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Rules and relationship-based cultures

How do different cultures build trust? This article explores the different tendencies towards building trust through rules or relationships.

The second cultural value in the TRAFIC model is trust, with its value being based on a continuum between rules and relationships.

The TRAFIC model acronym. The letter 'R', which stands for 'Rules', is highlighted in red.

Cultures can differ in how people form trust. In some cultures, rules are used as a foundation that allows different parties to build trust. In other cultures, trust is formed by firstly building relationships between individuals or groups.

People from rules-based cultures may…

  • Have a shared agreed set of laws or rules which underpin society and organisations. It doesn’t matter who you are, or your position in society, the rules should apply to you equally;
  • Respect experts who ‘know the rules’ for the organisations or groups they belong to. Examples could include, lawyers, police, a HR manager or religious leaders;
  • Frown upon those who try to circumvent rules;
  • Refer to ‘laws’, ‘guidelines’, ‘contracts’, ‘frameworks’, ‘processes’, ‘stamps or signatures’ etc.

People from relationship-based cultures may…

  • Expect individuals within society, organisations or groups to initially rely upon other individuals they already know and trust;
  • Look for an introduction to someone they don’t know from someone they do know;
  • Expect to build a relationship first before embarking on any commitments;
  • Expect help from those they have a relationship with;
  • Understand that ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’, and that rules are sometimes bent.

Different perspectives in rules-based cultures vs relationship-based cultures

Consider the following situations:

A manager in a relationship-based culture offers her nephew a lofty position in the company, despite the fact that this nephew is unqualified. A rule-based colleague of this manager tells his counterparts: “They’ll always help their friends and family over more qualified candidates. It’s nepotism. They cannot be trusted.”


On the opposite side, the relationship-based manager sees her rule-based colleague pass up a friend for a position in lieu of a more qualified candidate. She tells her team: “He will not even help a friend? How can we trust him?”

Are these different attitudes and approaches towards forming trust something that you have observed before? How have they influenced your interactions with others?
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Introduction to Cultural Intelligence

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