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Valuing Diversity and Building Trust

Building Cross-Cultural Trust with Subordinates, Peers and Customers

Do people trust you? As a leader are you trusted by your peers, subordinates, customers, suppliers and superiors?

Most of us find it easy to build trust-filled relationships with people who are similar to us or with people we feel comfortable with. Of course it's easier to build rapport if we share the same values, cultural norms or language. If we understand the same jokes, went to the same school or watch the same TV shows we have something in common.

Howver, in the multicultural workforce that exists today we work with (or provide services to) people with whom we have very little in common. We tend to avoid people we don't know. We tend to ignore people whose ideas and communication styles are different from our own. We tend to get defensive if someone expresses a different view or presents a different approach to solving a problem. We generally limit our time with these different people so we can seek out relationships with others we feel more comfortable with.

This can be dangerous for leaders. If you are not comfortable with a subordinate it will affect the way you coach, mentor or guide that person.  If you are unaware of the cultural norms of a customer you may offend or misunderstand him.

Valuing diversity -- and finding ways to utilize diversity as a strategic advantage -- are both critical competencies for leaders in the U.S.A. in the 21st century.

Diversity and Trust

The challenge of building cross-cultural trust requires much more than understanding personality types or dominant communication style. In order to build trust there are specific behaviors that must be demonstrated. In order to build trust there are certain agreements that must be negotiated. In order to build trust there are unavoidable conversations that must be shared. Building trust is not an intellectual exercise. It is an interactive dance.

The Reina[1] Trust and Betrayal Model™ is a helpful tool for understanding the complex elements which add up to trust.

Capacity for Trust

Our capacity for trust is affected by everything we have been exposed to in our lives. Capacity for trust refers to each person's natural tendencies (and their readiness) to trust self and to trust others. Capacity for trust can be measured on four scales that help us look at our behavioral and thought patterns relative to trusting self and trusting others.

For example, some people need lots of detailed information and prefer sequential problem-solving steps. Others may prefer few details and love group brainstorming as a problem-solving approach. And in addition to individual style, different cultures demonstrate trust in different ways.

In the U.S. business environment we generally expect people to maintain direct eye contact when we are talking with them. But in many African American and Hispanic/Latino families, children are taught to look down in deference to parents and other authority figures. Direct eye contact is viewed as disrespectful.

When we value diversity we begin to see there is more than one set of behaviors and decisions that can lead to trust-filled relationships. Effective leaders are able to identify individual employee or customer styles and create a work environment that supports high levels of productivity and trust.

Transactional Trust

Another part of the Reina Trust & Betrayal Model™ focuses on the three types of trust that are evident in human interaction.

When you trust someone (or when you don't trust someone) you can usually point to one or more specific interactions you've had related to their competence, their communication or their character.

Competence Trust. Trusting a coworker's competence is critical. We need to believe the coworker has the skills needed to complete the job. Unfortunately, many leaders confuse competence with comfort. Sometimes employees are judged more harshly simply because their boss or coworkers are uncomfortable about one or more characteristics the employee represents.

For example, if an employee speaks with an accent, sometimes he might be perceived as not having the skills or education required, even though he is performing the job daily.

Your subordinates depend on your ability and willingness to recognize their skills and talents, or to help them develop the skills needed to be viewed as competent.

Character Trust. Trust in a co-worker's character is also important. Have you ever worked with someone who made promises they didn't keep? After that employee missed several deadlines or failed to come through with a key contact you stopped depending on them. Trust was broken and perhaps you felt betrayed.

But sometimes there are cultural factors influencing the relationship. This is where understanding and valuing diversity becomes really important for leaders in the workplace.

When you find yourself judging someone you don't know very well based on what you consider to be group characteristics, you are part of the problem. A common example is the supervisor who is interviewing applicants to fill a position but finds herself avoiding young female candidates because of a belief that they are likely to leave in a few months or a few years to start a family.

Challenge yourself to recognize when you are allowing your stereotypes about people who represent a certain group affect your judgment.

Communication Trust. Communication trust is so much a part of our daily interaction with others we often don't think about it! Just about everyone we talk to, listen to, or read email from is evaluated on whether we believe them, like them or trust them.

Much work has been done in the workplace around communication styles; still most of us tend to gravitate toward those who have a communication style complementary to our own. We avoid those whose communication style is less comfortable for us.

If you are going to be an exemplary leader you must develop the ability to generate trust on many levels. You must not only model character, communication and contractual trust, but you must also develop the ability within your subordinate staff for them to be able work effectively with a broad range of coworkers and customers.


A third part of the Reina model delves into the feeling of betrayal that occurs when trust has been broken and provides seven steps for healing from betrayal.

