The global workforce is becoming increasingly multicultural, and not just for companies with international reach. It’s not uncommon to hear of an American manager in the US leading a team with Australian, Indian, Chinese, and European members. More and more companies are in business with customers, clients, and partners from diverse cultures and geographies. Furthermore, physical borders no longer separate today’s virtual workplaces.
Naturally, all of this requires employers and employees alike to have some degree of awareness and understanding of the cultures they are interacting with and the communication skills to go with it. Being culturally insensitive means running the risk of offending colleagues and clients and alienating employees, which can hit productivity and the company bottom line. That’s just how important culture is to how business is conducted.
Cross-cultural training is not just a way to overcome cultural challenges in the workplace but crucial to attracting and retaining foreign talent and clients and improving your global competitiveness. Organizations must, however, remember that a successful training program does more than just point out cultural differences (addressing your manager by their first name is acceptable in US culture; Asian employees may not speak unless prompted to) and impart business etiquette training (giving gifts to business partners in Asia, being punctual for meetings in Germany, avoiding personal talk in the office in France.)
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What is cross-cultural training?
Cross-cultural training (also called intercultural training or cultural competence training) equips employees with the awareness, knowledge, and skills they need to overcome cultural challenges in the workplace. It helps improve intercultural communication and close the cultural gaps that are often behind workplace conflicts, missed opportunities, and project failures.
Cross-cultural training could be as simple as employees learning how to pronounce their colleagues’ names correctly or employers forbidding the use of racial language and humor in the office, even in countries where it is accepted workplace behavior. But a well-rounded cross-cultural training program goes beyond such common courtesies. It addresses more complex themes such as the best ways to deliver criticism and feedback (which vastly differ from country to country) or how to build trust and lasting relationships with people from diverse cultures.
Culture is diverse
Most of us associate cross-cultural training with national cultures (American, Chinese, Japanese, etc). But culture can mean a lot of different things:
- Ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual identity create diverse groups of people who have their own unique ways of working.
- Different age groups – Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen Z, etc – have their own distinctive cultures shaped by the experiences of their generation.
- Company culture is defined by the vision of an organization’s founders or current leadership.
- Cultural differences might even exist between employees who equate career progress with academic credentials and those who put on-the-job training over educational performance.
An effective cross-cultural training plan takes all of these cultures into consideration.
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The 4 essentials of cross-cultural training
To be successful, a corporate cross-cultural training program must:
- Increase awareness: By gaining awareness, employees recognize that cultural differences exist. They learn to understand diverse cultural behaviors and motivations and avoid stereotypes. Cultural awareness also gives them greater control over their own behavior and actions, ensuring that these aren’t subconsciously controlled by their own cultures.
- Clear the lines of communication: Employees learn to communicate in an open, honest, respectful, and transparent manner. Good communication starts with being a good listener. With the right training, employees become active listeners who can pick up important cues even in conversations in unfamiliar languages. They interpret what they have heard within a broader framework of understanding. They also learn to deal smoothly with communication problems and not just take the opposing stand, which people are naturally inclined to do in such situations. Communication lies at the root of most workplace cultural problems, so it can be said that effective communication is the most important aspect of a cross-cultural training program.
- Impart skills: Interpersonal skills, empathy, tolerance, adaptability, and emotional intelligence are some of the skills critical to becoming culturally competent. But a cross-cultural training program is more balanced when it also helps participants pick up more generic skills such as communication, negotiation, sales, management, and leadership.
- Create a culture of diversity: Employees, especially those in managerial and leadership positions, learn the importance of building an inclusive work environment where people from different cultures feel accepted and empowered.
Empathy improves cross-cultural communications. Learn this valuable skill by taking any of Learnit’s wide range of Empathy courses.
Also check out our Inclusive Leadership course that’s designed to help you create an authentic experience of inclusion and belonging at your workspace.
The benefits of cross-cultural training
Intercultural training is advantageous to both employees and employers in various ways:
- It demystifies different cultures and makes us look at them more objectively. This stops us from labeling people and giving in to stereotypes, and helps us deal with people with a sensitivity and empathy that we might have otherwise lacked.
