“Do you trust me?” … “Don’t you trust me?” … ”Can I trust him/her?”
It seems nearly anytime we ask these questions of the relationship we have, whether it’s private or business, our relationship is often already in a perilous condition. We NEED trust in our relationships with our business teams, our clients, our partners, and our friends. But trust comes in many shades and the type of trust that you may need could be significantly different from that of your partner. Furthermore, the type of trust that you need varies according to the situation that you’re in. And as we’re all products of our environments and cultures, this too has an influence on the types of trust that we prioritize. As you can see, these questions of trust can hardly be answered with a simple yes or no.
Trust in all its variations
In business, mutual trust is not only essential, it also brings a number of positive attributes: confidence and security in relationships, open and strong information exchanges (Earley, 1986) reduced conflicts and negotiation costs, and a direct relation to goal fulfillment, quality, timeliness, and flexibility within inter-organizational collaborations. Mutual trust, of course, relies on multiple shades of trust. Team trust strengthens communication within the team as well as team commitment (Martins et al, 2004). However, building trust requires an appropriate amount of risk and interdependence (Rousseau et al., 1998). Within Global Virtual Teams, an initial, and fragile trust known as ‘swift trust’, is established based primarily on personal characteristics (Robert et al., 2009). Swift trust enables team members to deal with ambiguity and vulnerability while focusing on task completion (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Later, cognitive trust is established based on perceived ability and integrity (Robert et al., 2009). Affective trust, which draws on emotional ties, empathy and personal bonds (Meyer, 2014), also plays a role, but depending on the culture, has varying importance within the business world. Last but not least, organizational trust can also have a powerful influence on GVTs (Lockwood, 2015), particularly when new virtual team alliances come as a result of offshoring, which often results in job losses on at least one side of the team. Here it is important that corporate values align with corporate practices and implementation strategies.
Culture’s influence on trust
Nothing is black or white in culture, and how cultures prioritize trust, ranging between cognitive (task-based) trust to affective (relationship-based) trust is one of a culture’s main identifying factors (Meyer, 2014). On a more basic level, cultures also separate people into distinct groups, with people often judging outside groups (or cultures) as being less honest, reliable, open, and trustworthy. If our partners’ communication patterns are different than ours, we associate this with more risk – after all, we might miss something critical in the exchange. To offset this, often the more cultures involved in teams, the greater the tendency is to establish strict control mechanisms, creating a shared set of standards. Although interdependence of all team members is necessary for trust, there is also the danger that if teams are made up of multiple cultural sub-groups, then members will tend to show greater interdependence within their sub-group than with the rest of the team. Good teamwork though, whatever the culture, relies on the interchange of vulnerability with dependability and responsiveness, and whether a person is deemed trustworthy or not depends foremost on that person’s behavior and not just their good intentions (Blackburn et al., 2003).
Building and maintaining trust
We can’t escape our own culture, but we can develop intercultural and language competences that help us build and maintain mutual trust within global teams. As everyone knows, communication is a key factor of trust.
Strengthening intercultural competences
While communication is a universal factor in building trust, how we communicate differs between cultures and the greater the intercultural difference is, the more difficult it will be to understand the message that was sent from one person to another. This is because the way we communicate differs. Collectivist cultures, such as most Asian or African cultures (in varying degrees), are associated with implicit (implied) language, where much is encoded under the surface. In contrast, individualistic cultures, such as the USA, Australia, or Germany are associated with explicit (direct) language (Gibson, 1996). The extent of contextual information within the messages also varies according to whether a country is a high-or low-context culture. Low-context cultures (e.g. Scandinavian or North American) tend to include more surrounding information within a message, making it easier for an outsider to understand, while a high-context culture (Asian or Middle Eastern) includes more internal information – with fewer words, more information is given, but generally requires understanding of connections that an outsider has more difficulties with. One last communication difference relates to the accepted message styles. Communicators from pronounced hierarchical cultures (East Asian, Indonesian) prefer more formal, regulated communication whereas less hierarchical cultures (North American, Australian) prefer more informal channels which often develop through interpersonal activities and relationships within the team (Gibson & Manuel, 2003).
Knowing the iconic set of values associated with whatever origin your business partner or teammate has helps, but we all know from personal experience that its influence on the individual varies – think punk vs. businessman, male vs. female, grandma vs. teenager, rural vs urban. Keeping this in mind, gaining intensive knowledge about a culture is less effective than simply practicing ‘acceptance and tolerance’ to recognize and handle such differences. Team ‘acceptance and tolerance’ with the four pillars of cultural intelligence – 1) motivation, 2) knowledge, 3) strategy, and 4) action and you have the ingredients for creating a safe environment where ideas are exchanged freely, conflicts are task-oriented, conflict resolution is transparent and fair, and solutions are understood and agreed upon by all. Making a team feel like a family, with communication incorporating a proactive information exchange (Thomas & Trevino, 1993), clear verbalization of commitment, optimism and excitement (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999), and regular and predictable communication can help, no matter what the intercultural constellation is.
Strengthening language competences
Mutual trust is also easier to achieve when team members overcome their language-based anxieties within a positive, supportive client. Some of my clients from international teams have reported that making ‘poor English’ the official team language helps to reduce pressure within the teams. Going beyond grammar though, language-based communication strategies such as active listening, listening for ideas, framing, responding, and following up can also help overcome intercultural barriers.
- Active listening helps overcome ambiguity. When messages are unclear, ask for clarification or elaboration. This technique is particularly useful with teams mixed with members from high- and low-context cultures when the amount and type of background information varies in messages.
- Listening for ideas helps to overcome difficulties related to collectivist vs. individual values. With this listening skill, an individualist can extract the gist of the message by listening carefully for ideas which are embedded within the more implicit language of collectivists.
- Framing focuses on taking another person’s frame of reference, or perspective on things. By empathizing, the listener can decode that message. For instance, framing helps accommodate intercultural differences between cultures with communal vs. rationalistic values, where the communal communicator might load the message with emotional content, as opposed to the rationalistic person who usually focuses on facts. By considering detailed contextual information, conversations can be better understood.
- Responding shows involvement and attachment. Because long-distance communication in global teams has a much higher amount of uncertainty than face-to-face communication, knowing that responses will come in a predictable manner helps support reliability.
- Following up involves repeating the communicator’s message in a timely manner. Being comfortable with and using both informal (telephone, chat platforms) and formal, (e-mail, reports) communication channels can help bridge hierarchical structure differences and expectations in cultures.
Being able to use these strategies and knowing phrases that let you voice these strategies can help set the tone of the conversation and enable you to better connect with your partners. With better connection comes more trust, and with more trust comes confidence and security in relationships, open and strong information exchanges, reduced conflicts and negotiation costs, and a direct relation to goal fulfillment, quality, timeliness, and flexibility within inter-organizational collaborations. Investing in the skills to build up trust pays off.
How do you plan to bring more trust into your teams?