The Top 10 Myths of Cross-Cultural Training

                
 

Over 25 years ago, a small group of interculturalists and I got together to offer to businesses working internationally what at the time was a novel idea: to provide intercultural information and training in order to accelerate success when working in and with other cultures.  It seemed so obvious to us, all wide-eyed and fresh with our anthropology and international business degrees and overseas experience: business is done differently in different cultures, therefore, until you learn what those differences are and how to best manage them, you are at a distinct disadvantage working internationally, especially when your competition might know what you don’t.  Juiced with an exciting idea, and more energy than experience, we were, of course, immediately challenged by skepticism and general resistance to a new and unproven idea from clients who did not see the need to spend money on something they were currently doing well enough without, thank you very much.  Talk about bursting balloons.

Fast forward a quarter century.  After much ‘education’ (going two ways: we interculturalists explained the value of cultural training, and clients explained to us their questions), and after many expensive and calamitous client experiences of missed opportunities, blown deals, and wasted human resources, most organizations have come to view intercultural training not as an expense, but as a necessary investment that insures the success of the international project, whether that project is nurturing and developing an international transferee and family in Brazil, landing a business deal in China, retaining repatriates when they “come home”, or managing the organization’s greatest 21st century resource:  its global talent. 

Along the way, many new fields were born: international mobility, global talent management, intercultural training and consulting, and others.  And new needs have emerged: short-term assignees, perpetual expats, technology-driven solutions, etc.  And, as might be expected in the course of 25+ years, myths and “urban legends” have also developed around cultural training. 

So, in the hope of dispelling such myths and legends, here’s a short-list of what I regard as the top ten, gleaned from the experiences of a quarter century of providing intercultural training support, and offered in the hope that if we can dispel these now, once and for all, organizations can get on with becoming interculturally competent, as they must, and interculturalists can get on with helping them to do so. 

THE TOP TEN MYTHS OF CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINING:

#10. CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINING DOESN’T WORK.

A good cross-cultural training program works; a bad one, doesn’t.  And like all services in a free and open marketplace, some cultural training programs are very, very good; some are very, very bad, with all sorts in the middle.  We do know that good cross-cultural training provides the most efficient, pre-emptive way of developing the broadest set of culturally appropriate behaviors required for personal and professional success abroad when compared with other kinds of possible interventions (such as passive and informal information access, coaching, etc.), and certainly when compared with no support or training.  In our organization alone, we know that clients who come to us with early/pre-mature return rates (from assignment abroad) of 30%, for example, drop that rate to less than 5% with cultural training.  Considering the costs and problems associated with early returns (the inability to adjust to the culture being the primary reason for early returns), this represents a massive success story for good cultural training. 

On the other hand, if the training is poor, in design, delivery, content, goals, etc., the outcome will also be poor, and clients might still not experience the benefits, in cost savings, productivity and profit, that good cultural training should always produce.  There are established criteria that should always be evaluated when looking for a good, successful cross-cultural training program.  Many of these criteria will be highlighted in this article. 

But our point here is that judging the effectiveness of cultural training without considering the quality of the program is faulty logic.  It incorrectly interprets a correlation as a cause. 

 

#9. CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINING WORKS. 

But only if it’s “training”, and not just an opportunity to passively access limited generic cultural information.  I am referring to the difference between “training” for cultural knowledge and skills, and the mere “gathering” of information about a culture.  There are lots of ways to access information, cultural or otherwise: you can read a book, listen to a lecture, chat with an expert, and you can do all of this today in-person, or on-line.  But none of this is “training”, for only training allows for questions and answers, the exploration of how the information being received actually works within the personal context or situation of the receiver, and most importantly, the development and assessment of the ability to transform this new knowledge from cognitive fact to implementable behavior. 

Organizations need individuals who can successfully behave in new and more culturally appropriate ways when they live and work in a different culture. Organizations do not merely need individuals who may or may not have learned something relevant about a new culture by simply accessing some information in some way, via the web, or otherwise. Providing access to a website (which may contain limited, skewed, or even incorrect information), or a tool (which may also contain limited or dubious information, and which does not allow for developing and measuring the ability to implement new behaviors in personally relevant contexts) is not training.  Such web-based tools may provide yet a new venue for information gathering, but do not produce the benefits of real training: behavioral change. 

And any dollars spent on such tools will not produce the return on the investment that is necessary for successful global work.  Such dollars, however, are dollars well-spent as public relations for human resource managers who may be more interested in being able to say they are providing access to cultural information and preparation to their transferees and global teams than in actually providing the tools that will really facilitate the development of meaningful behaviorally-based cultural competencies.  Admittedly, the dollars spent on training are usually more than the PR dollars spent on tools that merely provider access to information.  However, the result of these dollars is not cultural competency.  So why spend them at all?