- It helps us overcome personal biases and preconceptions, which are detrimental to how we function in the workplace.
- Better understanding of another’s culture improves communication and leads to more open dialogue. It also helps us build strong people skills, which are beneficial in both work and life situations and can enhance our future employment opportunities.
- Cross-cultural training builds trust and creates lasting relationships, which is why teams with culturally competent members are likely to be more cohesive and united.
- Through self-examination, cross-cultural training helps us recognize our strengths and the areas where we need to improve. This gives us a better understanding of our roles in the team or organization.
- Culturally intelligent employees provide better insights into foreign markets, which vastly improves the company’s prospects in those markets.
- Cross-cultural training offers the tools that employees need to adapt quickly and confidently to their fast changing workplaces.
Learn to face and defeat your hidden prejudices with Learnit’s Unconscious Bias & Microaggressions workshop.
4 tips to creating a successful cross-cultural training plan
- Encourage introspection: Learning about other cultures is a given in cross-cultural training. But a successful learning program also requires self-examination. It makes participants take a long hard look at themselves and discover their own prejudices, preconceptions, and cultural values that subconsciously color their judgments and actions. It encourages them to be more accepting of foreign cultures, improve the quality of their intercultural interactions, and develop a global mindset. It can be said that the training has taken effect when participants start viewing other cultures without judgment, strive for understanding and inclusion, and are eager to try new things.
- Achieve global dexterity: For a cross-cultural training program to be effective, it’s not enough to teach employees about cultural differences – that American managers couch their criticism in compliments while their German counterparts are more direct, for example. More importantly, the training must equip employees to adapt and adjust their behavior and actions to those cultural differences in the most productive way. It must help them get comfortable with acting out of their natural styles. This skill is called global dexterity. Andy Molinsky, author of the book Global Dexterity, defines global dexterity as “the ability to successfully adapt your behavior in a foreign culture without losing yourself in the process. It’s about ‘fitting in’ without ‘giving in’ – learning to adapt your behavior to the new cultural rules, but doing so in a way that’s within your own personal comfort zone.” Molinsky explains that global dexterity is essential to successfully performing difficult tasks that are culturally-sensitive – such as giving or receiving feedback, conducting a performance review, or delivering bad news.
- Don’t forget non-verbal communication: Effective communication is central to being culturally competent. But remember, not all communication is verbal. Many cultures communicate through gestures and body language. The Japanese use fewer hand, arm, and full-body gestures and are also known to keep their facial expressions neutral in comparison to Americans. Similarly, looking your American client in the eye while making a business proposal is not a form of disrespect but, in fact, shows interest. Additionally, the same gesture can hold completely different meanings across cultures. Nodding your head, for example, symbolizes both agreement and disagreement, depending on where you are. Non-verbal communication is not only routine in business dealings but it holds information that can be immensely important to your decisions and lead to greater business success. Your customer’s gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and even the clothes they wear can both affirm and contradict their spoken words. A well-rounded cross-cultural training program helps participants pay attention to these little details and interpret them correctly while also watching their own body language.
- Deliver it right: Like any corporate learning and development program, the effectiveness of cross-cultural training lies in its content and delivery. A single page of instructions on the company website or a one-size-fits-all approach is bound to fail. Using more than one mode of training – classroom training, online workshops, role-play, case studies, mentoring, lunch and learn, etc – increases chances of engagement, learning, and retention. Corporations that can afford it should sponsor employee rotation programs, diversity summits, and cultural seminars so that employees can actually travel to different destinations and get a real feel of the cultures they are studying. Including informal learning opportunities – a discussion over lunch after a formal training session, for example – adds value to the training program. Trainers should have in-depth knowledge of their subjects and be prepared to answer any questions that might arise. At the same time, they must be patient with their audience, which might hesitate to communicate in a foreign language or be uncomfortable in an unfamiliar culture. Companies must keep in mind that cultural awareness is a continuous learning process. Therefore, a cross-cultural training program should be a regular feature of their learning and development initiatives.