I was conducting a seminar in Egypt for multicultural leaders and dealing with the subject of cultural differences. The audience was almost completely North American and Western European (individualistic cultures) and I was sharing about how people from collectivists cultures tend to think and interpret the world differently. During one of the breaks, Carlos, one of the few Asians in the room, came up to me and said, “Man, that’s me! That is totally the way I think”
Differences in interpreting the world around us are just one of the difficulties we face in multi-cultural leadership. The current series is about how do be a better multi-cultural leader. Part 1 was an introduction, Part 2 was about high-context and low-context communication. Part 3 and Part 4 were about direct and indirect communication. In Part 5, I talked about the importance of trust and things that break trust, and today I will share some specifics as to why cultural differences create trust problems.
Quick review: Trust is the foundation of all human relationships and can take a long time to build and be quickly destroyed.
So for today our question is: how do cultural differences make building and maintaining trust even more difficult? Here are a few reasons.
1. Communication is harder. In this blog from the past I talked about communication differences between cultures. These differences can be seen as withholding information which is known to break trust (from my last blog.)
2. Ethics are different. Different cultures tend to view relationship and responsibilities differently, which can lead to misunderstandings about honesty and dishonesty. As we discussed in the last blog, this can break trust.
3. Western reliance on contracts and non-Western reliance on relationships. Westerners value contracts in a business relationship and non-Westerners value relationships. For non-Westerners, the relationship is what matters, so agreements can change as the relationship changes. Not wanting to have a contract or not abiding by the written contract can be seen as deceitfulness and unreliability to Westerners– something that will break trust.
4. Leadership values and styles. Leadership and management styles differ greatly between cultures. Westerners working for non-Western managers tend to feel controlled by management and want more independence. Non-Westerners working for Western managers usually want more guidance, instruction, and oversight than the Western manager is willing to give. Both situations destroy trust.
5. Different attitudes toward time. Some cultures are “clock time” cultures in which appointments are governed by the clock and tend to be exact. Other cultures are “even time” cultures and starting times tend to be very loose according to the clock. This is a problem because lack of promptness or precision in deadlines and meetings often destroys trust in Western people’s thinking.
These are some important issues to think about and deal with in multi-cultural leadership.
Next time we will talk about how the leader of international teams can build trust among members.