Now, every one of us has experienced betrayal of some kind. Most often when I say "betrayal of trust" people quickly recall a sad or painful experience they had in a relationship with a lover or family member.

But if you think about it, there are many betrayals of trust in the workplace. Many times these betrayals are unintentional! An employee thinks she is doing the right thing but it doesn't meet your expectations or needs. You feel betrayed that the employee didn't accomplish the goal. The employee might feel betrayed and thinking you were not clear in expressing the desired outcome or that you provided insufficient direction. Another example of unintentional betrayal might occur in a company that must cut costs and announces a plan to reduce staff by 5 percent. That feels like a betrayal to the workforce, even though it can't be avoided.

Cross Cultural Breakdown in Trust

When there is a breakdown in trust we feel uncomfortable, angry or confused. When that breakdown occurs between people from different cultural groups it is even harder to heal.

Adding to the challenge, people bring their experiences away from work with them when they report for duty each day. This is unavoidable.

Imagine if you were an employee who uses a wheelchair. Your morning routine is quite different than most other employees. Your travel between home and work requires different adjustments. When you go shopping people make assumptions about your intelligence, your abilities and your needs which are often incorrect.

You arrive at work expecting to be valued for your education, your skills, your ideas and the contribution you make to the department's success. And if you are lucky, you get that. But you also get people who think they are being friendly or funny as they joke about the great, close-up parking space reserved just for you. And you also get passed over for promotion because people simply don't "see" you (or anyone who needs a wheelchair to get around) as a high-potential, fast-track employee in line for the next promotion.

Leaders who understand that diversity can be a strategic advantage are careful to evaluate their assumptions and perceptions about each employee. They work hard to separate their stereotypes about groups from their understanding of each individual.

Leadership Skills for the 21st Century

If you want to be a great leader in the 21st century you need more than technical skills and intellectual knowledge. You must also have the relationship skills that will help you to be effective in a multicultural environment.

Are you comfortable leading a team full of people who represent more cultural elements than you can name or count?

Are you able to communicate effectively with people who have different patterns for dealing with conflict, generating ideas, showing respect or expressing humor?

Have you exposed yourself to heroes and achievers from cultures other than your own? There are men and women in every ethnic group, every age group, every religious group and every educational level who have accomplished great things.

Your skill in building trust might not be measured by a written test. Instead it will be measured daily by your behavior and annually by the productivity of your team or department.

Tips for Building Trust

First, look at yourself. There's no escape from your own behavior. Trust is a two-way street. So, do you establish clear boundaries and keep your agreements? Are you consistent in the way you interact with others? Do you focus on mutual success?

You can create a trusting environment within your department or organization by proactively managing expectations. This requires you and others involved being explicit about what the desired outcomes are and the behavior expected while working toward those goals.

In a multicultural environment this can sometimes be a challenge. So it is very important that you demonstrate interest and respect for different approaches and styles. If you as the leader are comfortable interacting with people from different cultural groups, the people working with you will develop that same comfort.

And remember: when we talk about different cultural groups we are not limited to race and ethnicity! One of the biggest challenges for leaders in the 21st century is working effectively with people from different age groups. Religion has also become a more prominent challenge as scheduling, dress codes and food service are affected by the need to respond to religious norms of our workers and customers. And people with disabilities have become more visible and more active. These factors, and other dimensions of diversity, require us to be willing to make cultural adjustments.

Building trust with a multicultural customer base requires you to begin with an honest desire to understand the needs and expectations of your customers. Whether you are providing a service or manufacturing a product you must find ways to learn the customer's point of view. This may include focus groups, periodic surveys, or something as simple as asking each customer for feedback at each encounter.

As a leader your success is often judged by the competence of the people you are working with. So encouraging subordinate staff and peers to be at their best is important. You can jumpstart excellent performance by letting people know you recognize their talents on a regular basis. Don't take anyone's skills or talents for granted! Let other people make as many decisions as possible -- especially those decisions that affect their daily productivity. This sends a message that you trust them and they will in turn show more respect and trust in you.

You Must Be the Example

Whether you are working with one other person to accomplish a specific project, or with dozens of people as part of an organization, your responsibility as a leader is to be a guide on the path to success. You can achieve certain goals without developing trust; but why would you want to?

As a leader you are a major influence on whether or not your multicultural team works together in trust-filled ways. And you are a critical link in insuring your team can provide excellent service to your multicultural customers.

Build trust by paying attention to the impact of culture on communication.

Build trust by paying attention to the impact of culture on the assumptions you make about character.

Build trust by paying attention to the impact of culture on the learning and demonstration of competence in your work teams.

And finally, build trust by creating an environment where everyone is valued and can make a contribution.



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