Part Two: An Applicable Model for Understanding Trust in Multicultural Teams

By: Jill Sheldekar, Director of Ethnosynth Consulting, Pune

Anyone working in a cross-cultural environment knows that trust is an essential component of high performing teams. One must have a deep understanding of how trust can be established and maintained, which requires the ability to anticipate and prepare for potential challenges even prior to that first team meeting. Once project work begins, issues are bound to arise and the ability to find the source of trust issues in the team is crucial.

For part two of this three part series on building trust and credibility in the intercultural work environment, I would like to explore a model for building trust by looking at it through the lens of intercultural interactions. Each component will be followed by concrete examples that demonstrate the behaviours and conditions for which diverse teams either build or break trust.

One of the most applicable models for understanding trust at the workplace is the concept of the “construct of trust” developed by Dr. Duane C. Tway Jr. In this model trust is defined as, “the state of readiness for unguarded interaction with someone or something” and includes three main components:

  1. Capacity for Trusting: a person’s total life experiences which have developed their capacity and willingness to trust others
  2. Perception of Competence: is made up of own’s perception of their ability and the ability of others with whom they work to perform competently at whatever is needed in the current situation
  3. Perception of Intentions: is the perception that the actions, words, direction, mission, or decisions are motivated by mutually-serving rather than self-serving motives

Dr. Tway asserts that a group can build trust if members of the team: One, have a high capacity for trusting based on past experiences, two, they perceive each other as being technically capable and competent to do their jobs, and three, they believe that each member is motivated by positive intentions meant to contribute to the success of the entire group. Seems simple enough – until we attempt to look at this construct through the lens of an intercultural work environment.

Capacity for Trusting: Individuals will have lower or higher capacities for trusting others based on their previous experiences and the environment in which they lived and worked in the past. One’s first job, first manager and experiences working with certain cultural groups will create a foundation for which trust is either granted easily to others or trust must be painstakingly earned.

Intercultural Factors: The cultural environment in which a person is raised has a huge impact on their capacity for trusting others as well as authority figures. Certain cultures tend to have higher or lower capacities for trusting, especially particular ethnic groups within those cultures. Belonging to the dominate culture or a minority group, operating in an environment of scarcity or surplus, being historically oppressed or coming from a post conflict zone – these are a few of the factors that impact one’s natural capacity for trusting others.

Our past experiences not only result in a high or low capacity for trusting, but also lead to the creation of bias. One of the most pervasive forms is confirmation bias. Largely unconscious, confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. One’s capacity for trusting is based on existing beliefs, theories and expectations as the result of past experience. Confirmation bias occurs when an individual approaches every new interaction with the intent of confirming an existing belief. Take a commonly held belief about Indian executives – they operate on IST or Indian Stretchable Time. If a person firmly believes this to be true, they will often mentally highlight examples of this behaviour every time they see it. Even when the behaviour cannot be observed, these instances will be ignored to ensure that the existing belief is maintained. This is a natural human tendency – to stereotype and generalise and filter information through one’s own lens in order to make sense of the world around us. However, a lack of awareness or sensitivity to one’s confirmation bias may severely impact their ability to accurately interpret the behaviour of others. If you go looking for something, you are guaranteed to find it! Confirmation bias, regardless of its positive or negative nature, reflects one’s capacity for trusting.

Example: One does not even need to look outside India to find low capacities for trusting among people. While coaching a senior Indian leader working for an MNC in Pune, a quarterly review revealed low levels of engagement among his subordinates. This leader had been an external hire from a competitor, was of a different regional background than most of his team (a Maharashtrian managing mainly Tamil executives) and had returned from the United States where he had been working for the last 7 years. In the eyes of his team, he had three strikes against him even before taking over the role. Unaware of this, he made some early mistakes that solidified their negative expectations – destroying any chance to build credibility as their leader.

When team members begin a project with a low capacity for trusting, the impact can be devastating. Unfortunately, capacity for trusting is not something we can control or something which changes quickly or easily. It increases or decreases due to one’s current and future experiences.

Perception of Competence: Trust in a team can only exist if members of the team perceive higher levels of competence within the group and have the following beliefs: I am capable of performing the tasks and responsibilities required for my role and I also believe that my team members and my team manager are capable of performing their roles. Seems simple enough – but often conflicts in groups arise when perceptions of competence come under question due to how competence is communicated differently across cultures – right at the initial stages of team formation.

Intercultural Factors: Direct, task oriented cultures put a lot of importance on the first meeting and what they interpret as confident body language (direct eye contact, upright posture, firm handshakes) and vocal presence (loud and clear tone of voice, appropriate pace, moderate emotional expression). Right from the start, one will determine the confidence level of other team members simply based on the way they speak, how much they speak and other non-verbal cues. The assumption is that those who communicate with what they interpret as a high level of confidence, will be more competent in performing their tasks and responsibilities. Right away this poses a challenge for cultures that are more indirect and relationship oriented. The first meeting is a chance to establish trust based on getting to know one another. Body language should be more reserved during initial stages, to avoid the risk of appearing overly dominant. Until the status of each member is established and a relationship is defined in which protocol for behaviour is fixed, one will err on the side of caution. These cultures also practice ascribed status – which is importance or position assigned to a person based on involuntary factors like gender, age, nationality, family background or ethnicity. In other words, they will be likely to trust and perceive higher levels of competence for someone simply because they are older or are from the dominant ethnic group.

