Breaking down trust barriers


If someone were to ask what was the single most common topic what I hear my clients and former colleagues discuss, I’d say the “How to trust people you don’t like” episode by Adam Grant in his Work-Life podcast, hit the nail on the head. Working with multi-cultural organizations that recruit globally and locally, functional teams are often diverse if not divisive to say the least. Demanding workloads, challenging environments, commitment (sometimes over-commitment) to the cause, and at times unequal pay for different types of staff create a myriad of difficulties around building trust between colleagues.

Adam Grant identifies two factors that are key to building trust: similarity and vulnerability.  He accurately points out that we “often rely on those colleagues we like more… regardless of competence” and that we “trust those who appear similar to one another”. Think about how office dynamics often break down into cliques of like-minded, like-acting individuals as they once did in our youth. In multi-national/cultural organization this often translates into colleagues consulting mostly with those in their immediate surroundings from similar cultural and educational backgrounds.

Luckily with a bit of focus and effort we can move past the potential for group-think or disconnect. Grant refers to performance expert Coyle when discussing how groups build trust. “Stress forces people to be vulnerable together”. During normal day-to-day interactions at work, we are status oriented and we “don’t want to portray a lack of confidence and competence…being vulnerable thus brings trust and closeness.”

This explains how my experience as an election monitor built trust between colleagues who otherwise may have been unable to overcome the boundaries of hierarchy, geographic location, and cultural differences. Similarly, one UN agency’s staff described a flood response operation as the only time when they felt as a ‘real team’. Everyone was in it together, side by side working under the stress of the situation and cooperating to ensure operational success.

So how can we build trust in absence of an organization-wide common mission or emergency response? Grant cautions not to ‘create’ stressful situation as it would only be ‘fake vulnerability’. However, through a bit of creativity you can find how to break down the trust barriers in a multi-national organization. What’s the shared experience that will allow individuals of all levels on your team to be vulnerable to each other? Which experience will allow your team to feel the pressure to deliver, while observing each other’s strengths in the process. How can you find common ground that goes beyond culture? Work with us around building your team building event! For more information, look here.

Adam Grant’s Work-Life episode “How to trust people you don’t like”. from March 28 2018.

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