Cultural Savvy in the Training Room

Unconsciously baked into every training program are a group of biases, preferences, and approaches that overlook the cultural and sub-cultural realities that training participants bring with them to the classroom. With increasing regularity the training room is filled with a diverse mix of individuals that, without attention to this reality, could be hampered in their learning if trainers and instructional designers don’t develop some cultural savvy.

A good diversity program encourages awareness of and appreciation for a laundry list of differences from ways of thinking (cognitive diversity) to education, socio-economic background, race, gender and age. We learn not to judge others for those differences, but to find common ground. We look for ways to learn from one another and draw on each person’s strengths as we work in teams and strive to reach the organization’s goals.

Diversity training is seen as a program – something that good companies do to help employees get along and create goodwill in the community. Yet as our organizations become more global and cross-cultural, little has been done to ensure training is conducted in a way that makes sense to the globally diverse workforce.

With western dominance in the area of training development, most training programs are designed within a very narrow framework by instructional designers with little, if any, training in cultural dimensions.

Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede is well-known for his longitudinal study that led to the identification of six cultural dimensions:

  1. Power Distance: the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism: loose-knit social framework where individuals take care of themselves vs. a tightly-knit social framework where relatives and in-groups take care of one another.
  3. Masculinity vs. Femininity: Traits that are considered masculine are achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material reward for success. Feminine traits are cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance: the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
  5. Long-term vs. short-term orientation: Societies with a short-term orientation generally have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth. In societies with a long-term orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time.
  6. Indulgence vs. restraint: Indulging societies allow for free gratification of human drives for life and fun. Restraining cultures suppress gratification using strict social norms.

Watch Geert Hofstede talk about the Seven Deadly Sins in a Multicultural World

  1. Trainers and instructional designers should learn about the cultural dimensions. In addition to Hofstede’s view, Robert House led a study of 62 societies in the GLOBE study. Both Hofsted and House are good starting points for understanding cultures.
  2. Find a middle-ground that avoids extremes that can cause a learner to shut down. The best approach is variety. Use difference teaching methods to ensure all cultures are engaged at some point during the training. Go from lecture, to small group discussion, to role-playing/experiential exercises.
  3. Know your audience. To the degree possible, consider the cultural diversity within the classroom and adjust your approach accordingly.
  4. Adjust as you go. Watch for reactions of participants and try different teaching methods if it seems learners are indifferent, disengaged, or even hostile. This is a good practice no matter what the makeup of the class, since there is some level of diversity in every training session.

American’s tend to like trainers who are high-energy, humorous, and get the audience actively involved. I’ve witnessed this approach in global contexts as a U.S.-based trainer is sent to England, Bangalore, or Manila to conduct product training. This over-the-top, highly individualistic and indulgent style often did not resonate with the audience, who was used to lecture-style training within a strict hierarchy.

The opposite can happen, too, as a lecture-based training can be viewed as boring and un-engaging by American’s who want to be actively involved through exercises and dialogue.

Conducting effective training in a global context is becoming increasingly difficult. Cultural savvy is a critical element that will greatly benefit trainers who want to ensure learning is taking place.

Every culture has its biases, preferences and values. Developing an understanding of cultural differences and proactively building training programs to incorporate the dimensions of culture will lead to more effective training. An additional benefit of building cultural savvy into the training room is that walls of miscommunication are broken down and relationships are forged.

Purchase these books from the Minding the Gap Bookstore:

Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across NationsCulture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 SocietiesCultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition

Investment-Based Performance Improvement

I am a certified performance technologist (CPT). What in the world does that mean? According to the International Society for Performance Improvement, a CPT has proven the ability to apply the ten competencies of human performance improvement in a way that makes a positive performance difference to an organization. Don’t worry, this post is not going to be a shameless self-promotion. I want to focus on my approach to performance improvement and how I’ve shifted my focus from ambition to investment.

