11 tips on building trust across cultures

How do different cultures approach trust?

Trust across cultures is key to building successful global business relationships. As business relationships become more global, learning to trust people from different cultures is all the more important to healthy business relationships. Different cultures sense trust in different ways. Pragmatic, task-based Americans are likely to trust someone based on their skills, their track record and their references. On the other hand, emotional South Americans and Arabs will trust someone because they like them, they have established common ground and they feel a sense of rapport. Understanding how to build – and maintain – trust is vital to business success.

How to build trust across cultures

  1. In China, business is based on guanxi, or on a network of contacts and relationships. It is essential to build a rapport with your counterparts, through getting-to-know-you meetings, hospitality and conversation that extends beyond business. An introduction from a trusted member of the network is ideal; this intermediary will help to establish trust on the part of the Chinese by association. In Arab cultures, too, a mutual contract who can make an introduction is an important step towards building trust across cultures.
  2. South American cultures are similar in that time must be taken for socializing and establishing the relationship. You, as someone from a time-pressured, results-based culture, may be conscious of wasting the time of the other side by attending lunches and dinners but to them, it is an important part of building trust. Business may not even be discussed until trust has been established.
  3. Understand what form trust takes. In Arab cultures, your word is your bond. If a deal is struck at a meeting and lawyers are immediately wheeled out to draft contracts, your counterparts may be offended; this behavior indicates a lack of trust on your part.
  4. If you come from a relationship-based culture and are trying to do business with people from a results-based culture, you can still build trust  across cultures if you are flexible and creative. Invite people to lunch, for example, but suggest when the lunch might end. Go out for drinks, but don’t feel offended if your American counterparts leave after a couple of rounds, rather than going on for dinner.
  5. If you are managing a virtual team, try to understand each individual’s working style and try not to micro-manage. Initially, this can be something of a leap of faith but setting a deadline and then hassling individuals for regular progress updates might be, in their minds, a lack of trust on your part.
  6. On the other hand, if you are part of a virtual team and reporting in to someone from a different culture, it is just as important that you help them to trust you. For example, if your manager is in the USA, they will expect deadlines to be met promptly, no excuses, straight talking and explicit, direct communication. Trust across cultures will be destroyed if they feel you are not giving them the full picture.
  7. Conversely, if your counterpart is in India, do not pressure them for a straight yes/no answer. Build trust across cultures by allowing them to explain themselves. Allow time for small talk when you have a conversation. Understand that they may struggle with direct communication and learn to read between the lines of what they are saying.
  8. Build trust with Germans by being direct, accurate and punctual. Being late for appointments is a sign of disrespect for the other person’s time. Do not try to be over-familiar and learn to understand the hierarchy. If you go over a person’s head to their superior, they will lose all trust in you.
  9. When working with French colleagues, the trust between you should be strong enough to allow for spirited discussions. Prepare to defend ideas and challenge others. You should also expect to explain why you want someone to do something, rather than simply issuing orders.
  10. Wherever you are based, invest in building trust across cultures. Groups with a low level of trust are prone to misunderstanding, resentment, time-wasting and unnecessary stress. Groups in which individuals trust one another are more creative and more productive, studies have found. Barriers to trust include lack of face-to-face contact, language barriers, lack of information sharing, over-reliance on email as opposed to conversation and failure to address the different cultures within the group.
  11. Finally, one trust has been built, it must be maintained. If you are working with overseas counterparts, whether they are colleagues, customers or suppliers, you will need to visit from time or even establish a permanent presence in the country. With virtual teams, face-to-face contact is important, even if it is infrequent, and where possible, team-building activities and social gatherings should be held to break down barriers. Understand that in some cultures, among the Asian, many African cultures and Arab, the relationship is with the individual, not the corporation. If an individual has worked hard to build a rapport with an Arab customer but then leaves the company, their replacement will have to start from the beginning to rebuild trust.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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