Cross-Cultural Leadership: How to Build Mutual Trust?

LeadershipWatch Aad Boot

For leaders of today’s and tomorrow’s businesses the ability to connect people and build successful teams in cross-cultural environments is a crucial competency. Many companies operate in globalized markets and leadership has to deal with cross-cultural differences. How do modern leaders create effective collaboration between members from different cultures? How do they build trust in one another? How do they install a sense of belonging together within the company? Understanding how to create people alignment is crucial for today’s leaders.

People alignment is more than just aligning functions and tasks. The essence of people alignment is creating a sense of relatedness. A sense of relatedness builds mutual trust between people. People that sometimes literally come from different worlds. This requires not just an operational focus, but also a mental focus.

“Witnessing a person from our own group or an outsider suffer pain causes neural responses in two very different regions of the brain. And, the specific region activated reveals whether we will help the person in need. Researchers at the University of Zurich studied the brain responses of soccer fans and now have neurobiological evidence for why we are most willing to help members of our own group.” – ScienceDaily (Oct. 7th, 2010) (read article)

I don’t want to take this topic too far into the domain of neurology and psychology, but this article in Science Daily got my attention because it supports my observations in businesses: corporate leaders often underestimate the importance of creating a sense of relatedness in dealing with cross-cultural differences. They often focus on aligning tasks and business results as the sole driver for creating team spirit. When they are confronted with cross-cultural differences (for instance in cases like mergers or expanding business to other countries) they tend to expect their middle managers to obtain the required multi-cultural management skills. They reduce it to an operational management issue. The result is that cross-cultural differences and issues are managed (read mitigated), but in many cases do not lead to more trust in each other. The differences are still there, the misunderstandings are still there, but the negative effects are maybe more or less under control. No real change in mentality has taken place. Thinking in ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ is still active. People still do not feel they are a team and therefore they are not willing to go that extra mile for each other. The impact on business success is clear. Those companies, that can create mutual trust and a sense of relatedness despite the cultural differences, have a clear competitive advantage.

Successful leaders understand the importance of creating cross-cultural understanding and trust in their company. They understand their behavior individually and as leadership team sets an example for others. They understand it is part of their role to show how they build successful cross-cultural relationships themselves. They understand they probably have to go outside their comfort zone for it, and they show courage by doing it.

Leaders who are successful in creating cross-cultural alignment show a specific set of behaviors, that is fueling mutual trust:

  • Actively build cross-cultural relationships themselves

They start themselves engaging with people from the other culture and build relationships. They use this as an example to their teams and they convince others to follow the example: ‘if  I can, so can you’.

  • Get outside their comfort zones

They show an active will to learn from the other culture and to change their thinking and behavior. They show openness and vulnerability. They create an environment of learning from each other.

  • Embrace diversity and explore its potential

They see cross-cultural differences as potential for enrichment and improvement, not as issues. They create an atmosphere in which differences and frictions are ok. They focus on possibilities to reconcile the differences, not on eliminating them.

  • Act themselves towards relatedness

They take time to discuss cross-cultural differences in-depth with each other. They stimulate open dialogue. But they also set out clear actions.  They understand it is vital to build mutual awareness and understanding through dialogue, but that acting together in small steps towards common goals eventually creates the real trust.

  • Persistence

They realize that mutual trust is not built overnight and that in the rush of our daily business people sometimes fall back into old thinking and behavior, which revives old prejudices about each other. They create specific moments together to monitor and evaluate the progress, the positive things and the areas for improvement. They consider creating mutual trust to be a specific objective for themselves and their teams.

You find more about cross-cultural leadership in my post Leading cross-cultural teams: Do you understand the cultural differences in your team.


Aad facilitates and advises companies and their leaders in reconciling cross-cultural differences and creating leadership alignment.  If you want to know more about Aad’s services, click here.

5 Comments on “Cross-Cultural Leadership: How to Build Mutual Trust?

  1. This is an excellent post which brings together many of the aspects of successful leadership in a cross-cultural environment really well. It doesn’t matter what someone’s past experiences are they will always be working outside of their existing comfort zone when moving into a different cross-cultural situation. Those that appreciate that from the outset and modify their approaches while listening to colleagues are best placed to succeed.


  2. Pingback: Cross-Cultural Leadership: How to Build Mutual Trust? - Talented HR

  3. Pingback: Cross-Cultural Leadership: How to Build Mutual Trust? | altoconsulting

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