Building Trust on Diverse Teams

September 17, 2020

Several years ago I reached a critical turning point in my career. I had a meaningful job doing work I felt was making a positive impact. I was achieving big growth goals for my organization. I even had many colleagues I respected and enjoyed collaborating with. But despite my seemingly dreamy situation, I was frustrated and burnt out. My frustration boiled down to one basic fact: I didn’t trust my supervisor. On a gut level, I felt my supervisor didn’t really care about me as a person — that I was a cog in their organizational machine. And after about a year of working under this person, I quit.

Trust matters. My guess is, if you asked that supervisor if they wanted to build a culture of trust in the organization, they would have said yes. They may have even thought they were doing a great job at it. So why did they fail so miserably to build trust with me, and why is building trust so hard? 

The problem is that different people have different ideas, and on a more instinctive level different feelings, about what makes someone trustworthy. What builds trust with one person might not with another; in fact, it could actually break trust. Take emotions for example — for one person, emotional vulnerability, sharing things about yourself, might make you feel like someone is authentic, and therefore trustworthy. For another person, when a colleague gets personal they might think “Whoa, they’re an over-sharer,” and steer clear of them at the real or virtual water cooler. 

The different ways people build trust are shaped by culture. The diverse identities that make us who we are — our racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender, where we were raised, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc., shape our values, mindsets, and norms. In the workplace, these cultural identities influence our behaviors and communication styles, and they have a huge influence on whether or not we perceive people as trustworthy. 

There are some behaviors most of us probably agree are trust-building — like whether or not people follow through on their word. But other behaviors might stir up disagreement or debate as to whether they are trust-builders or trust-busters. Our opinions about these behaviors are shaped by different cultural norms. What are some of the different culturally-influenced ways of communicating and behaving that build or break trust in the workplace?

  1. How we express feelings. Is your communication style more emotionally expressive, or restrained? Those who are more restrained are likely to react to those who are expressive as being intense or dramatic, and those who are expressive might interpret those who are restrained as cold or overly shy;

  2. Whether we prioritize tasks or relationships: Organizational management research shows that people tend to prioritize one over the other, even if they value both. In the case of my previous supervisor, they consistently prioritized results and tasks rather than cultivating a personal relationship with me. Though I was able to achieve results, the lack of attention to relationships led to a huge level of burnout and turnover; 

  3. How we approach giving feedback: Do you give critical feedback directly, or do you use a more indirect approach? Do you use the feedback sandwich — couching the “growth opportunities” in between other positive feedback, or, do you consider that to be soft, “sugar-coating” or coddling? And do you give feedback regularly, or hold back because you don’t want to rock the boat?

These are just a few examples of how trust can look different depending on cultural norms. There are many more — like how we approach decision-making and risk-taking, how we relate to formal authority, and how we manage time. 

What this boils down to is just by being who you are, you could be perceived as untrustworthy by others with a different communication style. If we are not intentional about it, we will automatically and unconsciously trust those who are most like us (this is called affinity bias). In our organizations and teams, this means those who don’t fit the dominant cultural norms are more likely to be excluded, leading to decreased collaboration and motivation, and higher turnover. To build inclusive workplaces where people feel like they belong, all team members, and especially those in positions of formal authority, need to understand their cultural identity and how this shapes the way they build trust, seek to understand what trust means for others, and take steps to bridge the divide.

The encouraging news is there are simple and immediate steps we can take to start building trust across cultural differences. 

For more info about CIL’s global leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion offerings email us at or visit the Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership