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The 5 Key Aspects of Cross Culture Training


I have spent the last twenty years of my life running cultural awareness training programmes for companies of all shapes and sizes from all over the world. I have run training programmes for CEOs of major global organisations through to sessions with shop-floor workers.

During that time, I have come to recognise what ‘works’ in the cultural awareness training arena. What I mean by ‘works’ is that I have seen how cross cultural training programmes can add real value to individuals and an organisation and I have also seen what can turn attendees off from the topic and trivialise what is, in fact a vitally important issue for anybody who works across the barriers of culture, geography and language.

You might argue that I am merely pushing an approach which mirrors the way in which I deliver cross cultural training and in a sense that would be a fair accusation. However, my approach has changed and morphed significantly over the years as a result of my experiences with clients and feedback from those clients. The training programmes I deliver now are very different than those I designed twenty years ago. Times have changed but so has my understanding of what ‘good looks like’.

In this blog, I’d like to share five key issues which I think define the success or failure of any training intervention in the cross-cultural field and these are the areas which I feel any learning and development professional within a commercial organisation should focus on.

I. Ditch the theory

I have seen a lot of cultural awareness programmes that focus on the core cross-cultural theories developed by Trompenaars, Hofstede etc. These programmes simply don’t work. I’m not in any way denigrating the theories themselves or their authors, it’s just that they don’t resonate with the typical bottom-line focused, time pressured business executive.

The cultural theories should, of course, underpin the knowledge transfer in any good training programme but talking about ‘power distances’ or ‘the uncertainty avoidance index’ is a real turn off for delegates. The trainer needs to have an underpinning of theory but be able to make the theories real by adapting the theoretical terminology to be more that of ‘business as usual’. In business people talk about ‘appetite for risk’ and not ‘uncertainty avoidance indices’.

cross cultural training

Cross cultural training should be anchored in the day-to-day experiences of the delegates in the room. Don’t allow the trainer to shoe-horn your employees into their preconceived theories. We are sometimes asked to run training programmes based on running through the ‘preferred’ theory of the training organiser, but we very seldom do this – actually we never do this. Our aim is to add real value to an organisation and to the delegates and we are convinced that this is simply the wrong way to go about things.

Start with what you want to achieve by delivering the training and work back from that. What behaviours are you trying to shift? Are there any inherent biases that need to be altered? Is cross-border communication an issue and, if so, what are the impacts of any miscommunications?

II. The trainer needs knowledge and experience

As with any form of corporate training, the choice of trainer is critical. Of course, the programme structure and materials are also important, but the background of the trainer is vital – possibly more so than in many other forms of training.

Firstly, the trainer needs to be a specialist. In my view you cannot ask a generalist trainer to cover this topic – the subject area is just too vast and somebody with only a superficial understanding of the issue will be quickly found out and the confidence of the delegates will be lost. Secondly, the trainer needs to be commercial – and by that, I mean that the trainer needs to be able to directly relate global cultural issues to the business challenges faced by the client.

So, what should you look for in a cultural awareness trainer? From my perspective there are three key ingredients:

  1. A great deal of international commercial experience which must encompass having lived and worked in multiple countries over an extended period. The trainer must have been immersed in the complexities of working in different cultural environments.
  2. Experience of managing employees from different cultural backgrounds. Leading a team is a challenge at the best of times but leading a team of colleagues with a completely different cultural background to yourself can be bewildering.
  3. The trainer needs to be good at the basic skills of running a training course. This sounds obvious but some organisations draft in a colleague to talk about ‘Chinese business culture’ because they have some knowledge of the subject. That’s great but we all know that knowledge simply isn’t enough on its own in any training environment – the trainer needs to know how to teach as well.

If you test these three areas before appointing somebody to run your cultural awareness training, you should be onto a winner. (Training aptitude is probably the hardest to appraise, so best to run a pilot programme to check this out before committing to any large-scale intervention).

One last point on the selection of an appropriate trainer would be that anybody with the experience and skillset outlined above will probably not come cheap. In fact, I would say that alarm bells should ring if they are not reasonably top-end in terms of training delivery fees.

