Why do we change? Welcoming connection and reflection in 2015

05 Jan 2015 Posted by Emily in Leadership

The Self-Made Man sculpture near Cato Hall , Jan. 11, 2007 - 257 p.mIf there is one element that is crucial for positive growth, whether we are talking about personal development, spiritual breakthroughs or business mergers, it is reflection on what has worked and what needs to be refined. The arrival of 2015 is a perfect time to look back before looking ahead. Here are three questions to ask yourself if you want to grow in this next year:


      1. When did I feel most alive in 2014?
      2. How have I allowed fear of failure to hold me back?
      3. Who do I need to forgive?

To experience the full benefit of answering these questions, share your answers with someone and give them a hug. No joke. Oxytocin (aka the ‘love molecule,’ aka feeling good and close to people) is released when we connect with people. We can connect through saying “I love you,” or giving a gift, or even a hug. There is research on how social support and oxytocin can actually increase calmness and decrease anxiety in stressful situations (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003). In other words, connection is an antidote for the fear and worry that can spin us away from focusing on what really matters in our lives. We need connection to grow into the best versions of ourselves.

I worry about the American notion of rugged individualism and what is it doing to us. It feels like each year, we have less and less opportunities to connect. Most of us now watch TV on our computers in different rooms from our family members. We sit on trains looking at our iphones, and we are rarely close with our neighbors. Individualism may give rise to great qualities such as entrepreneurship or healthy competition, but it is starting to hold us back. I fear we may have forgotten how much we need each other, even on a neurochemical level, to become our best selves. We desperately need a world of “best selves” to address the state of the world today. So the challenge I am presenting to you is to share the vulnerability of our areas for growth with someone, face-to-face. How does fear and anger hold us back? Naming this in front of someone is a profound way to connect and to break through blocks.

In my experience, we can’t do this alone. In 2015, let’s lean on each other a bit more for the sake of this planet, our communities and ourselves.


Heinrichs M, Baumgartner T, Kirschbaum C, Ehlert U. (2003), Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress., BiolPsychiatry, Dec 15;54(12):1389-98.

Trust: Overlooked and undervalued

07 Jul 2014 Posted by Emily in Communication, Culture

As published in, July 7, 2014

Cross-cultural collaboration. Why is it so hard? As international development practitioners, we are typically working toward the same well-intentioned goal. If our interests are aligned, then why isn’t it easier?

Well, many reasons: funding, deadlines, limited or misdirected resources, language differences … the list goes on.

But since we can all agree that effective cross-cultural collaboration is mandatory for implementing any successful international development project, than we owe it to ourselves to assess the obstacles to collaboration and identify strategies to facilitate it.

Based on my experience as a cross-cultural communication trainer, I often argue that trust is the most fundamental and critical factor in all productive collaboration and high team performance. And without a foundation of trust, development projects often fail to meet objectives and produce results.

The link between collaboration and trust is apparent: Effective collaboration requires functioning relationships among parties, and relationships thrive when there is trust among those parties. But building and sustaining trust within international development project teams is tough work that requires almost constant attention and nurturing.

As a development leader — whether you are working at headquarters or in the field — the culture of your organization or team is your responsibility. Building a culture that will lead to project success is also an opportunity. I recommend investing the necessary energy to build a culture of trust that will facilitate constructive collaboration and help you accomplish your development objectives. Here is some basic guidance to do just that.

Understand socio-cultural norms

While trust is an important element for any team, the stakes are higher in our field of international development because we are challenged to adapt to unfamiliar places, people and cultures. Adjusting always takes time, but development project managers can get a head start by researching the socio-cultural norms embedded in their operating environment before they hit the ground and during the early days of the project. If you do nothing else before starting work in a new country, pick up the phone and call someone who knows the country, the local customs and context.

Some questions I ask about a country or culture before starting work:

▪ What is the security and political climate?
▪ Is there a history of colonialism that might influence interpersonal dynamics?
▪ What projects have recently succeeded or failed here and how can we learn from them?

Some questions I ask about any cross-cultural team:

▪ Are team members accustomed to working across cultures?
▪ Is this a face-saving culture? Is this a clan-oriented society?
▪ Are there any language differences or socio-economic class considerations among the team?

Socio-cultural generalizations are not always accurate, but they can help project managers navigate new territory. For instance, the United States and Western Europe tend to be individualistic and future-oriented. Most Americans and Europeans aim to define the future on their own terms, even if it means talking straight and ruffling a few feathers. From the onset, trust is built through clear and frank communication. On the other hand, in many Latin American, African and Asian cultures, group harmony is paramount and discretion regarding when and how to express disagreement is a valued skill in sustaining trust relations. These cultures often give more thoughtful consideration to history than a future-oriented culture, which is comfortable breaking free of the past.

Even with the most basic understanding of socio-cultural norms, the project manager is better positioned to identify potential cross-cultural issues and mitigate them.

Appreciate the logic behind different approaches to trust

People build trust relations in different ways, but I have observed two main “types” of professionals that I call (1) Foundation types and (2) Tool types.

