Building Trust and Reputation
“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.”
— Jeff Bezos (1964 – )
I would add to that statement that in addition to trying to do hard things well, good personal reputation is earned by becoming known to be straightforward, reliable, and a source of objective advice.
A positive reputation is an individual’s most valuable asset in the long run. It takes quite a bit of time to establish, but only a short time to damage or even ruin.
This is true in any field, but in business it has particular relevance.
In international business, the difference between a good reputation and a neutral or negative one can be even more significant than in local business. A positive reputation is extremely valuable, and can mean the difference between winning and losing in a competitive situation.
The reason is that the farther you go from home, the less common ground there is between people and organizations. Cultural and value differences create a high potential for misunderstanding and mistrust, which can begin the slippery slope which ends in the failure of a deal or a partnership.
That means the best approach is zero-based: at the outset of a new business relationship, assume a very low level of mutual knowledge, understanding and trust. In response to this situation, develop a systematic communications process over time which addresses these weaknesses.
When people say “Life is short,” one moral contained in this statement is: “Life is too short to risk your reputation, because sooner or later a bad reputation will catch up with you, and cost you dearly.”
A common question among younger people is whether or not good people succeed in the long run, as compared to people who consistently cheat, steal and break the rules.
Sometimes it seems like the bad guys get ahead faster, and at least in the short run, this can be true. Bank robbers, for example, can become very wealthy in a single day. The problem is, that wealth is usually not very sustainable and comes with all kinds of life-threatening risks attached to it, most of which will undermine a happy life. (For example, a former partner in crime pointing a gun at your head and demanding all your cash.)
Based on what I’ve seen, I would say that building a good reputation is worthwhile not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it has a much higher probability of long-term success than the alternatives.
If you don’t believe me, consider how many bank robbers went on to live a happy and peaceful life for the rest of their days. It’s not just about money, as many instant millionaires and billionaires discover.
Reputation on an individual level is also built on trustworthiness, which has to be earned over time through a demonstrated pattern of behavior which becomes predictable to those around you.
Business leaders like predictability. They cope with uncertainty on a regular basis, but are drawn to predictability and transparency like a magnet.
The process of building trust works somewhat differently from one culture to another. One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve received, especially in the past 10 years, from mainland Chinese friends, is not to be so trusting of people.
I think this is an outgrowth of the phenomenal and rapid pace of change in China these past 20-30 years, which has eroded traditional values and unleashed powerful currents of greed and materialism.
It’s also a reflection, to some extent, of cultural differences. At the risk of generalization, I think Americans tend to trust people first, and ask questions later. As Ronald Reagan once described his approach to arms control negotiations, “Trust, but verify.”
My Chinese friends are more cautious, and tend to award trust more carefully and conditionally only after a period of observation and relationship-building. This process may be expedited if the relationship is built on some existing relationship or “guanxi” such as kinship, the introduction of a mutually trusted third party, etc.
In this respect, Americans tend to have their traffic lights set on green as they approach the intersection where trust begins to matter; whereas the Chinese setting tends to be amber (the color which flashes in between green and red in some countries’ traffic lights, indicating caution).
The differences are not incompatible, but they are worth paying attention to. Because in a Chinese context, trust is more challenging to establish, it tends to be more durable. In an American context, because trust is initially granted more quickly and with fewer conditions, it can also be undermined more quickly and easily.
Once trust is broken, it is much more challenging to rebuild than it was to establish in the first place.
All of which is to say, don’t take it for granted. Mutual understanding and trust take a lot of intentional work to establish, especially in cross-cultural relationships. Failure to pay attention to this requirement creates the risk of disruptive surprises at a later stage. This kind of problem is avoidable if both sides put their minds to it.
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