by Mansour Javidan and Aks Zaheer published in Harvard Business Review 

Great leaders know how important it is to establish trust with their teams. And those who are adept at building trust see the results quickly. Their teams perform better, are more loyal, and are often happier and more productive. 

Trust within an organization or team, like respect, has to be earned. Trust, across cultures has to be learned. 

New global management research by Thunderbird’s Dr. Mansour Javidan and Dr. Aks Zaheer, from the University of Minnesota, confirms the importance of cross-cultural trust in global business and suggests ways to gain that trust.

Mansour Javidan is Garvin Distinguished Professor and Director of Najafi Global Mindset Institute at Thunderbird School of Global Management. He is project director for GLOBE 2020, a large-scale study of culture and trust in 100 countries. Aks Zaheer is Professor and Curtis L Carlson Chair in Strategic Management at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. 

 For “How Leaders Around the World Build Trust Across Cultures” published by Harvard Business Review in May 2019, Dr. Javidan and Dr. Zaheer distilled lessons from interviews with 400 managers and executives in America, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East in order to offer tools for managers interested in successfully building trust across cultures. 

Trust leads to success, surpasses differences

The researchers’ article concludes that when individuals trust one another, they can work together effectively regardless of cultural differences. 

“An awareness and understanding of different cultural trust-building norms across countries can go a long way in smoothing and enhancing work relationships,” they write. “Conversely, a lack of awareness and understanding can be frustrating and painful.”

Lessons from executives around the world led Dr. Javidan and Dr. Zaheer to conclude that managers who are successful building trust across cultures have these three common characteristics:  

  • They start with the right mindset. 
  • They learn about their colleagues’ backgrounds.
  • They understand the importance of results and character in building trust

Patience and understanding

“Starting with the right mindset is key,” they write. And it’s important that business leaders understand their own culture’s practices around trust. Do they come from a high trust culture, such as the United States, or from a country with a lower trust culture, like Brazil or Argentina? Understanding where they are coming from themselves can help executives avoid becoming too quickly frustrated.

Patience and understanding are of the essence, they concluded. “The executives we spoke with understood that the process of trust building can take different paths, different amounts of time, and different sets of criteria in different parts of the world and with people from different backgrounds.”

Want to learn about another culture? Ask 

Dr. Javidan and Dr. Zaheer said that interview subjects who understood international colleagues the best reported that they asked a lot of questions, key questions about the culture. Perhaps most importantly, they asked how people in that culture build trust themselves.

But asking what may seem to be very personal questions in some cultures takes finesse from a manager. Executives said they had to know when conversations about trust needed to be private or could be more open. In other words, they needed a level of trust to learn more about cultural trust. 

Trust built through results or character

The interviews revealed that one key difference in cross-cultural trust is whether workplace trust is based on results or character. In the U.S., for example, if someone turns in a report complete and on time, they will likely be trusted to do that again. In the Middle East, trust is often earned by reputation, having a family member or another acquaintance vouch for an individual’s integrity. 

Managers seeking to earn trust in these different workplaces need understand the difference between results- or character-driven cultures, of course. They also must understand that they need to adjust the ways that they approach building their own character.  

Taking the lead in building trust 

Trust in business is a good thing. The best business schools weave discussions of trust throughout the curriculum. And as we move further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the world is requiring a new type of business leader – a leader who is good for the business and good for the world. A leader who can smoothly traverse borders while adapting to a changing world. And that requires trust. 

Trust, of course, is important in all business relationships, but as Dr. Javidan and Dr. Zaheer point out, cross-cultural relationships – even within an organization – are quite complex.

But building trust across cultures is doable. And whatever the details or cultural differences are, Dr. Javidan and Dr. Zaheer said they saw managers successfully building trust by taking the first step: they took actions that showed that they trusted their employees.

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