If we don't have trust, we do not cooperate with other people, we don't share information with them, we don't even ask for help.However, although trust is important for organisational life, companies cannot mandate trust, and establishing relationships of trust with people who don't share our values and expectations of trustworthy behaviour can be particularly challenging for expatriates.
In essence, trusting another person involves risk-taking, making yourself vulnerable to the actions of another and giving up some control to them. Generally we tend to trust, based on the premise that others will behave as we expect. We maintain our own ideas of how a trustworthy person should behave in a particular situation.
Expatriation and trust
Expatriation itself is an act of trust. Expatriates take the risk of leaving their familiar environment, in which they are well-adapted, and make themselves vulnerable to the unknown. They give up some control to the company in the hope of a desired outcome, such as extra visibility.
The company also risks its reputation and productivity, makes itself vulnerable and gives up some control to the expatriate. So trust is really fundamental to the whole process of expatriation.
Building relationships on assignment
Expatriates have to build new relationships of trust, so it is important they realise that people have different starting points when it comes to trusting people they don't know.
Some people are simply more trusting than others, but there is evidence that our culture influences our disposition to trust others. The World Values survey (See Inglehart, Basanez & Moreno, 1998), for example, has shown that countries differ in their ratings of the statement, 'Generally speaking, most people can be trusted.'
In the Nordic cultures of Europe, for example, people are considered trustworthy until proven otherwise, while in countries like France or Italy people tend to withhold their trust until people prove their trustworthiness.
Our deep cultural assumptions about the nature of human beings, as either good or evil, fundamentally influence our inclination to trust others. So when we meet someone for the first time and know nothing about them, we fall back on our natural disposition to trust or not to trust others.
In their new host culture expatriates must be sensitive that the starting point for trusting others may be different. It may be more helpful for them to think about whether trust is theirs to lose or to gain.
Another behaviour that influences our trust in others is categorisation-that is our tendency to quickly classify people in order to decide whether or not they are trustworthy.
One form of categorisation is called 'unit-grouping', in which we categorise people according to how different or similar to us we think they are. When we meet someone for the first time, we try to figure out if they are like us. Would they do the same things we would do in a similar situation?
Research shows that people generally find those within their own 'in-group' to be more honest, more reliable and more trustworthy. Our perceptions of our 'in-groups' vary with our situation but these in-groups can include our culture, our company, our function, our department and so forth.
My own research shows that colleagues' job expertise influences the level of trust placed in them, which has important implications for expatriates.
At the start, when an expatriate is unknown, his/her job skills and competences become the key criteria the locals use for judging their trustworthiness. In essence, local personnel want to know, 'does this person add value?' This is particularly relevant for young expatriates sent on developmental assignments to cultures where experience and maturity are indicators of wisdom.
In judging the trustworthiness of expatriates, the locals judge the totality of the expatriates' behaviour, including how the expatriate behaves towards other people and how he/she behaves towards them personally.
Building trust takes time and requires many acts of reinforcement of mutual expectations. Expatriates' consistency, predictability and reciprocity help with the gradual process of trust-building. It is also important to recognise that such obvious trust-building behaviours as keeping your promises or always telling the truth are not interpreted the same way by different cultures.
Establishing trust is the first step. Once a relationship of trust has been established you need to keep it by not violating it.
Perceptions of superiority, of self-interest, of exclusion and rejection, and of dissatisfaction with the local country all potentially damage local colleagues' trust in expatriates.
Dr Banu Golesorkhi
Dr Banu Golesorkhi is the Director of Research for Pharos International in Brussels.
A report by the editor (firstname.lastname@example.org) based on the original presentation 'Trust across cultures' given by Banu Golesorkhi at Expatica HR's Best Practices for Managing your International Workforce conference in Brussels this year. Your feedback on this article is welcome.
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