For Foundation types, casual interaction and small talk play a pivotal role in trust-building. The Foundation type assesses the potential relationship through an informal mapping of a team member’s character. A Foundation type will spend considerable time gathering background on other people like learning about someone’s family, homeland, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Through this interaction, they are learning about the person’s values and demeanor while comparing it to their own. Foundation types are all about relationships. When a new project commences, nothing could be more valuable than grabbing coffee or beer, playing golf, or taking a long walk with a team member.

The Tool type is less emotional in his or her approach to trust-building. Tool types care more about another person’s practical strengths and weaknesses and are interested in uncovering what he or she brings to the relationship. While there may be some small talk in the beginning of the relationship, Tool types get right to business and are far more interested in observing your professional proclivities to assess your creditability. Personal details are more of a distraction than a benefit to building trust. For Tool types, “time is money” and getting the job done is the optimum way to build and sustain trust. If you have worked across cultures before, perhaps you can recognize different cultural groups that fit roughly into these two categories.

I encountered an interesting interplay of Foundation and Tool types during a large Japanese-funded project on the Indonesian island of Java, which was facing difficulty getting off the ground. The Japanese, notorious for their formality, kicked off the project with a series of highly structured and methodical meetings that were proving unproductive. They reported that their Indonesian partners were resisting early plans and did not offer alternatives. The Japanese felt they were lacking motivation and found that, despite multiple efforts, the collaboration was not gaining traction. A consultant who spoke with the Indonesians reported that the local team felt uncomfortable with the Japanese approach and wary of the Japanese, as there had been no effort to cultivate relationships and trust in a way that felt familiar. Without trust, the project had little chance of succeeding. At the urging of the consultant, the team began to meet in more informal settings where there was less pressure to discuss business and more opportunity for casual conversation. This adaptive approach helped reconcile “type” differences, build requisite trust and salvage the project.

Schedule time for relationship building

Everyone carries a set of expectations regarding how relationships should form and function. When those expectations are violated, we often mistakenly assess behaviors as character deficits rather than cultural differences. Social psychologists note this is a common error people make when evaluating other people’s character, and this is exponentially exaggerated working across cultures.

Unfortunately, development workers typically operate under tight timelines so we rarely have sufficient time to invest in relationship building. Yet, as the Japanese in Java scenario reveals, the effort to push an agenda without first building relationships can result in project failure and this is particularly true when Tool types are working in Foundation cultures.

I recommend that project managers literally write a relationship or team-building stage in your project plan and schedule appropriate time to connect with your team, even under the tightest project requirements, schedules and budgets. The relationship-building cycle can start with informal meetings and casual lunches so team members get to know one another. You can then gradually move to facilitated brainstorming sessions about the project so team members can share ideas, perspectives and experiences. This steppingstone approach will help team members feel comfortable around one another and build an environment where all opinions and perspectives are respected and valued.

Prioritize effective communication

Any project manager will tell you that effective communication is critical for team performance and can make or break a development project. For me, “effective” communication is communication that creates and fosters shared understanding.

Most critically, there should be a shared understanding of the project goals, team mission, and individual roles and responsibilities.

Immediately upon arrival, schedule time to map out professional expectations with each member of the team. To avoid any misunderstanding, be clear about what you require from each of them and be prepared to communicate your rationale for certain expectations. Encourage each team member to voice out their concerns as well, especially if any of your expectations clash with local norms.

Further, you need to establish a system for managers to offer continual feedback. You may need to get creative, as direct feedback may be perceived as rude and threatening in some cultures.

Beyond creating communication systems, your relationships will benefit if you are willing to experiment with adjusting your communication style. If you are more of a Tool type working in a Foundation culture, you may need to adjust your communication style in order to accomplish your goals efficiently. For instance, sharing personal or life experiences may help team members be more comfortable to share their opinions. Others might prefer to express opinions in the form of a suggestion.

Monitor team dynamics and adjust your tactics often

Finding a way to foster positive team dynamics and build trust cross-culturally is a highly creative process. As you move across borders, you will find there is no “right” way to build trust, yet there are ways that are more or less appropriate in different contexts.

Flexibility is a core competency of being an effective cross-cultural manager. Team dynamics are constantly in flux, depending on who is present, the general health and energy of the team, and the location of the project. I recommend you monitor the level of trust within a team by checking in with team members on a regular basis. How you respond to what they feel about team dynamics requires a degree of flexibility as well.

As you start to monitor the team dynamics more closely and methodologically, you will uncover that creating a culture of trust is a moving target. But when the project manager begins to prioritize this aspect of the project, the entire team learns its values. People will begin to be more proactive about cultivating relationships and identifying interpersonal or intercultural issues.

Culture is a dynamic creature, but as the leader, you get to set the trajectory. If you do not model a prioritization of healthy, functional, respectful relationships, your team won’t either. Keeping your finger on the pulse of the team requires energy, flexibility and creativity. Your effort will be rewarded in a high-performing cross-cultural team.

