Is Cultural Intelligence Enough to Repair Trust?

Oct 2, 2019 · 4 min read
Photos by Larentiu Morariu and Szilvia Basso at

Culturally intelligent innovation begins with changing our impulse from Why can’t you see it like I do? Help me see what I might be missing!” D.Livermore

Besides the types of deception (integrity or competence) highlighted in my last article, it is also necessary to consider how different cultures define trust when evaluating the best repair tactics. Most of us who have only lived in one country leans towards ethnocentrism (i.e. believing that values and standards of one’s own culture can be applied to everybody else). Hence we are likely to commit cultural faux pas when trying to apply certain repair tactics with colleagues from a different culture.

Sarah Bryant who specialises in cultures within global business underlines how different cultures have different norms and expectations about establishing trust. These are equally relevant for repairing trust. For example, in India, Brazil, West Africa, and Arab countries, small talk is necessary to establish a connection and eventually build trust and is therefore equally important in repairing trust. Conversely, in Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia, speaking directly and avoiding personal information is essential to build trust. Hence, getting straight to the heart of an issue is required for repairing trust.

Awareness of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

In a company that is based in one country but has a multicultural environment (employees from different nationalities), cultural differences can sometimes impede the repair of trust.

In her presentation, Erin Meyer underlines the cultural differences in accepting conversational silences. She states that the French, English, American and Spanish are very uncomfortable with pauses (over 3 seconds) in conversation as they interpret silences as criticism or dishonesty. Conversely, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean and Chinese appreciate these pauses. They attached neutral or positive connotations to conversational silences, as in their eyes they reflect the attributes of a good listener.

So imagine a Chinese co-worker (Li Wei) wanting to regain the trust of an English colleague (James) and to do so, pauses often during a conversation to let James know that he’s a good listener, and he deserves his trust back. Unfortunately, James is likely to interpret Li Wei’s silences as a reflection of dishonesty and he will go on mistrusting Li Wei.

Resisting Unconscious Bias

The second step is to resist social unconscious stereotypes about certain groups of people (unconscious bias) in the workplace. We are more inclined to negatively judge a colleague different from us (e.g. in age, race, accent or academic background).

Scott Horton, a diversity consultant, suggests a quick exercise to force us to confront our unconscious biases. He encourages his participants to write the name of 10 people they trust implicitly in one column. In the next column, they have to write the gender, race, age, sexual orientation, education, disability and marital status of each person. Through this exercise, people realise that those they pick are very much similar to themselves. This simple exercise brings the unconscious bias to consciousness — which then allows it to be fought, including being stopped at creation. For example, when one thinks “How can I trust this person? He’s a young, unreliable Brit who can’t make a decision”, a red alarm flagging this racial stereotype should uncover a conscious bias.

Therefore, the knowledge of our biases can help us correct ourselves but is knowing our shortcomings enough to act upon them and change them?

Photo by Mimi Thiang

Knowledge alone is not enough to trigger a new behaviour

Those of us who have tried to stop smoking, start exercising more or eat more healthily know very well the difficulty of changing behaviour. Being aware of the benefits of behavioural change is not enough to make it happen.

To translate our newfound knowledge into action, we need to act.

Once we recognize a bias, a conscious effort to initiate a conversation with the victim of our bias and find common interests is essential to eliminate prejudice and trigger a new brain association.

So Cultural intelligence, namely the capability to relate and work effectively across cultures, is essential for keeping an open mind and avoiding misunderstandings — but it is not enough to repair trust. Recognizing our unconscious biases and actively fighting these are the two necessary steps to restore damaged relationships.

In my next article, I will examine more in-depth what makes us WANT to adopt new behaviours. Meanwhile, I would love any personal stories or comments on this subject.

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A WEIRD psychologist, curious about Emotional Intelligence and people´s skills and behaviour.

The Startup

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