Four Things You Need to Do to Build Trust in Cross - Cultural Teams

Author: Joy Huang

Recently I conducted a team-building workshop for a R&D group in a multinational company that is rapidly expanding its op erations in China. Very early on in the workshop, one participant raised the question tha t almost everyone else also had but didn't a sk: "why should I trust them?" "Them" is their Chinese colleagues who a re learning the crafts from them. At the top of his mind is job security. Although the charter for the Chinese R&D team is to develop products for t he Chinese market, he was not convinced that it would not affect his own job in the U.S.

Numerous research studies have indicated that mutual trust is one of the top issues that stand in the way of successful cross - cultural teams. People do not readily trust others who are different - be it their looks, their languages or their backgrounds. Without trust, teams will not be productive, and partnerships will not be successful. What can you do to foster trust in a cross- cultural team environment?

1. Recognize that we are different

As simple as it sounds, many people who work in a cross - cultural environment do not acknowledge this fact. Sure, we can act a little differently sometimes, they say. But bottom line, we are all professional business people, or quite simply, we are all just people. But the truth is, not only are our behaviors different, so are our belief systems. The differences in our belief systems are the causes for potential conflicts, frustrations and misunderstandings if we do not fully understand them. Investing resources early on to understand the deep - down value differences is the first step to increase chances of productive cross - cultural teamwork.

2. Establish team goals, roles & responsibilities and norms

Chinese employees and their western counterparts, for example, usually have somewhat different expectations on job roles and responsibilities and how to best achieve team and personal goals. So establishing a common team goal and clarifying how roles and responsibilities are divided are of paramount importance in such cross - cultural environment. Team members from both cultures should have an opportunity to provide input and feedback. This is also preferably done in a group session where the process is transparent to every one. The agreement needs to be very clear and detailed that outlines some scenarios and examples. It is also helpful to establish some norms, such as how quickly emails should be replied, how soon phone calls should be returned, or what to do if you want help from a co-worker.

3. Address, not avoid, sensitive issues

Management in cross - cultural environment need to pay particular attention to sensitive issues that, if ignored, could escalate into bigger problems. In the case of the multinational company I mentioned earlier, the lurking elephant in the room is the issue of job security. If left unaddressed, the team will have a difficult time focusing on the tasks at hand and work together as a productive unit. These can be complex issues for mid-level managers to address who feel somewhat helpless because the issues are "beyond my pay grade". If that is the case, it is necessary to escalate to the senior management who need to allocate resources to help address it.

4. Over communicate

Communication cannot be emphasized enough in a cross - cultural team. Managers should organize regular formal and informal meetings and activities where team members can exchange information. Happy hours and team building activities are great ways to allow everyone to get to know each other on a personal level. At these functions, managers should properly plan and ask team members from different cultures to mingle and socialize with others they are not familiar with. Without planning, people of similar backgrounds tend to socialize mainly with each other - after all, it takes much less efforts. Managers should also make it part of their job to collect feedback on the current processes and be ready to make adjustments on an on-going basis.

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