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Building Trust in Your Intercultural Workplace

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

the hands of a team coming together in trust

Consistent words and actions are the building blocks of trust in intercultural workplaces.

Building trust in intercultural teams is crucial for achieving organizational success. While we do need to focus on operational goals, neglecting the relational fabric of an organization will work against those very goals. In fact, building trust in intercultural teams will lead to improved communication, increased collaboration, and better problem-solving.

Many companies are reeling in the wake of the global pandemic, but the low profits reported are not all a result of poor performance in the various functions of the business. Being forced to work online has left many feeling isolated and unable to relate to others in a meaningful way. Because of this isolation, some young employees have struggled to create strong social networks and find opportunities to grow as professionals entering the job market. Furthermore, research into workplace satisfaction shows that more than 50% of employees would leave their current workplace if they had the means to do so (source). This statistic in particular reflects more than just a lack of stimulation and attainment in the workplace. It alludes to a degradation of the relational fabric and trust in the work environment.

In light of this, we need to address the issues that are causing a breakdown in trust and connection in the workplace. Focusing on relational capital over profit motives at this time may seem counterintuitive, but the effects of a healthy work environment on creativity, profit, and organizational success cannot be denied. In contrast, a lack of trust among co-workers hurts the bottom line and threatens the whole existence of the organization.

As you seek to address potential issues which exist in your workplace, consider these questions:

1. What is trust?

2. How does a lack of trust affect us?

3. How is trust built?

1. What is trust?

Trust is a complex concept that can be viewed as a bank account deposited into (or withdrawn from) with each interaction. So, when a co-worker does something or says something that makes you believe you can trust them, you deposit trust in your relational bank account with that person. The more positive experiences you have, the more trust you deposit into that bank account. The opposite, however, is also true. The more negative interactions you have with a colleague, the more trust will be eroded to the detriment of the working relationship.

It can be deduced from this that trust is based on words and behaviors. It is a belief that is created from how one is treated by colleagues. People use different categories of actions and words to affirm their belief that others can be trusted. The building of trust is therefore a gut feeling, not based on anything concrete or measurable, but rather a collection of positive experiences with others.

Trust is also directly linked to the memory of our senses. Certain smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings lead us to trust or distrust people in a situation because of the chemicals released related to those senses. (Source)

There are cultures where people are more likely to give trust up front ‘benefit of the doubt’. This is the ‘given’ side of trust. At the start of a working relationship, no one has done anything yet, so I deposit trust into our relational bank account and if you live up to it, I’ll keep depositing. Other cultures are on the ‘earned’ side of trust. The way you earn trust can vary significantly. In a context where people believe trust starts with vulnerability, this could lead to the failure of the team.

There are some phrases ingrained in our thinking about trust that affect our thoughts about what trust is. There is a Western saying which goes, ‘Trust takes years to earn, a moment to lose, and a lifetime to regain.’ Holding firmly to this belief could limit the depth of relationships that can be formed within workplace teams. A Chinese adage states that ‘He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.’ This statement seems to suggest a meeting point in the middle where trust is given and earned steadily throughout the working relationship.

Because of the nebulous, intangible nature of trust, it would be easy to respond by brushing it off. A better response would be to come together with employees, colleagues, and teammates to decide the words and actions that build trust and avoid those which break it down. As a leader in your organization, it is vital to accept that there are different interpretations of the concept of trust in the minds of your employees. If we don’t know how to communicate these differences, ideas, and misconceptions about trust, issues in the team can cause a breakdown in relationships and team efficiency. It is also imperative that you make allowance for these interpretations as you form a corporate identity. Make it your aim, then, to cultivate an environment where there are agreed-upon words and behaviors that build trust instead of diminishing it.

2. How does a lack of trust affect us?

Societal Level

There is an interesting link between the amount of trust in a society and the prosperity of the nation. The Legatum Institute considers the factors that influence the prosperity of a nation in its Prosperity Index, and trust is woven into the fabric of those factors. When there is a lot of trust in a nation, typically, there is sharing of ideas, a higher level of education, stability in neighborhoods, and increased trade in those nations. There is less paperwork which facilitates the ease of entrepreneurial startups and businesses. Furthermore, where there is trust between countries, trade, and resources will flow freely between them. On the other hand, distrust leads to limitations on trade and movement, and stunts the socioeconomic growth of all nations involved. We have seen this lack of trust between countries played out in recent events, and we have felt its effects even in our personal lives.

