New research on how to build trusted business relationships worldwide

How should you navigate cultural differences and build trust when doing business or managing teams internationally? Tyree Mitchell’s research could help.

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Trust is the building block of all relationships, but the way we build trust in business isn’t the same the world over. Tyree Mitchell is assistant professor at Louisiana State University School of Leadership and Human Resource Development. His latest book with Jeanne Brett, Searching for Trust in the Global Economy, shares findings from studying managers in 33 countries, revealing differences in how they nurture trust relationships. It also asks if the pandemic has changed how we make decisions about trust.

I spoke with Tyree about his research and ideas to improve relationships in virtual and global tech teams.

Tyree Mitchell

Tyree Mitchell

Susi O’Neill: Why did you focus on international differences in trust for your research?

Tyree Mitchell: Global economic development needs new business relationships. Negotiating them is tricky – there’s much uncertainty, vulnerability and unmet expectations. Trust is critical. When negotiators trust each other, businesses use fewer resources to prevent exploitation and have better economic outcomes.

Most research and theories on trust are from a Western perspective. Data from the World Values Survey shows different responses. For example, the US is higher on trust than Brazil.

To build relationships, you must understand how trust varies between cultures. We wanted to explore what that means when negotiating business relationships and understand from managers and executives how trust happens.

How do we decide if we’ll trust a business partner?

We learned from the 82 managers we interviewed four key actions they use to make trust decisions.

First, due diligence – searching for information about the new partner, including financial status, ratings and reviews and data gathering on social platforms like LinkedIn.

Second, brokering – a special introduction where a third party puts their reputation on the line. We particularly see this in East Asia.

Third, goodwill building – interacting socially to get to know the partner, like grabbing a coffee or going to a sports event together.

Finally, testing – getting the partner to act or react, like asking a question when you already know the answer. We want to know if they will be upfront about company difficulties or cover up problems. In the West, we use testing to check if you’re forthcoming and honest, as the assumption is you can be trusted. In East Asia, testing is about checking competency, as people tend to embellish things, so partners want to know if you can deliver what you promise.

From these actions, we found four standards for determining if someone is trustworthy — competence, openness, respect and rapport (CORR.) Competence means, are they capable with the knowledge and skills to deliver on their promise? Openness means are you honest and forthcoming? Respect means showing regard for one another, even if you don’t have shared values. Rapport refers to building affinity around shared values.

What were the main differences you saw between research participants?

We analyzed the 82 manager interviews using a framework based on regional differences in trust and the tightness of social norms.

There is a cultural difference in how people answer the question, can most people be trusted? For example, in India, the answer is more often ‘no’ and in Sweden, more often ‘yes,’ so we call India’ low-trust’ and Sweden’ high-trust.’ There are also differences in tightness and looseness of social norms and consequences for deviating. For example, China is high-trust and tight, the US is high-trust and loose, India is low-trust and tight, and Mexico is low-trust and loose.

To understand cultural differences in trust decisions, you must understand these differences. There are also differences in how different cultures decide to trust. East Asians emphasize testing more than Middle Easterners or Latin Americans. Latin Americans and Middle Easterners emphasize goodwill building more than East Asians.

Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia are lower trust. But in Latin America, rapport and establishing shared values are more important. Respect for cultural differences is vital in the Middle East and South Asia. This may be because the institutions that monitor and sanction deviance from norms in ‘tight,’ but more diverse cultures don’t cross ethnic boundaries.

We spoke with a manager from Palestine doing business with Israelis. This could be seen as betraying their community, but they needed to grow the business. Here, the emphasis is on respect: We are different, but we respect one another.

What were the most surprising research findings?

East Asia and the West focus primarily on the business relationship. If there’s a business relationship, the personal connection follows. China and UK’s behavior was similar, but social norms are different.

On brokering a relationship through a third party, one US manager asked, “What’s in it for the person making the introduction?” That’s not considered in the ‘tight’ East Asian culture – if the third party puts their reputation on the line, they’re good to deal with. In this culture, someone can be outcast if they bring embarrassment on themselves or their family – the stakes are higher.

How can transparency be improved between partners?

Share information openly and honestly. Anticipate being asked questions about past performance and how you see the future relationship. Your potential partner may interpret reluctance to share as hiding, so when you can’t share information, explain why.

Signal you’re engaged and want to learn more by asking questions. Trust is a two-way street.

Are there differences in how people build rapport and trust in person versus online?

During the pandemic (in the fall of 2020), we went back to the same managers we spoke to before to ask how they developed new relationships and made trust decisions virtually. A manager from Brazil said they found ways of keeping the spirit of face-to-face using technology, as talking to someone online is the same way to make a connection.

Could virtual reality (VR) and the virtual office help bridge the geographic divide?

Engineers and scientists I’ve interviewed for other research reacted negatively to the idea that VR could replace or substitute for face time. Personally, I’m comfortable using video conferencing, but I’ve found using a video game character awkward. I like the possibilities, but our ability as humans to get up to speed and be open to it can be a challenge.

The reluctance to use virtual technology could be partly generational. When we re-interviewed managers during the pandemic, one manager from Palestine mentioned that his father initially felt the business could survive without using technology. However, when it was time to make a serious business decision, his father would ask: “Can you send an email or do something?”

What advice can you share for managers of international tech teams?

Other research shows challenges in inter-cultural teams include violations of respect or hierarchy, prejudice and lack of common ground. Communication styles vary – in East Asia, it’s more indirect, but in Latin America and the Middle East, it’s more direct.

To unite a team, create a team charter representing how the team works as partners. Explain your objective, role and how people should communicate and be accountable. This builds trust and positive expectations.

Don’t leave anything to chance. While putting together this charter, your conversations will help define how you’ll deliver. If someone doesn’t show up to a meeting, what happens next? A shared team mental model about what to expect reduces uncertainty. Nothing is perfect, but the charter negates some pitfalls by getting collective agreement.

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About authors

Susi O’Neill is the Editor-in-Chief of Secure Futures and host of business tech podcast Insight Story. She’s a seasoned creative who’s led business content programs for brands including EY, Mastercard and Unilever. Off the clock, she’s a musician and performer who gives international performances playing theremin, the world’s first electronic instrument.