Navigating Cross-Cultural Trust Barriers in Business Relationships

(This post was first published at www.Forbes.com on October 3, 2018)

Corporations are placing increasing value on cross-cultural diversity at all levels. Many also provide education to help employees understand different cultural norms that can impede collaboration, along with ways to work around those differences.

A barrier to trust

But I’d like to explore a more universal barrier that can arise in cross-cultural one-on-one relationships—and ways we can move past it.

When we interact with a colleague, boss, or subordinate from a different culture, I’ve noticed that, totally aside from varying cultural norms, there’s also a tendency to unwittingly assume some level of disconnection.

That is, even if no specific cultural variances are in play, we often don’t feel as “at home” with that person as we feel with someone from our own culture.

Even with the best of intentions, we just may be a little more careful and less openly communicative—and do this for no specific reason other than that we don’t think we “know” the other person that well. And sometimes this can become a business issue by impacting trust.

The interplay of two kinds of trust

It’s commonly recognized that:

  • There are two kinds of trust in business relationships: affective and cognitive.
  • Although all cultures experience both kinds of trust, in a general sense, different cultures will favor one kind of trust over the other.

In the U.S. and most of Europe, for example, business people usually rely on cognitive trust, which is earned by showing the other person that you know what you’re doing and are dependable.

A number of other business cultures tend to favor affective trust, which develops through knowing and bonding with the other person. This is also referred to as relational trust.

In my experience, however, there’s a degree of relational trust involved even in cultures where trust is predominantly cognitive, and vice versa.For example: If you want to think that the other person is good at his or her job, you are more likely to conclude that they are good at it—and you’ll tend to view it as an exception when they make a mistake. Where affective trust is absent, however, you’re less inclined to recognize a person’s achievements or to cut them slack for their mistakes.

This pattern is borne out by a 2013 study at the University of Pennsylvania1, which found that evaluations of the performance of an IT team were more favorable when the evaluators’ level of affective trust in the individual IT project managers was greater.

Likewise, there’s also a degree of cognitive trust involved even in cultures where trust is predominantly relational.

Closing the gap

Whenever a cross-cultural disconnection impacts performance, the solution will usually lie not in addressing specific cultural differences, but in pulling back and working to develop trust. In fact, understanding how to develop trust is useful in a broad spectrum of business relationships.

Whether you need to cultivate affective or cognitive trust or both,it’s best done through live, one-on-one interactions, not through emails, and, usually, not in group meetings.

Which kind of trust is more important in each case? The answer often depends not only on the culture of the person you are working with but what they are like as an individual.

Cultivating cognitive trust

For example, when individuals are less relationship-oriented and prefer sticking with concrete matters, you’ll need to cultivate cognitive trust, which involves more than convincing them that you “know your stuff”. It requires demonstrating that you have no other agenda than accurately assessing the situation and coming up with a solution that works.

While this is different from affective or relational trust, it’s cultivated not only by the quality of the suggestions, questions, and observations you come up with but the attitude you reflect when communicating with the other person. That person has to recognize your seriousness and your desire to be partners in the pursuit of truth.

There are no tricks or formulas involved here. You have to BE in earnest, and then it shows. And if thorny political or relational factors with third parties bear on the issues you’re discussing, you need to at least acknowledge them—whether you’re at liberty to describe them fully or only partially.

As you can imagine, when interacting with this type of individual, if you were to try to cultivate affective trust, it could come over as manipulative.

Cultivating affective trust 

With other individuals who are more relational, bridging the gap may involve both cognitive and affective trust or primarily affective trust.

And, no, developing affective trust doesn’t mean you just need to swap stories about family and hobbies–though in fact this may help because affective trust is founded on getting to “know” the other person.

Rather it will involve taking a degree of risk, being willing to express something about the nature of your interaction with the other person, your work situation, other colleagues, your own limitations, or your own personal concerns.

It could be something like one of the following:

“I’m wondering if we’re fully understanding each other. Do you think so?”

“I have a really hard time with Harry.”

“Do you think I talk too much at meetings? I thought I went on and on this morning.”

Affective trust and critical feedback

Ironically, affective trust can also be initiated when you need to give constructive feedback. But it depends on how you deliver that feedback. You can say:

“Ï think you need to keep a tighter rein on Bob.” Or. “I think you’re a little too cautious.”

And if, when you say it, you’re also non-verbally conveying positive feelings toward the other person, it can be a door opener.

It’s common knowledge that, if you want to make sure you’re in a positive disposition when you need to be critical, begin by offering honest praise for something the other person has done.

Although this is a much-used approach by consultants, mentors,managers, and coaches, it’s usually understood as a way to make the recipient more open to feedback because they’ve just been praised. I’ve found, however, that the effect on the criticizer may be even more important. By sincerely praising someone, you put yourself in a more positive disposition toward the person, and the person senses it.

You’re actually doing two things. You’re beginning to lay a foundation of affective trust by first praising the other person in a very open way, and then you’re building on that foundation by the manner in which you convey your feedback—that is, not like a judge but a friend.

Sensitivity and a calculated risk

Aside from special circumstances like giving feedback, you’ll find that the most effective way to cultivate relational trust is by trusting—that is, trusting that the other person will not respond negatively if you choose to be open and unguarded.

And it’s here that cross-cultural sensitivity may come into play, along with sensitivity to the other person as an individual. For example, is their culture uncomfortable with directness? Are they personally uncomfortable with directness?

As you can imagine, there’s no formula here either. One way or the other, one party has to put a toe in the water and see what happens. And if you’re the boss (or the mentor, colleague, or team leader), it will be up to you.

As a coach who often works to develop relational trust with the people I’m coaching, I’ve learned to trust that my openness will be positively responded to. Most people are looking for the opportunity to trust others.

But yes, sometimes—though not often—it does fall flat. That’s why it’s a risk. And even if this risk doesn’t initially payoff, it doesn’t mean that affective trust can’t be developed later.

Overall, if you exercise some sensitivity, it’s definitely worth it.

Finally, I think we need to be patient in developing cross-cultural relationships. Even when members of different cultures have come to enjoy a high degree of affective trust, it will sometimes take time before their relationships are as comfortable or “natural” as the relationship the other person has with people from their own culture.

The good news is that, the more we strive for trust, the more potential there is for extraordinary relationships both inside and outside of global businesses.


Footnote 1


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