Leadership Development And Creating A Culture Of Trust

A one-day training program based on creating shared stress, shared stories, empathy, and accountability helped a world-class organization build a foundation of trust that will last decades.

Developing leaders who can create a climate of trust has been a challenge for many organizations. Without trust, business relationships within organizations will be diminished and jeopardized. As Stephen M.R. Covey said, “The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the key professional and personal competency of our time.”

What are leading organizations doing to build trusting relations among leaders? The case study below describes how one world-class organization helped build trust in its future leaders. The goals was to bring together 80 high-potential leaders of the large matrixed global company, from various siloed organizations, multiple functional sectors, and more than 30 countries, and build a foundation of trust that will last decades—in one day. A training program that has succeeded in multiple organizations around the globe was implemented, based on creating shared stress, shared stories, empathy, and accountability.


  1. Shared Stress. Participants engaged in a simulation where there was significant ambiguity, uncertainty, and untrustworthy relationships. This common stressful experience put all the delegates on the same level of anxiety. When the embedded stress factors of the exercise were revealed, the participants experienced a “high” of relief knowing that minor differences can cause major disruptions to their relationships at work, especially when standards differ across cultures. In a global organization, there must be different standards to meet local needs while respecting the core values and standards that uniquely identify the organization. This activity promotes discomfort and discovery.

  2. Mutual Perceptions. Participants from more than 30 countries described how they think their countries are perceived and why. This is often an emotional expression of concern about perceptions versus reality. This module created significant “aha moments” as people began to understand how their perceptions differ from reality. For example, one Chinese delegate indicated she felt Americans perceived their Chinese counterparts more suspiciously than those from Europe. The Chinese delegate described her frustration with her American colleagues who thought she was misleading them when she told them a project couldn’t go forward because of a dispute between the Shanghai and Beijing offices. The Americans saw China as a monolithic culture and did not appreciate the politics between competing offices the way they would if the issue were between New York and San Francisco. Participants also shared common proverbs from their countries. For example, in China, it is “The first bird to fly gets shot.” In the U.S., it’s “The early bird gets the worm.” A value of this session was that it gave every delegate equal opportunity to share perceptions and reality; every country wants to be heard.

  3. Cultural Differences. All participants completed a diagnostic tool to identify their individual profile on 11 core cross-cultural differences. The scores were tabulated by country, and the results revealed underlying differences that can undermine effective working relations and trust. Americans overwhelmingly showed a tendency to be individualistic, while Asians and Latin Americans showed strong tendencies to be more group oriented. In a discussion of direct vs. indirect cultures, a delegate from Ireland eloquently described his frustration when he and his Irish colleagues were perceived as “lacking engagement” because they would not argue or give their opinion on a conference call until they had given the topic a proper review and analysis. He indicated that others “seemed frustrated by the unwillingness to openly engage in speculative or spontaneous topics, and surprised to later receive a call or e-mail about those very topics.” Another area of difference frequently mentioned was hierarchy. A dynamic American participant described her frustration at being “dismissed” by a Chinese colleague because she “only” had a Master’s degree, while her Chinese counterpart had a Ph.D. The Chinese delegates in the program then provided advice on how to handle such differences in the future.

  4. Challenges and Case Studies. Participants described their challenges and case studies. One case study involved Belgian and Polish approaches to work, with the Belgians being relatively flexible about roles and responsibilities and the Poles being more rigid. Such open discussions helped to design bridging techniques. Delegates discussed why a wearable product produced for global sales failed in Japan due to Japanese bathing in hotter water than the product could tolerate. These discussions helped the delegates recognize why they need to created cross-border bonds with their fellow delegates so they can use their collective knowledge and experience to become global leaders.

  5. Developing Empathy. Language differences were an overriding factor, causing misunderstandings for and by leaders. Those who speak only English often don’t appreciate the frustration and stress associated with having to make presentations or participate in meetings or conference calls in another language. An activity that put the English speakers in the “shoes” of the non-native English speakers created the anxiety, frustration, and reluctance to speak up often experienced by the non-native speakers. The non-native English speakers shared their experiences and insights, and together both groups made a series of recommendations they will follow in the future.

  6. Accountability. Each participant completed an action plan form throughout the day. These actions were to be implemented by the participants within the next 60 days. Each participant identified a “buddy” who would act as a peer coach from another country. The results of the successful implantation of the action plans would be posted on the group’s Website. The group would vote on the Top 5 submissions, with the winners receiving recognition and an award from the organization. The session ended with a long ovation for their newfound trust in people they had never met before, but who were essential for their success as leaders of this global company.


As I wrote this column from San Diego, a news flash came on announcing that a conference sponsored by the University of Southern California to bring together thought leaders, business people, and those involved in African/ U.S. relations went on despite the fact that every speaker and delegate from Africa could not attend since they were unable to obtain visas. Photos of the conference showed three to four people in a large conference room. Most of the Americans failed to show once they knew none of the African delegates could make it.

What is the impact for those of us in the training and development industry? We will have to see how this will affect enrollment in our seminars and conferences. What retaliation might there be toward Americans wanting to travel to attend professional conferences and their organizations’ meetings? How will this rush to nationalism limit the number of delegates to our training programs? How will this affect the sharing of new knowledge and the building of trust, respect, and understanding needed for our global enterprises to succeed and move humanity forward?

I ask those reading this column to be vigilant about the free transfer of people and ideas within your organizations and networks. The training and development field may have just taken a body blow. We must support each other’s freedom of assembly and sharing of ideas, which transcends narrow-minded thinking and the building of physical and emotional barriers to trust. We have worked too hard to promote more inclusive global organizations to allow the new nationalism to take us backward.

Please send me your thoughts and observations regarding leadership development, trust, and any direct experience or case studies where program participants were denied visas or were given “special treatment and unusual vetting” coming or going to international meetings. Please send your ideas to me at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.global-dynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D.
Dr. Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, and coach on DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion), global leadership, global mindset, and cultural intelligence. Organizations based on four continents seek his guidance to build and sustain their global and multicultural success. He is CEO of the Neal Goodman Group and can be reached at: Neal@NealGoodmanGroup.com. Dr. Goodman is the founder and former CEO of Global Dynamics Inc.