An old Arabic saying accounts that the reason humans were given words was to counter what their body would tell against their will. Establishing trust among people from different cultures can be a true challenge. Indeed, human beings, as all other mammals, rely immensely on non-verbal cues to read other’s intentions. Further, often cross-cultural interactions display very different types of non-verbal cues or do not allow for non-verbal cues to be seen, as many relationships nowadays are virtual. As such, it is important for the global professional to adopt a set of behaviors that will establish trust universally.
To fully seize how trust is built, we must go back to our infancy. How did we, as children, learn to trust certain people while distrusting others? During my pregnancy while on my way to Latin America, I had the privilege of sitting on the plane next to a renowned child psychiatrist. Becoming a mother frightened me, and I asked him if he could give me a few tips on how to become a decent one. His answer was that the most important element of a parent-child relationship is trust, and his advice on establishing trust was to always follow through. Whether you threaten or reward, always follow through. This, he added, will make you extremely reliable and safe in the eyes of your child, which is a huge component of self-confidence that all children need to develop to thrive.
As I examined my international career in which I manage sourcing agents from cultures as rich and varied as Cameroon, Russia and China that sell products to the USA, Europe and Canada while reporting to a Brazilian employer, I realize that establishing trust among people who rarely saw each other face to face required the exact same procedure: following through. If you tell your sourcing agent you will get back to her within 24 hours, you must do it. If you tell your client you will honor his claim, you must honor it. If you tell your employer you will be present for a daily conference call, you must be present every day. Trust is built through a series of actions and behaviors that either create trust or derail it. There is nothing more frustrating and detrimental to a relationship than to realize you have been wasting your time waiting for so-and-so to get back to you to then learn he never does. You might make the mistake of waiting for him twice, but then reason takes over and that person gets branded in your memory file as someone unreliable, disrespectful and unprofessional.
In international business, following through, listening attentively and deciphering what people are telling you (especially if they come from a high context culture where speaking directly is considered rude) is the challenge of the global employee. Developing a blank and receptive mind denuded of stereotypes and preconceived ideas, following through, walking-the-talk, and knowing how to bring the best in people are all part of the tactical steps one needs to embrace to become a trustworthy global employee, someone who is known to have the ability to move the project forward and unlock complex cultural problems.