Organizational Level

As stated, trust is built on the interactions we have with others and the perception that their actions either build or break our ability to rely on them. This is no different in the work environment. If there is trust between people, they will relate to each other better, leading to clearer thinking which leads to a flow of creative ideas. The opposite, however, is also true. A lack of trust in the workplace can have a traumatic effect on employees who bear the brunt of insecurity and instability that distrust bring to the workplace. Look for these warning signs which may allude to a traumatized workforce in your organization:

  • Where there is distrust, people become more guarded with each other and suspicious of each other’s words and actions.

  • Employees are less willing to work in teams as communication breaks down. Poor communication could lead to a lack of direction or control, which results in an increased need for crisis management.

  • Workers become less productive and there is a limit on innovation and creativity in ideation.

  • A lack of creativity and success in the workplace will, in turn, result in increased stress and lower morale among staff members.

  • This drop in morale creates a toxic work culture which could result in people withdrawing from their work in a variety of ways. Some employees become minimalists, resorting to quiet quitting and work-to-rule, while others leave their job altogether, increasing staff turnover.

In an environment where the staff turnover is constant, the change starts to put strain on those who remain in the organization, as they struggle to cope with the devastating effects of lack of morale and distrust.

Interpersonal Level

In a world where we are driven to meet even greater targets and compete in the global market, individuals are coping with higher levels of stress than humans have endured before. On a neuroscientific level, this stress causes the release of adrenaline and cortisol which have a negative effect when combined with the bonding hormone, oxytocin. This combination limits our ability to bond with others and find the trust that we need in various interactions.

Furthermore, when some neuropeptides are released due to an absence of trusted relationships, they begin to cloud judgment and clear thinking resulting in brain fog. This also makes people more guarded and selective in the information that they share.

3. How do we build trust?

It is therefore vital to determine how to create trust between employees and management and among teams in our organizations. When you’re on a team with people you don’t trust, there is a limit on what is shared with colleagues which then limits creativity, team growth, and problem-solving.

Employers need to pursue performance targets while maintaining a relationally healthy work environment. Both aspects require attention if the business is to succeed.

To create structure around trust, there are key conversations that we need to have. What needs to be done and said to build a trusting environment?

Create an environment of merit-based trust that is not based on individual cultures, and preconceived ideas. Agree on pursuing certain behaviors and words and avoiding others with the aim of building trust.

Creating a third cultural space will allow employees to feel included and safe in the workplace, which will result in improved performance. We need to learn to do both sides well. It may benefit the organization from key relational indicators that are treated with as much importance as key performance indicators.

These are trust builders or trust breakers to be included in a team charter. These words unlock the conversations that need to be had to build an environment of trust. You can take your team on a High Performing Intercultural Team Journey to dive even deeper into these concepts and create room for these trust-building conversations. Talk through these four trust builders to begin building trust in your intercultural team

  • Reliability is doing what you said you would do. It creates an environment in which the weight of organizational goals is shared among employees.

  • Honesty is being truthful in all interactions. It starts with being fully present in conversations and includes conducting all aspects of business with integrity. Furthermore, while telling the truth is important, it is equally important to consider what is honoring, empowering, and doing right when sharing honest opinions with others.

  • Respect is holding people in high regard. As its expression varies from person to person, it is vital for us to acknowledge these differences and be willing to go out of our way to show respect in a way that it would be received, not just in our limited understanding of the concept.

  • Openness - refers to being open to giving and receiving feedback. It allows being open to changing behavior based on feedback, and willing to package feedback in a way to make it more likely to be well received.

While the concept of trust is complex and difficult to articulate, the need for it in the organizational context is undeniable. Agreed-upon words and behaviors that build trust and show respect will go a long way to helping your organization not only have a healthy working environment but also remain competitive in the global market.

To learn more about trust in an intercultural workplace, listen to our podcast episode with Iain Wilson, a Certified Inter-Cultural Intelligence Practitioner.

Take your team to the next level by getting with a High Performing Intercultural Team Journey. You will develop an interculturally aligned team culture.



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