The Power of Building Relationships: Lessons Learned in the Desert

Why and where are personal relationships vital for business success? How do you get accepted into a tribe in countries of collectivist cultures of the GCC? How is it different from the way people do business in individualistic societies in Europe or the U.S., and why it is so hard for people representing these different cultures to find common ground closing business deals? – Ieva Naujalyte, a managing partner of Dubai and Vilnius based communications agency Adverum, and a president of the Lithuanian Business Association in Dubai is sharing her point of view.

Cult of the Tribe

Contrary to many European and American cultures, the Arabian Gulf countries belong to a collectivistic society. It means that GCC people value deep relationships, whether they are family relationships or friendships. They value commitment and loyalty to the group, to the tribe, above the idea of self.

Today’s family businesses, and actually most businesses, resemble historical tribes. Tribes have leaders and members with clear roles and responsibilities. There’s a way to look at all societies, even ours, as tribal. Dave Logan tells us in his book, Tribal Leadership, that there is a simple test: If you can pass someone on the street, stop to say hello and easily have a brief chat, you are in a tribe with that person.

In the Middle East, personal relationships are key to working with the business community or the government. People want to know that you can be trusted, and when it comes to hiring, promoting, or contracting decisions.

Loyalty to the tribe, concern for one another, dependence on those you can trust, and self-awareness of hierarchy and role define collectivistic societies. But how can we enter a tribe from the outside?

The 30/70 Formula

It is important to remember that regardless of culture, humans are social creatures and have a strong desire to develop and form new relationships. But discrimination and implicit bias also exist: we screen people immediately, we judge. These biases and a person’s qualifications make up 30 percent of the formula for developing an effective relationship in the GCC.

As a first step, it is important to overcome the biases by embracing your identity and showing that you’re proud of who you are and where you are from.

In the GCC, locals tend to trust Europeans since they associate Europe with quality and trust. Use this assumed credibility as your base. Demonstrate your qualifications: Have you ever studied in the United Kingdom? Mention it. Made a promise to deliver on time? Keep your promise. Demonstrate confidence, creativity, initiative, vision, and decisiveness.

Becoming Part of the Tribe

After we overcome biases and prove our qualifications, we still have 70 percent of that relationship to build, and it’s all about trust. The development of trust with middle Eastern partners is an entirely different process from the process of not losing trust with your European counterparts.

So how can we build that trust? How can we unlock the most important part of building a relationship? Let’s examine shared interests and shared values. At first glance, it seems impossible – social-economical barriers, differences in wealth leave us with not so much in common. On the other hand, they all like traveling, camping, water activities, football – matching any of this interest with yours will minimize the discomfort of a new relationship.

Let’s also examine shared values. A shared value also build bonds, even stronger bonds than shared interests, and makes you less of an outsider. We can attempt to observe the values of our potential business partner and identify how we can match them with our own.
Family, community, and religion are all strong values for the Middle East. Respect the religion, respect the culture, and they will respect you back.

Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady, a Finance and Economics professor from Saudi Arabia writes in his book The GCC Economies: “The basic rule of business in the Arab Gulf is to establish relationships first, build connections, and only actually come to the heart of the intended business at a later meeting”.

Before talking business – you have to talk personally. You shouldn’t talk about business the first time you see someone. Not even the second time, unless they start this talk themselves. The door to business relationships is behind the door of personal relationships.

Borrowing the Tribe

Shared interests, values, respect for the culture and religion, and investing time to build personal relationships are all elements that create trust. But there is another way. I will call it Borrowing the tribe.

In collectivist cultures, references and recommendations are very important. So if someone brings you into their circle of trust, you’re already closer to the tribe. It means someone has trusted you enough and that trust is something that tribes share. You can borrow the trust and leverage it yourself.

Trust and influence are currencies around the world and, like all other currencies, are never given out for free. First, you have to offer value in exchange. All over the world people are more willing to trust if they believe there are advantages in doing so. All the sales theories teach us that a successful relationship means an exchange of benefits.

In collectivist cultures, this rule also applies, but you have to be very careful about it. You have to give as much as possible out of the goodness of your heart. You have to give benefits without asking for any benefits in return. If you show that you expect something from this relationship – it will harm it.

The formula for successful business relationships in the collectivist cultures is simple: Demonstrate your qualifications, overcome any biases, earn their trust. No matter how good you are or what does your brand stands for, never really matters, it’s the personal relationships that matter. Because in today’s world, there’s no Business to Business, there’s no Business to Consumer. There’s only human to human.