How Build Trust Across Different Cultures

Liz Guthridge
Liz Guthridge

On the trust barometer, is the pressure rising or dropping for CEOs? It depends if one sees the glass half empty or half full. The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer showed an overall decline in trust this year, largely due to a drop in trust of government in many countries. Trust in CEOs stayed steady, at 43%. Yet storm clouds could be on the horizon for global business leaders, considering that geography increasingly is playing a larger role in trust levels.

The Edelman data is showing more gaps in trust related to geographical location. Since geography and culture are so tightly linked, leaders should start to pay attention to the implications of cultural and geographical differences.

Different world cultures have a profound affect on building trustworthy, long-term relationships, according to Stuart Friedman, CEO at Global Context LLC, which provides cross-cultural consulting, training and workshops for global executives and organizations.

World cultures also affect how we meet, present, propose, sell and negotiate, Friedman observes. To say it another way, our culture influences how we interact with others and what we do. Even more significant, our culture does more than surround us; it’s embedded in our brain.

Recent brain imaging and eye-tracking studies have confirmed earlier cultural behavior studies. These studies show that people from different cultures process the world differently and literally see different things. For example:

• When looking at pictures or scenes, Westerners tend to focus on objects while Asians tend to focus on contexts and relationships.

• We recognize facial emotions better when we’re looking at people similar to us in terms of our ethnic group and nationality.

• Asians tend to view close relatives, such as their mother, as part of their self, while Westerners tend to see themselves as independent.

While the science is convincing, it’s generally not compelling enough to motivate many CEOs to improve their cultural intelligence, according to Friedman.

“CEOs have a lot of pride in their past accomplishments and years of experience, which got them to where they are today,” Friedman said. “This only amplifies their cultural blind spots about the importance of understanding cultural issues.”

If you’re a PR advisor to a global CEO, how do you convince your CEO to take actions that will prevent cultural miscues that can contribute to mistrust?

Try helping your CEO adopt a few positive “Tiny Habits,” Friedman suggested, assuming your CEO is interested in being viewed as more trustworthy by people in other cultures.

Tiny Habits is the brainchild of Dr. B.J. Fogg. With Tiny Habits, you first focus on creating a new habit that you want. (That’s why the CEO’s mindset around culture and trust is so important.)

How could this work in practice? Try three Tiny Habits related to business travel. They could be: For my next international business trip, I, the CEO, will commit to:

1. Learn one key national value of the country—that is, something that is an integral part of the national psyche—before getting on the plane.

2. Ask one local businessperson what he or she thinks is the single biggest misunderstanding that Americans have about doing business in that country.

3. Observe the surroundings, especially the physical space, and how people interact with one another, including the distance they stand from each other and the gestures they use while talking.

To make these easy for the CEO, work with the CEO’s executive assistant and a local country contact to set these actions into motion. That helps the CEO comply without any additional motivation.

When the CEO returns after the trip, be sure to ask about the experience. These small steps can help the CEO increase cultural awareness. In time, by adding more experiences in other geographies, the CEO will improve his or her ability to relate to those in different cultures, which improves trustworthiness as well as increases cultural intelligence.

As our “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world becomes more unpredictable, those who can embrace and bridge cultural diversity will not only survive, but also thrive. PRN


Liz Guthridge is the managing director of Connect Consulting Group and a certified Tiny Habits coach. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.