How to Build Trust Across Cultures

Aug 24, 2023 | 0 comments

Trust is the foundation of leadership. 

Patrick Lencioni wrote an important little book called “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and says this: 

“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”

There is a single key factor that makes this kind of team possible. 

Trust. 

Even with homogeneous teams, building trust is one of the hardest things to achieve. 

How does a cross-cultural team build this kind of trust? 

How Cultures Build Trust

A Tanzanian pastor once asked my wife and me to do a midweek ministry presentation at a multi-cultural church plant in the heart of Birmingham, Alabama. We were excited for this opportunity! 

On the day of the presentation, we were running later than our American sensibilities were comfortable with. Knowing things would start soon, upon arrival we unloaded the car and burst through the door with purpose and apology, ready to set up the projector and prep for the presentation. Our Tanzanian brother had had a different plan. 

He calmly sat us down for tea and cookies. 

We were quite uncomfortable with this. Are they taking this presentation seriously? Do they really want us to be here? Sensing our distress, our pastor friend smiled and assured us that people will “be here when they get here” — and that this meeting is more important to him than the presentation. 

Here’s what we learned that day: 

Personal connection builds trust in Tanzanian culture. 

After a leisurely 30-minute chat, we set up the projector, people began coming to the meeting, and we started 30 minutes late. The whole thing went extremely well. The biggest win being that we had built a trusting relationship with a new friend. 

Baby, you’re moving way too fast. 

There are two ways people build trust. 

  1. With ability and expertise (Competency-based)
  2. With rapport and relationship (Connection-based)

In America, trust is built with competency. In fact, Americans are as far over on the spectrum of trust-building as a culture can get! There are several northern European countries where this is also true. 

As Americans, we assumed our Tanzanian friend would be totally fine with us speaking at his congregation because we knew what we were doing. He had heard us speak at a previous event. He knew we were good at it, would bring a quality visual presentation, and that his congregation would not be bored. But in that’s not what built trust. We built trust over tea.

If we view competency-based trust and connection-based trust as a continuum, many African, Middle Eastern, and South American cultures are far on the connection-based side. Herein lies the conflict. 

Not right or wrong, just different? 

Trust can get dicey because, in some cultures, the extreme American ethos of competency-based trust is a character issue. Many cultures see Americans as superficial and untrustworthy because we build trust with competency over connection. I once said “Nice to meet you” to a Russian guy I had just met — and his reply was, “How do you know? You haven’t met me yet.” 


Connection takes time. 

Understanding the way your host culture builds trust is vital for an effective ministry. Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map is a helpful resource for navigating these differences. 

But what about our team?

Our team includes an American, a Korean, a German, a Tanzanian, and a Russian. 
What about us?  
You might wonder.

Building trust on a cross-cultural team is hard and time consuming. No matter which cultures are involved, it will not happen overnight. Keeping this spectrum of trust in mind, here are three strategies for building trust amid diversity. 

1. Where do we find common ground? 

Start shallow and go deep. Find common interests in music, sports, movies, or cross-stitching. It doesn’t matter. Find common ground through interests. This is the fastest way to build immediate rapport and makes trust deposits that will show instant yield.

After that, go deeper and explore joint purpose and vision. Taking the time to craft a common vision pays off. Learn why each person is a part of this team, in this place, during this the season. 

Hiring a Growability® coach can also be a great way for your team to craft a meaningful vision that will also be a guiding principle for years to come. 

2. Make food and drinks a part of your meetings.

This is a truth around the globe. Food brings us together. I enjoy watching old episodes of the documentary series, “Parts Unknown” with the late Anthony Bourdain. The fascinating common denominator is food. He talks about life stories, national customs and politics, along with culture and the economy while at a table eating the local cuisine. Of course, he was famous (which helps), but the program manifestly shows how eating together breaks down barriers and builds trust. If you are an American, you probably need to learn how to do this better. At your next staff meeting, try bringing food into the equation. Sure, it can be a little more complicated — but the trust-building payoff is worth it. 

3. Be thoughtful with your communication.

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a group of students from Ghana. When I present to an American audience, I am supremely conscious of starting on time. I then try to finish early, allowing time for questions. In America, this is a gift and builds all kinds of trust with the audience. For my Ghanian audience, I still honored my time limits. But I took more time at the beginning of the presentation to build a relationship with my students. They responded to this positively.

When communicating with your cross-cultural team, remember that every person is building trust on this sliding scale of friendship-trust and ability-trust. 

Communicate accordingly.  

Does your team lean toward relationship or productivity?  
Both are important for every team. But understanding where your team members fall on this scale is valuable information for trust building. 

Trust is the key to everything for team building. A lack of trust among team members will keep a team dysfunctional. With consideration and thoughtfulness, it is possible to build a dynamic team no matter where any members land on the scale of trust. 

Would you like help to build a healthy cross-cultural team? 

Join Amy Young and me for four weeks in September talking about this and other key skills that help multicultural teams. Get your spot here.

Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

Bernie Anderson

Empowering next-generation leaders, business and non-profit consultant, writer, and speaker.

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