III. Story-telling is essential

Story-telling is currently in vogue but it has not always been thus. In the past, I have had clients tell me that anecdote and story-telling should be kept to a minimum – ‘just stick to the facts’. I’ve always known that putting the learning points into meaningful stories is imperative. I know this because delegates from cultural awareness training programmes have come up to me years later and said, ‘I’ve always remembered that story you told me about…and I think of that every time I’m doing business in Japan’.

Stories are what people remember and the topic of cultural differences are a ripe hunting ground for story-telling. One of the great joys of my job are the reflections and stories that delegates bring to every programme I run. People will say ‘Now I understand why this happened’ and then go on to outline an event which brings to life a cultural point I have just made. I always say that I probably learn more from my clients that I can teach them!

So, story-telling should come not just from the trainer but also from the delegates who are attending the programme. People like to hear from their peers and they like to learn from their colleagues. Total group involvement is a ‘must’. Simple discussion questions to the group, such as ‘What cultural challenges have you faced when dealing with colleagues in other offices?’ can bring out a rich vein of discussion topics and stories which can be used for illustrative and learning purposes. (The trainer must have the experience and knowledge-base to run with whatever arises from these discussions as they are obviously the key issues the group needs to address).

Now that story-telling is a buzz-word, I am at last able to confess to being a story-teller!

IV. It’s not all about them!

When challenges or problems arise in business which are the result of cultural misunderstandings, the common reaction people have is to say, ‘it’s all their fault!’. People rarely analyse their own actions or look for any culpability in themselves. The truth is, however, that in these situations it is very rarely (if ever) ‘all their fault’. It is usually partly their fault and partly your fault. Problems which arise as the result of cultural differences are never the result of maliciousness. People do not set out to deliberately cause disruption – the issues are usually the result of a lack of awareness and knowledge.

Therefore, a key element of any good cultural awareness training programme must be making people aware of the impact their actions are likely to have in completely different business culture. When you think you are being ‘upfront’ and ‘honest’, might that be interpreted as rudeness? If you think that the best way to approach a problem in a meeting would be to brainstorm the issue, might that be interpreted as a sloppy lack of attention to the all-important detail underpinning the situation?

Make self-awareness a key element of any cultural awareness programme. Everybody wears a pair of cultural spectacles which colour the way in which they view the world – the problem is that most people are not aware of those spectacles or think everybody in the world wears the same pair of spectacles that they do.

V. Communication, communication, communication

A typical cultural awareness training programme which we run would usually start by asking people to outline what they feel the most significant challenges might be when working cross-border and the most common responses relate to communication challenges.

This is not really surprising as effective cross-border communication is fraught with potential difficulty. People often assume that cross-border communication problems result from the fact that we all speak different languages – and that is a problem, but it is only part of the problem. It is not just the fact that we speak different languages which is a potential area of concern but it also to do with the fact that different cultures use language differently. What one culture considers to be good communication style is very often viewed as very poor communication style by a different culture. There is, in fact, no such thing as a globally correct way of communicating.

If cross-border communication is always by business international people as a major impediment to effectiveness, then surely addressing some of these areas must be a top priority in any good generic or country-specific cultural awareness training course. These courses should ideally address:

  1. Communication styles
  2. Use of English as the common language
  3. Body language
  4. Email style
  5. Conference calls

Check with your provider to see if these areas are adequately addressed.

Keith WarburtonThe main reason that I wanted to write this piece is that I am aware that if the cultural challenges of international working are not properly addressed in a cultural awareness training programme, delegates tend to dismiss this area as of little commercial importance and as a very ‘soft’ issue. This is not a ‘soft’ topic. It is diamond hard. The way in which you can efficiently and effectively collaborate with colleagues, clients and other stakeholders around the world can go right to the heart of how profitably you can run an international operation. Get this right and it’s great for your business; get it wrong and I guarantee that it will cost in terms of time, resource allocation and, inevitably profitability.

If you would like to discuss any of these areas, please get in touch.