When in Rome: Note Cultural Differences When Training, Experts Say

By Aliah D. Wright Jun 8, 2009

They sat in a conference room, more than 50 of them, discussing the best ways to train employees in other countries and those from other cultures.

They brought up challenges: classroom training vs. online training; providing culturally appropriate training; time management; recruiting; cultural differences; interacting with people across time zones.

“We live on a very complex globe,” Fernando Sanchez-Arias, chief learning officer and strategic director of Grupo Lukiven-E&N, and an expert on global training, said during a session titled the “Do’s and Dont’s of Doing Business and Training Worldwide” at the American Society for Training & Development’s International Conference & Exposition held May 31 through June 3, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

“The world is changing every second,” said Sanchez-Arias. “Social changes are affecting us dramatically; our families and workplaces are not the same anymore.” Productive workers will need new skills to deliver improved results to “co-workers and stakeholders in our companies,” he said.

Yet, in many companies, when business is bad, training gets slashed.

In a blog post on Renegade HR, noted HR expert and blogger Sharlyn Lauby, SPHR, writes that companies “need to quit chopping the training budget every time money gets tight.”

“The future of work is not conducting training,” said Lauby, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Membership Advisory Council. “It’s about changing the perception of training in the workplace.”

Experts said global training requires different approaches depending on the audience.

“We need to be paying attention to cultural differences and languages” said John Lake, master trainer for Trane Commercial Systems. Failing to note those differences can be detrimental to business, he said.

In their new book, Managing Across Cultures: The Seven Keys to Doing Business with a Global Mindset, Charlene M. Solomon and Michael S. Schell of RW3 LLC list several case studies in which businesses like Wal-Mart and GE failed to note the importance of cultural differences when entering markets in Germany and Italy, respectively. Conversely, before branching out to foreign markets, the Colgate-Palmolive Co. and McDonald’s took the time to note the differences in cultural behaviors and tastes before moving to those territories successfully.

“When training workers in other cultures, it’s critical for the trainers to recognize and be aware of the learning styles in those countries,” Schell told SHRM Online. “For example, is it participative learning, like in the U.S., where learning is conducted in practice groups, or is learning a didactic, lecture-driven practice such as in Africa and Asia?”

Such a distinction is particularly important “because understanding culture will affect your training style,” Schell adds. “If you expect interactivity, you may not get it if the class is expecting a didactic professional approach.”

Never Underestimate Preparation

Here are some tips that Sanchez-Arias says HR professionals should utilize when training in another culture:

  • Think first. Learn about their language and avoid using jargon. Adapt content to their reality.
  • Use your heart. Learn how to handle your emotions and how people in the culture you’re training in express themselves. How do they process humor? What is funny to you might not be funny, and might be offensive, to them. Know their values.
  • Be aware of your posture. Your movements, your gestures, your facial expressions, whether or not you make eye contact are important factors. “In Asia, not making eye contact is a sign of respect,” Sanchez-Arias noted. Study the way to greet, to exchange business cards, to sit, to walk, to dress and to move. For example, “Making a fist in Brazil means good luck; in Venezuela it’s offensive.”
  • Faith and religion. How you deal with a faith that is opposite of yours is important. If, for example, “you believe there is one God and you go to India—you will be in trouble. Study how their faith can impact your training or business.”
  • Think context. This is: where they live, how they live, how the society is, and the politics of that society, Sanchez-Arias said. Discover “how important family, work and society are to them.” Some countries and cultures are more family-oriented, others more work-driven.
  • Respect. Apologize if your cultural ignorance suggests lack of respect to others. Study them. Be conservative and careful. “Know that you don’t know everything,” Sanchez-Arias said. If possible, work with a facilitator or local assistant who can help you bridge cultural differences.
  • Elasticity. “Be flexible and adaptable.” Don’t criticize local customs. Engage socially when possible. Some cultures see refusals of dinner invitations as disrespectful. Others might require you to dance all night to close a deal.
  • Synergy. “Understand that diversity and differences are critical to the success of a team,” Sanchez-Arias said.
  • Purpose and planning. Review their planning systems and methods. Learn about their processes and their importance.
  • Emotional Intelligence. “Be able to identify your emotional responses to their cultural behaviors,” Sanchez-Arias said. Develop the ability to choose the best responses to conflicting issues about race, faith, age and other issues.
  • Creativity. Learn how to create ideas that reflect their culture. How creative are you when faced with uncertainties that will arise every day?
  • Time. Be mindful of how they perceive and value time. Change your behavioral patterns about time. Discover their deadlines. Study their schedules.

“The United States is a very time-oriented culture,” Lake added. For example, he said that when he’s conducting workshops in the United States they might last three days, but they’re four days in Europe and five days in Asia. In some cultures, “you can expect a long day and they’re OK with that,” Lake said.

Most of all, Sanchez-Arias said, trainers should always “captivate people with respect.”

And remember your comportment.

“Behavior is a very big deal,” Schell said. On a scale from one to 10, “in some cultures it’s a 10; in some it’s a 5; but it’s never unimportant. A group being trained in a hierarchical Asian culture will be confused if the trainer is casual in his or her demeanor or dress because their expectation of a teacher is one who has all the answers, not one whose role is to help you learn.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Twitter with her at 1SHRMScribe.


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