of the most significant acts that a manager, team, or organization can invest in.  Trust has enormous impact on all aspects of our economic and professional lives. Labor relations, new business development, customer loyalty, and project management, leadership, interpersonal relationships all require trust in order to operate efficiently.


So what is trust?  One definition offered: A firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing.  These are observable and measurable facts, developed through experiences with a person, team, or process. My transactions with a supplier have shown me that he/she is honest, reliable, and efficient. I therefore give him or her my trust. This type of trust is what the renowned cross cultural expert Erin Meyer calls cognitive trust or task based trust.  It is the form of trust that is most prevalent in Northern European countries and in North America.


Another part of the trust equation is that it implies depth and assurance of feeling that is often based on inconclusive evidence. This feeling   is very important in Southern European, South American, Middle Eastern, and Asian cultures where more is required than just honesty and efficiency.  In these cultures developing personal relationships and sharing experiences are what make the difference for developing and sustaining trust.  Keeping promises, deadlines and complying to specifications are fundamental but sharing your  “humanity” or making a connection with the other party is paramount for the people of these cultures. Ms. Meyer calls this form of trust Affective Trust or relationship based trust.


Trust for me as a North American from a middle class, protestant background compels me to trust almost anyone “normal” until they have proven themselves untrustworthy. I must admit that the trust factor for me has been largely influenced by my family background, religion, professional environment and life experiences.  For my Spanish Father-in-law on the other hand, trust is given to others only sparingly and most often temporarily. His trust factor is based as well on his cultural filter, professional background, but also personal experiences that have shaped his values.


Recently I worked with a Franco American Intellectual Property team of a French Pharmaceutical company on how to work better with one another by understanding and adapting to each other’s cultural values and needs.  The two teams had been working closely together for more than a year. While working separately with both teams on their cultural identity and differences, I realized that the major element keeping the teams from working more efficiently together i.e. sharing information, collaborating fully, and acting as one team was trust. The American team operated very much with a cognitive approach and could not understand why information was not being shared more openly and why their French colleagues resistant to their ideas. The French team members’ needs were cognitive but they needed also to know their American colleagues better as people, i.e. see them physically, shake hands, share meals and coffee together, laugh with them before they could fully trust them. A trust that was difficult to develop by email exchanges or teleconferencing.


The French manager of these two teams had a solid international experience. He was aware of the needs for both teams to develop a higher level of trust. He started by organizing cross-cultural training for both teams and then a week of meetings for the US team in France.  Through that week of business meetings and sharing business lunches and evening meals together and basically getting to know one another the French and American members were able to develop a deeper appreciation for each other and a deeper level of trust. At the end of the week members of both teams came in for a morning of team building that I facilitated with their manager. I must admit that the morning we spent crystalizing this trust was easy. Up stream a lot of good will had been created and differences had faded just through contact of working and meeting together, sharing a few meals, stories about families and laughs in the same location.


The recipe for developing trust is different from one culture to the next.  All cultures have their rituals, protocols and time frames for building it. A lot of attention is given to cultural differences and adapting to them. We mustn’t forget in our international teams, and customer and supplier transactions that understanding cultural differences and adapting to another person or team’s needs is about building trust.

As the Management Guru Stephen Covey said Trust is “the glue” of all human relationships.  For me trust is like a rare, beautiful, but delicate flower that gives you that warm fuzzy feeling inside when you look at it. But when not cared for properly or neglected, it can wither or disappear in the twinkling of an eye.

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