In the previous article I had you look at unreliable criteria for deciding whether to grant or withhold trust in an intercultural context. In this article I am going to suggest three criteria that are more precise and verifiable: sincerity, competence and reliability. I will explain each in turn and how they relate to mistrust.
We have the opinion that someone is insincere if we suspect that the person is saying one thing to us but saying something different to themselves or others. If we suspect someone is being ‘two-faced’ — an English expression that means insincere — we can say that “We do not trust that person’s sincerity.” But lack of sincerity is not sufficient evidence to say more broadly that “We do not trust that person.” Besides, the degree of insincerity that is acceptable varies according to the culture.
Min-Sum Kim, in her book Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication, claims that in some cultures “social sensitivity and tact” are more highly valued than sincerity. She writes that sometimes insincerity can actually be regarded as “a necessary tool for the management of interpersonal relationships.” So ideally when working across cultures you should be prepared to be more flexible about how much sincerity you expect from people before you evaluate them as insincere.
Business success depends on being able to assess the competences of others. The opinion that someone is competent is typically grounded on mutually agreed upon standards in a particular domain within a particular context. For example, certain professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, cannot work in the court rooms or hospitals of other countries because standards of competence vary.
We rarely ask ourselves about what standards we are using for grounding our opinions about another colleague’s competence. As a result, our standards may be entirely inappropriate within the current intercultural context. So when you are deciding whether you trust someone’s competences, be clear about the standards you are using, so that your colleagues can provide the proof you need to evaluate them fairly.
Having the opinion that someone is reliable means we expect his or her competence to last not only in the short term but to continue in the long term. This is why people with a lot of business experience are often granted more trust than someone who does not have much experience. If people have performed reliably in the past, we expect that they will continue to do so. We tend to trust their reliability without question. Of course, there are actually no guarantees that past competences will continue into the present or future. However, this is an area where we more readily give people the benefit of the doubt.
The Elusive Intercultural Workforce
When we work with people over a period of years they no longer have to prove anything to us in terms of their sincerity, competences or reliability. However, the intercultural work environment is more elusive, since it is often characterized by short assignments. We typically communicate by phone- or video-conferencing and email, rather than in person. When we do meet in person, it is often for brief meetings or presentations. How can we then evaluate whether we trust our colleagues or not?
Questions to Ask Yourself When Evaluating Trust
I recommend you evaluate any mistrust on your part by asking yourself targeted questions, using the three criteria of sincerity, competence and reliability.
Also, ask yourself questions about yourself.
If you have the opportunity, ask the other person questions as well.
These kinds of questions will allow you to stay more open to granting trust. Most of us are prone to being mistrustful without proof, even though we expect others to trust us implicitly, also without proof. The road to trust is treacherous only because we rarely examine the terrain closely enough. And when working across cultures it is a terrain that is constantly shifting from one situation to the next.
To sum up, I am asking you to make a habit of evaluating any automatic mistrust you may have. Why? The quality of your relationships with your colleagues, and the future you build together, depend on it.
In the next article I will suggest how you can use these three criteria to inspire others to trust you.