Finally, unless there is accountability, merely providing access to a website or web-based tool of cultural information does not insure that users actually, well, use it.  Studies show that most individuals who are provided access to such tools never or rarely use them.  Then again, maybe that’s not really an issue, if they don’t produce the cultural competency skills required in the first place.

 

#8. YOU CAN’T HAVE A GOOD PROGRAM UNLESS THE CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINER IS A NATIONAL OF THE COUNTRY BEING EXPLORED. 

Good cultural training requires up-to-date, rich culturally-correct and relevant information, delivered by knowledgeable trained and certified interculturalists who can explain the information and facilitate the development of new behavioral skills based on this information.  This means that the best people to deliver cultural training need to possess both correct and relevant cultural information and also be able to transfer this information in a way that allows for the attendee to develop new behaviors that they can apply immediately to their day-to-day work.  This person may not, in fact, be a country national.  In the curious way that culture affects all aspects of human endeavor, it also affects the ability to be a good cultural trainer. 

There are some cultures, for example, where speaking openly and honestly about one’s culture to non-nationals, can be very difficult, especially if negative or problematic issues need to be addressed.  In these cultures, nationals may feel the need to present only a “positive image” of their country to non-nationals, play down differences, and minimize potential problems.  This is not helpful to program participants who need accurate and unbiased information.  On the other side of the cultural spectrum, there are some cultures where nationals speaking to non-nationals about their culture, may feel compelled to highlight only those issues which make them uniquely different, challenging and difficult for any “outsider” to understand.  Again, this kind of cultural agenda is not very useful for a program participant. 

Being a national also does not automatically confer the training skills that are required to enable a program participant to develop and practice the new behaviors required for success in their new host country.  Being a national may, in fact, blind the country national so that they are unable to see the culture of the program participant and to understand and empathize with their struggle with the national’s culture.  Finally, being a national also does not automatically confer any implicit understanding of the personal or professional challenges that the program participant, and their family, might be facing.

The best cultural trainers, therefore, possess a combination of relevant, correct and up-to-date cultural information, an understanding of and empathy for the personal and professional situation of the program participants, a thorough understanding of the program participant’s culture, and an ability to transfer cultural information in a way that enables program participants to practice new behavioral skills that will be effective with or in their new host culture.  These criteria are not often found in one person, and often not in a country national.

Consequently, most effective cultural training programs are best delivered by a training team, led by a senior experienced intercultural trainer with significant life and work experience in the host country, PLUS a country resource professional: either a country national and/or a national of the program participant’s culture with significant and recent (within the last year) life and work experience in the new host culture that mirrors the program participant’s issues.  The senior intercultural lead trainer provides the objective information, and the country resource professionals provide the subjective perspective. 

 

#7. ASSIGNEES DON’T NEED CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINING; PARTNERS DO.

Well, yes, partners definitely do, but so do assignees.  Good cultural training programs need to address TWO major themes: how to successfully adjust and adapt to the challenges of day-to-day life as it affects the assignee, the partner, children, etc., PLUS how to successfully manage the challenges of working in and with a new culture (not only the host country, but also the host region, as most international assignees have region-wide work responsibilities).  After all, the reason the assignee was selected for the assignment in the first place is precisely to do a job, so understanding the work culture is imperative. 

It may be intuitive (and kind of sweet actually when you think about it) that assignees perceive the needs of their partners so keenly, but it also belies a blindness to their own needs, those being to develop the business and work skills that will allow them to succeed in their new culture.  These include understanding differences in work values, office protocols, roles of men and women, bosses and subordinates, differences in management and communication styles, conflict-resolution and decision-making styles, etc. The list of issues in the workplace that are affected by culture is extensive.

But in addition to learning about the work culture, the assignee themselves, just like their partner, goes through the psychological and physiological challenges of day-to-day adjustment, although the constant attention to work makes it easy for assignees and their partners to lose sight of this process.  Assignees themselves are so quickly consumed with work responsibilities, and have a built-in network of associates in the office for initial support, that it is easy for them to minimize their own adjustment and adaptation requirements to a strange and perhaps challenging culture.  In fact, the more challenging the culture, the more the assignee often hides out in work.  This is not a good strategy for professional or personal success on international assignment.  Bottom line: while the day-to-day adjustment needs of the partner and family may be more apparent at first, these same needs exist in the over-worked assignee, along with the very real need for cultural information on how to succeed in the regional workplace, making cultural training for the assignee themselves critical to the success of the assignment.

 

#6. LANGUAGE TRAINING IS FAR MORE USEFUL THAN CULTURAL TRAINING. 

