How To Build Relationships In A Multi-Cultural Team


How To Build Relationships In A Multi-Cultural Team


Today, with almost all businesses being global, chances are pretty high that you are already working in a multi-cultural environment: you may be based in Europe, your clients in North America, your team in Asia and Europe, and you may be contemplating opening an office in Africa.

Building relationships is an undeniable fundamental pillar in business.

Each culture may have its own etiquette to the way business is done. Similarly, how you build professional relationships, and consequently how you build trust may vary from one culture to another. Trust plays an important part in the nature of a professional relationship (in fact, in any type of relationship!). You trust your supplier will meet your delivery expectations, you trust your team will do the work, you trust your clients will settle their invoices.

At this point, it is important to be aware and understand that there is a wide spectrum on which cultures vary when it comes to how they build trust (amongst other cross-cultural dimensions). For this article, I will be mainly referring to the works of Geert Hofstede and Erin Meyer, which allow us to access practical culture comparison tools, based on hundreds of data points aggregated research.

Here’s how Erin Meyer outlines the Trusting Scale in her book, The Culture Map:

The Trusting Scale, Erin Meyer, extract of  The Culture Map

The Trusting Scale, Erin Meyer, The Culture Map

While the above scale offers a comparison of 21 countries, all cultures and individuals find themselves somewhere along the scale.

Task-based vs. relationship-based

Have you noticed how some people can immediately get down to the task itself, while others start a meeting with small talk before talking about the specific business topic?

Have you noticed how some colleagues dedicate precious time organising lunches with clients or co-workers, afterworks and diners with clients and co-workers?

Have you noticed how some people get very uncomfortable when a question is somewhat personal in a professional setting?

In 2018, I certainly remember a business meeting with a colleague of mine. More than half of it was spent comparing notes about my upcoming trip to Japan and getting recommendations of the best restaurants in Tokyo.  Even though my cross-cultural awareness prepared me for situations like this, I kept thinking whether we would have enough time to cover all the project updates. I am very much so more task-based than this colleague of mine was.

While I am truly multicultural, my professional culture is very much a cross between the UK and French business cultures. My colleague however, was Spanish. If you were to compare Spain vs. UK and France on the Trusting scale, you find that Spain is more relationship-based that UK or France.

When you become aware of where a culture sits on the Trusting Scale (more Task or Relationship based), you have an idea of the importance of building extensive rapport and developing trust as crucial prerequisites to a productive work collaboration.

How to recognise one’s preference

Start by observing and really listening. Then reflect on the conversations you had:

  • Topics of conversation: is it business only?
  • Pre-meeting conversations: do they go beyond politeness?
  • Personal information: was there any question or information given?
  • Decision making factors: is it only about value and price? or are there more factors such as trust?

It is also important to note that people who find themselves towards the relationship-based end of the scale, may appear unfriendly: this could be that they need to build trust before letting their guard down.

If you’re not sure, the safest would be to start your next meeting with a light conversation, you will then quickly get cues of what you are looking for.

How to use cross-cultural awareness to build relationships

To thrive in global business, you must be cross-culturally aware. Once you have developed your awareness, you are able to review your assumptions about what your co-worker or client communicates or needs. You are able to use visual and verbal cues as guides and you are able to adapt your work style and build authentic relationships – because now you see and you understand what your co-worker or client needs.

What has been your most successful or challenging experience of working in a cross-cultural team?