Team management: how to build trust



“When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer”

(Corrie ten Boom)

Last week I trained a group of junior managers on coaching their team. One of the topics on the agenda was giving and receiving feedback, another was practicing coach sessions.  Even though the example in this article is about junior managers learning about coaching a team and getting feedback, it really is about building trust. In business it is equally important to understand how you build trusting relationships across cultures – chances are some of the people on your team or people you do business with, come from an entirely different cultural background then you.

To give the young managers the opportunity to practice on coaching, they performed several role-plays. One of the guys, let’s call him Andy, made very little eye contact with the person (we’ll call him Frank) he was coaching. In fact, he was constantly writing down notes.

After the role-play had finished Frank told Andy “the lack of eye contact made him feel uncomfortable, it made him think Andy was not genuinely interested in what he had to say and therefore didn’t feel like speaking freely”. Andy was dumbfound. It had been his aim to give Frank space to think and speak, by limiting the eye contact.

During the coffee break the likely reason for Andy’s lack of eye contact became clear; his granddad was Indonesian. Even though Andy was born and raised in The Netherlands, an unwritten rule with his mother’s side of the family was that strong eye contact is impolite. Whereas Western children generally get told “Look at me when I speak to you”, Eastern children get told “Not to be so cheeky” when they look other people in the eye for too long.

We can imagine the impact of these messages given over and over again. Even when Andy was never specifically told it was rude to “stare”,  this is nevertheless how he was taught to behave through role-modeling, if part of his family made limited eye contacted.  Looking at the role-play Andy and Frank performed it is clear they have different methods to build trust and Andy’s method did not work with Frank.

This is the moment when the train enters the tunnel and we are unable to see what is going on. It is so easy to imagine the frustration, irritation and possibly even conflict that may arise as a result. Don’t jump off the train though and don’t sit still either. Pro-actively try to get an understanding of how trust works for the person you are dealing with.

How do different cultures build trust?

Richard Lewis, a British specialist in the field of cross cultural communication, designed his Lewis model many years ago.

how to build trust

In this triangle shaped model many national cultures are placed showing how they relate to each other. Each of the points of this triangle represents the extreme of one of three categories:

  1. Linear-Active cultures: such as Northern Europe where people trust institutions. They will trust you if you do what you say you will do and if you are consistent. The truth is perceived as a scientific truth. Eye contact shows you are honest, open and have nothing to hide
  2. Multi-Active cultures: such as Southern Europe where trust is found in in-group intimates. People show their weaknesses to convey trust. Compassion is key and the truth is flexible. Eye contact is strong because it supports building relationships
  3. Reactive cultures: mostly found in Asia. Reciprocity is the way to build trust. There is no such thing as the truth. Protecting face is of paramount importance, which is why reactives avoid conflict (someone will lose face). Eye contact is perceived as provocative and therefore avoided.

Of course, as I stated in a previous article, this is a very simplified way of describing these three categories as there are many other aspects to consider. Such as the fact that many people are hybrid. I, for instance, score as high on linear-active as on multi-active traits and even display some reactive traits.

However, with regards to this article the brief description will suffice. Let’s get back to Andy; what can he do to create trust with his team so he can have effective coach sessions with them and thus manage his team properly?

Building trust with your cross-cultural team

Regarding this specific matter I would advice Andy to develop on four points:

  1. Understand that different ways of building and experiencing trust exist and that his own way of doing so may (and did indeed) bring him the opposite result
  2. Accept there are no rights or wrongs only different “methods” and refrain himself from making a judgment
  3. Make an effort to maintain more eye contact (tip: leave the writing pad out of the way) and accept a certain level of discomfort to start with. Why should he do this? Because this is how society generally operates around here.
  4. Make his reports (and the team he works with, for instance his own manager) aware of how he experiences eye contact. Ask them to help him develop his ability to use eye contact as a means to build trust. Regularly ask for feedback from the team if he is “getting it right”.

From my perspective this will result in a lot of credit for Andy. Point four specifically shows his ability to lead a team by example. It creates an atmosphere of openness because Andy himself shows what his points for improvement are and pro-actively seeks support with his staff.

Maybe as an entrepreneur you think the fourth point is not applicable to you; you couldn’t possibly ask your customers or suppliers for feedback. Indeed, it may not be wise to approach all your business contact with such a question, you do need to tread lightly here. But will really none of them be open to this? But people are far more helpful than we generally think they are; but we have to believe they are. Asking for feedback in itself may already build trust. What you need to do now is trust yourself to know whom you can ask and whom not.

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Photo: Flickr, Lrargerich

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About the author

Marianne Mol

Marianne Mol is the founder of Munro Coaching & Training. She delivers leadership and team development tracks that improve effective co-operation throughout the organisation. Marianne lived and worked in the U.K. for a number of years, where she gained a wealth of cross cultural experience through coaching team leaders from various cultural backgrounds with NCR Ltd. a global American corporation. Marianne is a Licensed Partner with Richard Lewis Communications, a leading organisation in the field of cross cultural awareness, knowledge and skills. Find Marianne Mol on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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