We need to remember that the language of business around the world is NOT English: the language of business is the language of the customer, and that means that ultimately, in China, you’ve got to speak Mandarin; in Brazil, Portuguese; and in France, French.  If you don’t and your competition does, they get the contract.  However, the language of global communication in most global organizations is some form of “Global English”, which means that non-English speakers do need to develop business-level English competency to compete globally.  And that’s my pitch for language training.  Now is it more important than cultural training?  Probably not, unless you are the non-working partner of an assignee in a location where no one speaks English on the street, and you’ve got to negotiate with the shop-keepers every day to get dinner on the table that night. 

For, when it comes to the assignee working for a large global organization, chances are the language of day-to-day communications in the workplace is English, independent of the many local languages that may be spoken in the various cities around the world in which the company has offices and operations.  And while speaking the local language is always an advantage, fluency in a local language can take a long time, and getting there can be difficult and expensive.  Developing fluency in more than one language can take even longer.  And working in global organizations and on global teams means global English is more and more the lingua franca, making it less and less realistic to consider mastering any of the local languages of the team.  Language fluency is difficult, costly, time-consuming and less and less practical; however, cultural fluency can be developed quickly, at much less cost and time, and is easily implementable, providing immediate returns on the investment being made in its development. 

 

#5. SHORT-TERM ASSIGNEES DON’T NEED CULTURAL TRAINING.

Actually, short-term assignees, rotators, frequent business travelers, etc., have a greater need for cultural training than traditional assignees, when it comes to immediately implementable business-specific information.  So it’s not that short-termers don’t need cultural training: they just need a different type.  Traditional assignees have the luxury of time: they actually have the room to make mistakes and learn from them.  Short-term assignees MUST hit the ground running; they do not have the luxury of making mistakes and fixing them later; they must perform successfully immediately.  In short, they must not fail.  Therefore, they, even more than traditional transferees, must get off the plane fully culturally competent.  For this reason, short-termers need cultural training that arms them with the information and skills to do their job in a culture that does business differently. 

While good cultural training for traditional assignees, of course, also focuses on these business issues, training for traditional assignees additionally focuses on adjustment to long-term daily life challenges, for both the transferee and family, and these long-term adjustment issues are simply not a concern for typical short-termers, most of whom are more often single and young.  But short-termers must get the business and work information they need to perform at high levels of excellence immediately.  By the way, this doesn’t mean that short-termers don’t also have their own daily-life adjustment challenges: depending on the cultural differences they may encounter, their day-to-day may also be significantly challenged immediately upon getting off the plane, and they do need basic training for managing these differences.  Being younger may offer some short-termers greater exposure to cultural differences sooner than the typically older traditional expat, but early exposure is no guarantee of being able to manage such differences. 

Studies show that earlier and more frequent exposure to cultural differences can heighten awareness to their existence - and even to their implicit benefits – but that only formal training provides the understanding of these differences that is required in order to work with them effectively.  Youthful enthusiasm is no substitute for facts.

 

#4. CULTURAL COACHING IS CHEAPER, EASIER AND BETTER THAN CULTURAL TRAINING.

Cheaper?  Maybe, but only if the specific issue that needs to be addressed in a coaching session can be handled quickly and easily. If the issue is complex, or multi-varied, then you can be sure that it will require at least several coaching sessions, resulting in costs equivalent to, or exceeding, cultural training.  And the result will still not provide the “coachee” (the individual being coached) with the cultural information and broad adjustment skills required to handle other situations that are more typically provided in cultural training. 

Easier?  If efficiency is what is meant by “easier”, then the answer is definitely no.  Coaching, by definition, requires a series of interventions, which requires far more logistical coordination and time than a typical cultural training session. 

Better? Only if coaching is specifically and only what the transferee and family need.  But if the transferee and family actually need cultural and country information, a broad foundation in the business culture of the city, country and region in which they will be working, and the adjustment and adaptation skills required to journey through many different issues and challenges that are inherent in an international assignment, then coaching typically will not address these needs.  Let’s define terms: coaching is a support intervention designed to facilitate the development of a personally successful strategy for managing a specific issue or circumstance.  The coach typically does not provide solutions, information, or even the questions that need to be addressed.  

The role of the coach is to help the coachee identify the issues that need to be addressed for themselves, help the coachee come up with some possible solutions that might work, test some of those solutions out, come up with some tweaks, test again, and assess until the coachee feels they have addressed the problem.  The cultural coach is a facilitator who helps guide the coachee through the cultural elements inherent in their specific issue. 

A cultural trainer, however, provides relevant cultural information upfront, and helps the transferee and family to explore “best practices” that might work for them, as they face the personal and professional challenges of adapting and adjusting successfully to their new host culture.  Good cultural training should prevent most of the issues that cultural coaching addresses from emerging in the first place, as training is pre-emptive and preventative, while coaching is about what to do after the problem has occurred.  Coaching, if there are efficiencies to be gained, needs to be extremely issues-specific, while the cost-savings and efficiencies that result from training increase precisely because the skills and information being provided are broad and comprehensive.

