By Mansour Javidan & Aks Zaheer published by Harvard Business Review on May 27, 2019
Many managerial positions require frequent communication with employees from around the world, but building trust across cultures can be difficult. Still, it is vitally important; when individuals trust one another, they can work together effectively regardless of cultural differences. But how do you build this cross-cultural trust? In focus group interviews with over 400 managers and executives in America, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle Eastern, we’ve distilled three things that top executives do to build trusting relationships: they start with the right mindset, they learn about their colleagues’ backgrounds, and they understand the importance of results and character in building trust.
Starting with the right mindset is key. The executives we spoke with understood that the process of trust building can take different paths, different amounts of time, and different sets of criteria in different parts of the world and with people from different backgrounds. Patience and understanding are of the essence. They had also taken time to understand their own trust culture, whether they came from a high trust culture, such as the U.S. or a lower trust culture, such as Argentina or Brazil. This is important because people from highly trusting cultures working in low-trust environments may become easily frustrated when they find that building trust with employees is harder than they expected. For those who are less naturally trusting or who come from cultures that are warier, their style of careful dealings with people will be familiar to colleagues who have backgrounds of similar levels of trust. At the same time, they risk not connecting with more trusting colleagues who may find their reflexive distrust frustrating, disturbing, and confusing.
We also saw that those who were most able to build trust with international colleagues spent a good deal of time learning about their employees’ cultures. They did this by asking some key questions about the culture: How trusting is it? How performance oriented is it? How hierarchical and autocratic is it? Importantly, they also asked how people in that culture build trust themselves. In some countries, managers had success in having these conversations with their employees directly. In others, different approaches were needed. For example, in hierarchical cultures direct reports may feel uncomfortable opening up to their supervisor because they are used to mostly top-down communication. In still other cultures, such conversations only take place in private and one-on-one. Knowing how and with whom to have conversations about trust is critical.
Finally, managers who were successful in building cross-cultural trust understood the importance of results and character in building trust. Our research shows that cultures generally emphasize one or the other when it comes to building trust. For example, in the U.S., workplace trust is generally based on results; if Sam turns in the report on time I know I can trust her to get the next one in on time too. In other cultures, trust is built on character. For example, in the Middle East, having a family member or trusted person vouch for the integrity (regardless of expertise) of an individual goes a long way in building automatic trust. Most large firms in Arab countries are family owned and tend to hire individuals who are known by family members because family membership and familiarity are the best tests of trustworthiness. In our research, we saw managers succeeding at trust-building by taking specific actions in each of these environments.
In workplaces where trust was earned through results, managers emphasized the idea of interdependence and spelled out, both in actions and in words, how the team was more likely to achieve group goals when they pulled together in the same direction. This created a win-win orientation, which showed others that everyone would benefit from trusting one another and working cooperatively. Finally, they focused on the long haul and encouraged employees to look far down the road. If, for example, any of them incurred some short-term costs, such as by foregoing vacation to undertake a training exercise, there would be ample time to recover the costs of the investment, such as through a promotion.
In workplaces where character reigned, managers earned trust by showing their commitment through their willingness to make financial, personal and emotional investments in the well-being of the group. These commitments varied culture by culture; to an American team, a committed leader provides resources, direction, and support to get the task done, but in many Asian and Latin American countries leaders may need to get to know, and show support for, employees’ family members. Chinese employees for example, expect paternalistic leadership, while Brazilian employees expect their leaders to spend social time with them and take an interest in their personal lives.
Managers in character-driven workplaces built their credibility, and demonstrated their commitment, by making small promises and delivering on them, preferably soon after they were made, particularly in relation to an employee’s personal life. This also helped display benevolence and showed that the manager genuinely cared for employees’ well-being. Again, while to an American work group, credibility refers to what happens during work hours, to people in many other countries what happens outside of work hours is as, and sometimes more, important.
We witnessed two other behaviors in character-driven trust building: bonding over commonalities and demonstrating trust. It’s common—and expected—that colleagues would search for commonalities when meeting, but in character-driven cultures, these commonalities take on extra importance. While in the U.S, it’s normal when first meeting a colleague to discuss common interests like sports and movies, in many other countries people tend to be more curious about each other, so even such casual discussions are often deeper. And once commonalities are found, they can lead to actions that benefit both parties. A Middle Eastern executive who was approached by an American executive to do business, discovered that they had both attended the same program in the same university. The change in his attitude was profound. He treated the American executive like a long-lost brother and they developed a deep relationship. Finally, we saw managers successfully building trust by taking the first step: they took actions that showed that they trusted their employees. Knowing that all trust involves some degree of risk, they expected trust to build and grow over time with positive interactions in a virtuous cycle of ever-increasing degrees of trust. Their colleagues generally responded by showing themselves to be worthy of being trusted to a greater and greater extent and in turn trusted the manager.
An awareness and understanding of different cultural trust-building norms across countries can go a long way in smoothing and enhancing work relationships. Conversely, a lack of awareness and understanding can be frustrating and painful. In our research we spoke with a Danish executive in charge of a Latin American operation who spent twelve difficult months trying to bond with her team before she figured out that trust levels in Latin America were nowhere close to those in Denmark. Once she understood how to build trust with her Latin American team and adapted her leadership style, she was able to succeed.