This is one of the most common challenges I observe among global teams, related to perceived levels of competence. Members from more direct cultures like the United States and Germany make assumptions about a person’s competence based on the way they present themselves in the group meeting. This can lead to over estimating or under estimating a person’s abilities or lower perceptions of competence for team members who do not prescribe to their idea of poise. While individuals from more indirect cultures such as India or China, will assume higher levels of competence to those they ascribe status to or will extend trust based on relationship networks.

Example: A Swiss-German professional I worked with shared her hesitation to collaborate with her Indian colleagues, saying “I would rather just run the tests and present the results on my own than have to explain what I am doing.” After further investigation, I discovered that her lack of trust had little to do with the actual technical abilities of her team mates. Rather her assumptions were based on behaviours demonstrated during interactions in the lab and during meetings – indirectness and passive body language. Once she recognized the importance of establishing a relationship, her colleagues felt more comfortable to work with her as an equal partner and started to be more upfront during discussions. She regretted underestimating her colleagues who later proved to be highly knowledgeable and efficient.

Perception of Intentions: Trust cannot be established or maintained if members of the group believe they are being devalued, manipulated or set up to fail. Once again, it seems only obvious that this would be the case. However, often managers struggle to ensure that their intentions are interpreted as positive and fair especially when executing tasks such as work delegation, rewarding and recognizing and performance reviews. Even within teams, sometimes a highly competitive environment can lead to mistrust amongst members if motives are interpreted as self-serving.

Intercultural Factors: As discussed in part one of this series, value differences across cultures often result in different expectations for communication and behaviour. The challenge is that behaviours that are intended to give respect or communicate trust in one culture can have the exact opposite effect in another culture. In cultures that value inclusion, group harmony and hierarchy, there are a range of behaviours that are expected: using respect titles, avoiding open disagreement, flexibility and accommodation, etc. In cultures that value self-reliance, egalitarianism and task orientation, there are a range of behaviours that are expected: communicating a strong sense of “I” and personal accountability, casual work relationships with limited formality or protocol, strict adherence to schedules, etc. When members of a diverse team have conflicting values, it is only a matter of time before intentions come under question.

Example: Some of the most common expressions I hear from executives working globally, reveal trust issues as a result of questioning other’s intentions. They include: “What is the real reason for cc’ing me in that email?” “Why are they excluding us by speaking in a foreign language? What are they saying that they don’t want us to hear?” “He seems very friendly and approachable but then gets annoyed when I need help?” “No one gives me a chance to speak up in group meetings. Why is my voice less important?” “When I ask him directly if these time lines are possible, he says ‘yes’ but later I get a ton of emailed excuses for why he needs more time.” “He pretends to be my friend, but then in the group meeting points out my mistakes in front of everyone?” In the majority of cases, the intentions behind these actions are not meant to break down trust in a group. They are simply the result of a lack of awareness of how one’s behaviour can be misinterpreted due to differences in values.

Applying this Model: I have seen managers and members of global teams use Dr. Tway’s model to successfully analyse and identify strategies for increasing trust amongst culturally diverse groups. As an individual, one can take the following steps:

1 – Reflect on how your past experiences have led to a certain capacity for trusting others in the work environment, especially trusting those outside of your cultural orientation, age and gender. What biases exist and how might this impact your interactions in new situations with new people?

Look for signs of higher or lower capacities for trusting amongst your team members. Think about what behaviours might re-confirm any negative generalizations. Awareness is key. Statements that reveal a low capacity for trusting include, “I have worked with people from country X before, and they don’t seem to want to share all the information.” Or “People from country X have no respect for intellectual property. I’ve been burned in the past.” Or “Colleagues from country X never seem to want to listen to us.”

2 – Think about how your team members perceive competence. Is it important to speak openly about your own accomplishments, or would it be better to have them shared through a third party (another team member or manager)? How is your body language being interpreted by others? Will ascribe status work for you or against you?

Think about how you interpret the competence of others. Do you jump to the wrong conclusion based on your preferred communication style? Do you make assumptions based on something ascribed or something earned? How could this be impacting your willingness to trust others?

3 – Think about how your behaviour is interpreted by those who have a different set of values. You may be unintentionally offending others or simply sending mixed messages. Do not assume your behaviour is communicating the same thing to everyone.

Think about how you interpret others behaviour. It is easy to judge a person’s actions without removing your own lens and thinking about it from their perspective. Your cultural filter will distort the information you take in, leading to conclusions that are often inaccurate. Seek to truly understand what has happened before judging the person or situation and be conscious of confirmation bias.

Once trust and credibility are established, diverse teams can thrive even in the face of adversity. In the final part of this series, we will explore ways to leverage cultural differences in teams where there are high levels of trust and credibility. Organizations can benefit greatly from diversity amongst team members when they approach it as an advantage. By tapping into each individual’s inherent strengths one can maximize team performance and create teams that are agile and innovative.