In an ideal world, transferees and their families can benefit from a combination of cultural training and coaching, and the best kind of cultural training always includes an AFTER-training coaching component that can address any specific bumps which transferees and families might encounter as they go through their cultural adjustment.  Good cultural training should always be more than just a one-time event, and should always include after-training supports to address specific on-going needs, one of those supports possibly being coaching.  But even without after-training follow up coaching, the value of the cultural training will always be there; however, in reverse, cultural coaching, without cultural training, can never provide all the information and behavioral skills that transferees and their families require in the efficient and cost-effective way that training does.

 

#3. CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINING IS A “SOFT” NEED, A “NICE-TO-DO”, NOT A “MUST-DO”.

Only if training in general is viewed as a “nice-to-do”, and only if there is no measure in place for quantifying the costs and benefits associated with cross-cultural training.  If the organization does not measure the costs associated with failed assignments, declined assignments, pre-mature early returns, under-performing assignments, poorly managed global projects, repatriation attrition, etc., then it will never value the prevention of these costs that result from good cultural training.  Alternately, if the organization does not quantify the accelerated speed with which projects succeed, assignments go more smoothly with fewer problems, previously experienced difficulties are avoided, all as a result of good cultural training, then it cannot value the costs associated with delivering good cultural training. 

Seeing cultural training only as a “nice-to-do” soft service represents a failure to value the most critical skill organizations working globally need to develop: the ability to transfer hard skill expertise across cultures.  Those organizations that can do this have the competitive edge over those that cannot, given that hard-skill expertise exists in all organizations that compete on the global stage.  Therefore, if cultural competency is the “tipping point”, failing to formally train for this competency guarantees failure in the 21st century.  I know of no organization that would make a million dollar investment in a new process or business system, and not train the individuals who need to run that system to do so with maximum skill.  An investment of that caliber requires an insurance that it will perform.  And yet, if international assignees and their families – each representing an average investment of approximately one million dollars (when it succeeds; more, if it fails) – are not trained to manage cultural differences, the ROI on that investment is being put at risk, each and every time. 

And the same can be said for global teams who are not trained to the cultural differences they will experience when working with each other.  Given the costs associated with global projects, how could developing the cultural competencies required for their success ever be seen as a “soft skill”, a nice-to-do?  Such training is, in fact, the critical fundamental tipping point for global success.  Why would you not train for it?

 

#2. IT SHOULD ONLY BE DONE AFTER ASSIGNEES ARRIVE IN THEIR HOST COUNTRY.

Remove the word “only” in the above sentence, and add the words “before they accept the assignment, prior to their departure, as needed throughout their assignment, before they return home, and after they return home”, and I can agree with the statement.  In an ideal world, there should be some kind of training support available to assist and support transferees and global teams at every point in their global work cycles, and although most of us don’t live in an ideal world, we can provide assignees with the support they need in some way as they go through these cycles.  The question becomes knowing the various options available for the different needs that emerge, and selecting those that solve those needs in the best way, given the organization’s resources.   

And while international assignees and their families will experience challenges once they have arrived on-site, for most “first-time” assignees, providing them with as much information as possible about their new host culture before they step on the plane, may be far more beneficial than addressing any real-life bumps later on.  There is no doubt that experienced transferees may experience greater benefit from training once on-site, as previous relocations have already re-set their barometer of what to expect when making such a move; however, the re-setting of the barometer of expectations is absolutely critical for first-time assignees, and, given that additional supports may be available for any down-the-road settling-in bumps that might need to be addressed, the greater benefit for these transferees comes with being armed with pre-emptive information and skills and a clear-eyed knowledge of exactly what to expect, and how to manage it when it occurs.

 

…and the #1 myth about cross-cultural training….

 

#1. IT’S TOO EXPENSIVE.  I’d like to think that with all we’ve already said, it would be obvious that the costs associated with delivering the service are miniscule when compared with the costs associated with a failed or under-performing assignment, a missed opportunity, or a badly performing international project.  Nevertheless, we hear this myth expressed so often, that we just need to reiterate: cultural training is no more or less expensive than any other kind of training.  It can be based on a per-head basis, or a group discount, fees can vary depending on mode of delivery (webinar or classroom, etc.), but the cost for cultural training is exactly similar to the cost for any other kind of training. 

So the issue isn’t really the cost: the issue is whether this kind of training is valued or not.  Whether these costs are viewed as expensive depends on how the knowledge and skills being gained is valued.  Knowledge costs might be viewed as expensive, but ignorance is always more expensive; the costs of NOT knowing are always greater than the costs of gaining knowledge; prevention is always less costly than cure; and when working in the 21st century, the price paid for cultural ignorance will always be more than the cost of training to prevent it.

 

 

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