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“It does not matter where you come from, you cannot be successful if your colleagues, customers, partners, and suppliers don’t trust you”

This sentence is from the Culture Map by Erin Meyer and one of the best books I found out there talking about how to overcome the challenges of communication across the globe. Nowadays, almost everybody stresses the importance of trust in business relationships. But depending on where you are from or where you are used to working you might make different unconscious assumptions about how trust is created.


How you build trust varies between countries

How you build trust varies between countries and Erin Meyer defines 2 types of trust:

  • Trust from the heart
  • Trust from the head

For some cultures, trust in business is about talking about the project, improvements, numbers, and organizing a tight schedule as feeling time has to be respected.
This is what Erin Meyer called trust from the head.

For some other cultures, the way to do business is not about projects, numbers, and time efficiency but rather about relationships. Taking the time, energy, and effort to build a personal connection with people.
This is what Erin Meyer called trust from the heart.

So when you work with a distributed team, as a leader, it is crucial to know how your team members build trust toward one another, toward you, and for you to know how you build trust. This is an essential component of building a team and thriving toward achieving what agilists called “a high-performing team.”

Few years ago, I was working in Ireland for a big American company. Inside a Scrum Team, we had team members collocated with me in Ireland, others based in the US, and others based in India. Every day we had between 2 to 3 hours in common for the whole of us to work together.
Not a whole lot when you are on a pilot project, with strong deadlines, a reduced budget, a need to prove the project’s idea, and the necessity of building trust inside the team.
Despite our internal and external challenges, we got successful.

We created a team where each team member was trusting one another and where we felt we could safely talk. We also made the project a success.

How do you start creating trust in the team?

Well, remember about building trust from the head and trust from the heart? It all started from there.

Know who are your team members

If you hear a team member talking most of the time about tasks accomplished, project challenges, and improvements and barely asking about how your day is going, there is a good chance that person builds trust from the head. Building trust from the head means building trust at a cognitive level based on the confidence the team member feels in another person’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability to get work done.

You do your work well + Reliability through your work + Consistency + Pleasant + Intelligent + Transparent =  I trust you

In my previous team, the definition of building trust from the head would suit mainly my fellow american and irish coworkers. Knowing this, when I was working with them, I was focusing foremost on delivering work and improving it. Only after a period of reliability and consistency in my work, we could start talking about weekend activities, families, and holiday planning.

On the other side, if you hear a team member asking most of the time about your day, family, talking about her day, her family, regularly taking time for chit chat before diving into business matters then there is a good chance that person builds trust from the heart

Building trust from the heart means building trust at an effective level. Trust arises from feelings.

I know your life (emotional closeness) + empathy + laugh together + I see you at a personal level + I feel affection for you + I sense you feel the same = I trust you

In my previous team, the definition of building trust from the heart would suit mainly my fellow Indian, and Spanish coworkers, and myself. Knowing this, when I was working with them, I was focusing first on creating a personal connection, asking about their life, and their feelings on the project, and sharing my life inputs and my feelings. This has to be two ways, otherwise, it won’t work, and needless to say, you have to be true and mean it.

Build activities to unite the team – Make it inclusive

In a distributed and multicultural context, your team members are physically far from each other and the probability they don’t know about each other traditions, food, festivities, etc, is quite high.
Set up some team-building activities for team members to know about each other and their environmental context.

For example, at the beginning of each retrospective, we were doing a quiz about anything starting from food, festivities, traditions, holidays, and movies, across the different nationalities we had. The quiz was fun with questions concerning each country, we were all learning about one another and we let team members have some time to give more precisions if needed.

It was so fun and useful that later on, the team members themselves took upon the responsibility to make up the quiz for the retrospective.

The more nationalities you have the merrier. The activities to explore are almost infinite as long as you include everyone.

Be a bridge

As a team leader, your main job in this case is to be a bridge between your team members.
Your team member building trust from the head might not communicate the same way another team member building trust from the heart does. Especially in the case of a distributed team who has to work asynchronously. Those differences if not made explicit can cause frustration and unhealthy conflicts.

Be on the guard to detect the differences in communication and expressions, observe and take notes and, of course, share them with your team. Explain what you saw happening and make space for people to explain their cultural context and what it meant. Create a safe space for people to exchange.

For example, you can organize a workshop for the team to be able to share the differences between cultures and some expressions they find funny or they are puzzled with. You can make up the activity as a game to laugh about the differences. The important here is not to erase differences, but to connect people knowing their differences.

In my case, I spent countless hours talking with each team member to make everybody aware of our different ways of communicating. We organized some team talks to understand each other better and to set up team agreements. Our team agreements became our common language and when there was a misunderstanding we could refer to them as a common definition.

Be transparent about everybody’s work

We realized our Sprint reviews were always done by the developers showing some new functionalities, and although it was good for team members to show what they had done we were missing a part of the team. We were not showing any work the QA specialists were doing nor any advancement we were making in automation or report generation.

We could see a gap being created a gap at the stakeholder’s level because a part of us was never being shown. The team talked about it and we decided to try adding different elements to the Sprint reviews. We were not just showing functionalities being developed but also how we tested it, the documentation generated, and how it will be handled by other teams like the operational one or the infrastructure one.

We also decided to change the dynamics, not having the same side of the video conference call starting all the time but making things more dynamic and a bit surprising. We showed more and it allowed us to receive more feedback on our work, and how to improve and we generated new ideas.

The Stakeholders became more positive and got a better understanding of how the team was working therefore they developed also trust in us. By making things transparent at all levels you naturally create trust.

Like my team, you can enhance your Sprint reviews but there is not just only this. Create dedicated channels for the team, one serious, one fun, or organized pictures challenge on Friday, making your team members take an office funny picture of where they are currently working, etc.

Is that all you need?

No, but that’s a good start.
Keep in mind, building trust takes time in many cultures. Only the way varies.

In today’s business world, the likelihood of working with a distributed team is increasing every day. Working with a distributed team is fascinating, rewarding, and challenging. The more awareness you develop as a team leader toward how navigating cultural differences, the more success you will get from yourself and your team.