In conclusion, when a development project manager only has a few weeks on the ground with his or her team, it is easy to prioritize immediate results over relationship building. If you wind up in a cross-cultural collaboration that is stuck in a spiral of frustration, blame and stress, it is not always necessary to understand and dislodge every piece of tension. What I can promise is that if you keep plugging the same pieces into the equation, you will always get the same results. If you have been trying to move forward on an issue, try moving forward with the relationship.

From your experience, what are the effective ways to build and sustain trust in cross-cultural teams? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


The blindest blind spot: What effective collaboration lacks

04 Feb 2013 Posted by Emily in Communication, Culture, Leadership

As published on, Feb 4, 2013

As it turns out, fruit dryers were unpopular in a coastal village in Nicaragua where a group of engineers were working. Had they known that “yes” in Nicaragua could sometimes mean “we don’t want to offend you,” they could have provided a different service.

In another instance, had development professionals not instantly assumed that walking to a well was a burden, they might have realized that the water faucets installed inside houses in a remote African village were cutting into women’s sacred time. Women in that particular area considered their journeys to collect water as time out of their homes.

I am confident that in both cases, aid workers had the intention of addressing local needs with available technology. Just the same, something got in the way of a successful project and what actually transpired.

Over the course of many years in the field, I took on the task of trying to understand why there appeared to be a gap between the desire to help a community and actually addressing its needs. I was soon introduced to participatory or collaborative methods but was disappointed to find that this only did part of the job of filling the gap. In observing and trying to implement participatory projects, I realized that before we can ask for the community’s input, we need to learn an entirely new way of communicating. I started to explore how cultures in different parts of the world practice a wide range of techniques to ask questions and listen for answers. Once we learn how this is done locally, we can hear what a community really needs or desires. Only then can we start to do participatory development.

Although we have a massive blind spot when it comes to truly communicating, we should not be too critical of ourselves as this has always been hidden from our awareness. In fact, similar to how computers operate within the boundaries of their programming, we, too, are subject to communication boundaries of unconscious cultural programming. Starting at birth, we are continually fed information on how to relate to others, what is “good and bad,” “right and wrong.” On an unconscious level, we amass this hidden reservoir of information that gives birth to our ideas of what is “common sense.”

Unless you have lived for years in another country, you may not know how intensely this cultural programming dictates how you communicate ideas. Furthermore, simply living in another country does not necessarily mean this link becomes clear. In order to carry through with productive participatory projects, we need to revisit this programming and learn a new way to listen. Luckily for us, scientists now tell us that we are not simply computers running a program. Through training, we can create new ways of seeing the world and interacting with it.

There is an inherent issue in international development that feeds into this conversation. The bulk of international development projects are funded by the developed North with the outflow of support headed to the developing South. With some notable exceptions in northern Asia, the cultural mores in these northern countries tend toward competitive individualism. This is a different programming than exists in the southern areas, where people tend to be more community oriented. These two fundamentally different orientations rarely ever seamlessly unite on participatory projects. What flows logically and automatically from these different orientations are dissimilar communication patterns, different ways of asking questions and listening to responses.

Once the recognition of difference exists, we can focus on that intermediary step of refreshing our programming so we can really learn how to collaborate on a project. There are many ways to do this but I am going to recommend one that is extremely simple: pause.

People from individualistic cultures tend to prefer direct, rapid fire let’s-get-this-done communication. This is appropriate to accomplish tasks efficiently and continue to move ahead. In this communication style, there is little tolerance for long breaks in conversations. Those from collectivistic cultures, however, prefer more circular, diffuse, indirect communication patterns. This is appropriate and effective in areas where preserving the reputation of everyone in the group is a priority. In these areas, long breaks in communication are not only expected but also necessary.

I know if I were in a group with people who had a range of roles in my community, it would take me a while to formulate a response that would not offend anyone. It may even take a few days. Therefore, to get the gems of information from people in collectivistic communities, pause. Allow for the process to unfold. Listening for indirect messages could have helped the professionals in that particular village in Africa understand the need of the women there to have an excuse to leave their house. Allowing for a longer pause might have helped the locals in that village in Nicaragua express that they were not interested in fruit dryers. Only when we learn this can we begin to truly serve communities, address real human needs and, honestly, save money we have been wasting for years on dead-end projects.

I would never assert that attuning to differences in communication is the only thing holding us back from successful participatory development. The fact that the community’s needs were never really heard just adds to the list of problems in development work such as time constraints, tight budgets, and limited technology. Just the same, I have learned with over 12 years in the field that this is an oft-ignored element.

The idea of participatory development has been included in international development documents since the 1970s when top-down dam projects were obviously more harmful than helpful to a number of communities in Asia. Now, 40 years later, stressing the importance of grassroots collaborative projects seems to be part of the most basic conversation on development.

We “know” that we need community input to have successful and sustainable projects. So, why is it surprising that the fruit dryer given to that community in Nicaragua is gathering dust in a closet a year later or women in a remote village in Africa are not fond of the water faucets that have been put into their houses? The answer is simple: We decided we should listen but we never learned how.