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Four Keys for Building Trust on Teams

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Building trust and avoiding cultural pitfalls, Part 1

Reliability, Openness, Respect, and Honesty. These are words we commonly use to talk about building trust on a team.

While they may seem like straightforward concepts, we have found that different cultures shape these in distinct ways on a team. How does culture play a role?

As context for our discussion, let’s quickly review The Three Colors of Worldview©. The Three Colors are social value systems that drive every human culture with varying degrees of influence. The drivers are:

  • Honor/Shame: Maintaining personal honor and your group’s recognized social standing by doing what is honorable and avoiding what is shameful.

  • Power/Fear: Aligning with influencers and growing in control by doing what gives you power and avoiding situations where your power is diminished.

  • Innocence/Guilt: Maintaining innocence and good reputation by aligning with accepted principles and rules: doing what is right and avoiding the wrong.


The first trait of Reliability means that we deliver quality work in line with our commitments. In Innocence/Guilt oriented cultures, this involves a heavy emphasis on staying “on schedule”.

However, in strong Honor/Shame and Power/Fear environments there tends to be more of an emphasis on relationship, and we are able to treat time more flexibly. The strength in this cultural approach is that it frees us to invest time in building and maintaining the quality relationships that facilitate business.

Depending on your personal culture and the environment your team operates in, building trust may require you to either adapt to tighter scheduling or learn to relax your time expectations and become more flexible.

Intercultural teams need to ask, “What are reasonable expectations about commitments on this team, and how can we create interculturally safe ways to talk about them as we go?” Part of that is digging into what helps you deliver products and services as expected and what gets in the way.

One example from our experience relates to an Innocence/Guilt oriented leader and her approach to delegating. Upon joining an intercultural team she was delegating tasks in relatively short form, assuming teammates would have a sense of personal responsibility to ask follow-up questions if they needed more information, or did not understand.

But her Honor/Shame and Power/Fear oriented teammates were living in other social value systems, and wanted to protect her honor and influence. They did not want to ask clarifying questions that would imply she had delegated poorly. So communication was not happening to the level needed, and this was leading to poor reliability and poor results.

When the leader became aware of this, she sat down with her team and discussed ways they could slow down the process of delegating, to create a space that honored everyone and could enable more productive communication. Reliability and trust were greatly improved.


Openness has to do with how freely we are willing to communicate what is actually going on. In any culture, it is easier to be an open book when things are going well, and harder when they are not.

One potentially challenging scenario is when a higher-ranking person has reason to apologize to someone below him or her in the org chart. In any culture, this has to come from a willingness to share social capital: to empower through vulnerability, to transfer innocence by acknowledging wrong, and to impart honor by owning dishonor. This can be a beautiful part of building trust when unlocked within good relationships and a strong team culture, and can actually increase everyone’s honor, influence, and innocence over time.

Another challenging scenario is when someone asks a question I do not know the answer to. That is especially true if the question is within my area of expertise. In Innocence/Guilt cultures there is usually only a small amount of shame in saying, “I don’t know, I’ll find out for you,” but in Power/Fear and Honor/Shame oriented cultures I will be strongly motivated to say something that avoids appearing ignorant. On an intercultural team, we need to discuss honorable and empowering ways to ensure we are sharing the information needed –– including, “Let me double-check on that.”

To Disclose or Not Disclose?

When I think about disclosure and non-disclosure in an Honor/Shame oriented culture, whether I shield or share information is directly linked to how much honor could be lost, or how much shame I might incur. I am also aware I may give honor or shame to you.

In a Power/Fear oriented culture I am aware of the usefulness of the information I possess, and the power that could be lost if that information were used against me.

However, in Innocence/Guilt oriented environments it is common for leaders to approach this area with the concept of promoting “fair” access to information by all, and the desire for all to contribute to the collective thinking of the group.

As we can see, the playing field of information has very different social mappings in each of the Three Colors of Worldview©. So we will need to consider disclosure versus non-disclosure separately for each. And we will need to discuss with our team the types of openness that are respectful for all.

We have found the only way to create good openness is to invest in creating a Third Cultural Space: a communally shaped team culture that takes everyone’s cultures into account, worked out through a team-building journey. One benefit of this is that it enables us to spot when something is not working for us and handle it with finesse in a way that is empowering, honoring, and does right by all.

This can change some of our processes. One example is how a tech company added a “cool factor” to the issue of programmers getting stuck fixing bugs in code. They mounted plastic “oops” hands they could raise on their desks. Because the process called for other people to come around and try to quickly resolve the issue, the honor of teammates was involved in how quickly they rallied to assist. This reduced the stigma of seeking help and enabled the whole team to become more efficient.

Continue reading about Respect and Honesty in our second article in this series on trust-building with an intercultural team Contact us to talk about interculturally intelligent learning journeys to strengthen trust in your team.

Learn more about developing your teams here, or continue the learning journey with a weekly email series to help you turn your team into a high-performing intercultural team: Subscribe Here


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