The golden rule across cultures – by Dr. Jessica Wildman

The globalization of organizations is an undeniably reality. Businesses and governments are working together to solve problems too big and too complex for any one country. Unfortunately, a quick glance through the recent news headlines points to a critical roadblock in the path to successful international collaboration: a severe lack of trust across organizational and national borders. Trust is one of the basic building blocks of successful collaboration.

Without trust, collaborating parties are not willing to share the information and resources necessary to reach the optimal solution. The news has discussed problematic trust deficits exist between the U.S. government and U.S. citizens; between the U.S. and China, and between the U.S., Pakistan, and Israel, as recent examples. It seems that everyone recognizes this problematic lack of trust across organizational and international borders, but for some reason, we continue to struggle to repair these deficits.

Cross-cultural research suggests that part of the problem may reside in the fact that the way people develop and repair trust across cultures is not always the same. Think, for example, about how many children in the U.S. are taught to right a wrong. Generally, they are taught that the first and best response is to own up to the mistake and to sincerely apologize for it. And research suggests that is generally a good approach – studies have found that the most effective way to earn back trust after making an unintentional mistake is to own up to that mistake and to make a sincere apology; at least in Western cultures. But following that same approach in Abu Dhabi, for instance, may not get you the desired results. In fact, basic research I’ve conducted suggests that apologies may be harmful to trust in certain situations, and at most, are only as effective as doing nothing at all or making an excuse.

So what is going on here? Why do direct and sincere apologies work in the U.S., but not necessarily in other cultures? These trust repair preferences come down to basic differences in cultural values and norms. U.S. culture tends to emphasize the value of direct honesty and personal responsibility relatively more than other cultures. We are an individualistic society that encourages personal achievements, and just as we are comfortable taking credit for our own personal successes, it is also expected that people will take the blame for their own failings as well. We are also a relatively low-context society that encourages and expects straight-shooting during communications rather than reading between the lines and dancing around the issue.

This is not true in all cultures, however. In some other cultures that value maintaining face, communication is less direct and explicitly taking responsibility for successes or failures is not the norm. It would be considered abrasive and shameful to come right out and brag about a success or to directly admit a wrong. Additionally, in some strongly religious societies, there is an implicit cultural belief that events happen not because individuals made a choice, but because those events are an inevitable part of a larger plan. Combine these values – a strong tendency to avoid losing face, and a belief that individuals are not personally responsible for events – and direct admission of guilt and explicit apologies start to seem pretty ineffective for making up for a wrong. In fact, research has shown that within cultures that hold these values, taking responsibility and directly apologizing is not the usual way of handling a mistake. Instead, people tend to respond to breaches in trust with strategies meant to ease responsibility and to save face such as humor, proverbs, denial, or external explanations.

Ultimately, the practical lesson is this: when it comes to developing and repairing trust in other cultures, don’t expect that following the golden rule will get you the results you desire. Just because you expect others to apologize when they make a mistake does not mean that is what they expect of you. Managing trust in another culture requires that we pay attention to and learn the underlying values and norms of that society: do they value brutal honesty or tactful avoidance? Do they believe individuals are personally responsible for their actions or that all things happen for a reason? How do they tend to make up for their mistakes? The rule should not be “do unto others as you would do to you,” but instead “do unto others as they would do to you.”

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Jessica L. Wildman, PhD, is Research Director of the Institute for Cross Cultural Management (ICCM) at the Florida Institute of Technology.

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