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Trust Is Key To Successful Intercultural Interactions

Trust is Key To Success

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The book Organizational Trust: ‘A Cultural Perspective’ (2010) consists of chapters about trust across cultures. An interesting take-away is that high levels of trust is key to successful intercultural interactions. According to literature, it correlates positively with innovation, competitive advantage, support for change and increased productivity. Powerful promises to look forward to in your business.

Defining Trust

Trust is having belief or confidence in the honesty, goodness, skill or safety of a person, organisation or thing. Trust is also a prediction of reliance on an action, based on what one party knows about another party. If applied to work for example, people tend to attribute more trust in the early stages of work to people they consider to be similar to them.

Trust is a prediction of reliance on an action, based on what one party knows about another party.

Culture makes building trust much harder

When we add cultural differences to the mix, it should be no surprise that building trust is much more complex across cultures: people from different cultures are likely to be unfamiliar about the other party’s behaviour, preferences, and work practices. Even more challenging is that cultural differences play a key role in the foundation of trust, and how trust could be gained differs substantially around the world.

Different cultures have different expectations about how trust and relationships should be established.

Trust in Multicultural teams or projects

While research may show that trust is key to successful intercultural interactions, we often see a lack of time, motivation, and budget to build trust. In fact, when multicultural teams are created, the matter of building trust is rarely truly considered. In workplaces were people from different cultures come together, we need to invest in building, gaining, and maintaining high levels of trust, accompanied by developing relationships and understanding each other’s expectations to make the positive promises happen. In my experience, the lack of trust in such workplaces leads to distrust, uncertainty, scepticism, doubt, fear, suspicion, disbelief, lack of faith, apprehension, indecision, nonconfidence, hesitation, reservation to name a few. Damaging promises you absolutely must deal with in your business.

Business scenario: 360-feedback system

An US HR Executive for an USA-based Global MNC had successfully implemented a 360-degree feedback system back home and was asked to roll out the same system in their Australian subsidiary. After another successful implementation in Australia, the US Head Office asked the US HR-executive to continue to look after the roll out in Asia, starting with China.

However, this time the US HR Executive ran into serious difficulties. First, the Chinese HR Team was not cooperative and meetings were rescheduled on a regular basis. Also, the system kept getting bad feedback from the Chinese HR manager as ‘being ineffective’ compared to their local system. The US HR manager kept on task: he dismissed the raised concerns and insisted that the system would work perfectly well just as it had done in the USA and Australia.
The day before the system was ready for testing, the local Chinese HR manager emailed the US HR Executive. She and her Chinese HR team preferred their own local system and had canceled the project.

The US HR Executive was furious about the time, effort and money that went into the project, only to see it unexpectedly fail at the last moment. To make matters more complicated, the Chinese HR Manager handed in her resignation claiming that she felt responsible for the miscommunication. The local Chinese HR team however blamed the American HR Executive and Head Office for both the failed project and the resignation of the Chinese HR manager. The US Head office just wanted answers…

Different trust foundation

In cultures such as Australia, the USA and some Northern European countries, a higher level of tendency to trust, and higher external trust exist in business relations. People are expected to be able to demonstrate performance over time, as one develops and gains the trust of one’s colleagues by keeping commitments and delivering on time. In the 360-project cited above, the Australian implementation went smoothly because the Australian subsidiary was well aware of the US HR Executives’ high-level professionalism and proven track record in the USA. The foundation seems to point towards a task-based orientation towards building trust.

In other cultures, including some Asian, Arab and Latin American countries, there might be a bias against ‘outsiders’ – those who we do not know. This might initially result in low levels of trust in intercultural business: building relationships and trust takes time and is a pre-requisite for professional interactions. It may take many meetings and a long time of repeated interactions to establish trust. The foundation seems to point towards a relationship-based orientation towards building trust.

Chinese HR team’s issues with trust

  • First, the Chinese HR team members indicated that they felt that they did not have a chance to get to know the American HR Executive prior to the start of the project. How could they really trust him when he had only flown in a couple of times each year from Australia?
  • Another point the Chinese HR team made was that they felt that the US Executive did not understand that for them to pass on (possible negative) feedback about superiors, as expected in a 360-degree feedback system, did not sit comfortably with both Chinese staff and superiors.
  • Staff in more hierarchical cultures might also not trust that the feedback would be kept confidential, but assume that it would be shared with superiors.
  • Lastly, they mentioned that people do not really trust that 360-degree feedback systems are there to help advance their careers; they expressed fear that staff would see it as a tool that could identify under performers and risk losing their jobs.
Key to Successful Intercultural Interactions

It is imperative to remember that when working with people from different cultural backgrounds, you need to take time to build trust, develop relationships and to discuss expectations. This requires an extensive cultural knowledge about people’s behaviour, preferences, and work practices. When the culturally diverse foundations of trust is misunderstood, trust is undermined and the cost to business can be significant.

Organizational trust: ‘A Cultural Perspective’ 2010 edited by Mark N. K. Saunders, Denise Skinner, Graham Dietz, Nicole Gillespie, Roy J. Lewicki.

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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