First, an overview of the competencies of human performance improvement (HPI):

The 10 Standards of Performance Technology, which are based on four principles and following a systematic process to improve performance, ensure that the Certified Performance Technologist has conducted his or her work in a manner that includes the following:

  • Focus on results and help clients focus on results.
  • Look at situations systemically taking into consideration the larger context including competing pressures, resource constraints, and anticipated change.
  • Add value in how you do the work and through the work itself.
  • Utilize partnerships or collaborate with clients and other experts as required.
  • Systematic assessment of the need or opportunity.
  • Systematic analysis of the work and workplace to identify the cause or factors that      limit performance.
  • Systematic design of the solution or specification of the requirements of the      solution.
  • Systematic development of all or some of the solution and its elements.
  • Systematic implementation of the solution.
  • Systematic evaluation of the process and the results.

Performance improvement, when done with these standards in mind, can be a powerful tool in any organization.  Any time an individual or work group applies a systematic, intentional process to making things better, the results can be like compounding interest in a savings account, leading to great gains over time. The practice of performance technology is a focused effort to innovate solutions to systemic challenges.

Why Your Approach to Performance Improvement Matters

I want to contrast ambition-based performance improvement and investment-based performance improvement.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives three definitions for Ambition:

  1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power b: desire to achieve a particular end
  2. the object of ambition <her ambition is to start her own business>
  3. a desire for activity or exertion <felt sick and had no ambition>

All of these uses of the word ambition center around an individual trying to get his or her way. Ambition is self-promoting. The original usage applied to those going around town to solicit votes for election. So if I initiate a performance improvement effort from an ambitious mindset, I am first looking at my own rank, power, and ability to influence others to my way of thinking.

Investing, on the other hand, focuses on what I can give to another, making them the center of attention rather than myself. Here’s what Merriam-Webster provides as definitions for Invest:

  1. [Medieval Latin investire, from Latin, to clothe] a: to array in the symbols of office or honor b: to furnish with power or authority c: to grant someone control or authority over : vest
  2. to cover completely : envelop
  3. clothe, adorn
  4. [Middle French investir, from Old Italian investire, from Latin, to surround]: to surround with troops or ships so as to prevent escape or entry
  5. to endow with a quality : infuse

I like the picture that we get from the first usage above: to array in the symbols of office or honor. It ties to the idea of empowerment and equipping people with the tools and structures to succeed in their work. I am a strong believer in servant leadership, which fits perfectly with an investment-based performance improvement methodology.

Investment-based performance improvement has four distinct characteristics:

  1. Humility
  2. Humor
  3. Harmony
  4. Honor

These 4 H’s, when used in conjunction with the competencies of performance technology, create an environment where individuals work collectively for the good of the organization while building one another up.

Let’s take a look at each of the characteristics.

Humility.

We don’t talk much about humility in the workplace. Our western culture views humility as a weakness, something that gets in the way of ambition. Many view humility as unrealistic in the cut-throat world of the marketplace where it’s “eat or be eaten.” But humility is making a resurgence in the marketplace. Good guys (and gals) really can finish first.

Humility breaks down barriers of communication, disarms individuals from protecting their territory, and allows us to listen. When we are driven by ambition, we cannot hear what is being said because we are always looking to promote ourselves and our solutions. But with humility I can truly listen, truly desire to hear, and see where the insight emerges, even if it doesn’t originate with me.

Humor.

It may seem odd to make humor a characteristic of investing, but it makes such a big difference that it warrants an honored place as an essential element in working with others toward common goals. When I say humor, I am not talking about sarcasm, jokes, or laughing at the mistakes or shortcomings of others. Instead, humor as an investment gives us perspective. It is the ability to look at a ridiculous situation and see it as it is – a case of human reality at its finest and most sublime.

Many of us have lost our sense of humor in the workplace. We have become cynics or comics, but have no good humor that allows things to slide. We are quickly offended, proud of our fast retorts, and use humor to tear others down to make ourselves look better. But humor as an investment intentionally laughs at challenges, sees the irony and chooses to smile instead of lash out, and promotes light-heartedness over criticism or caustic remarks.

Harmony.

Harmony embraces diversity, especially cognitive diversity where we bring together different perspectives, unique insights, and approaches to situations that may be foreign to our own experience or preference. Harmony as a performance investment looks to blend ideas from multiple sources into one beautiful arrangement that is infinitely more than anyone single individual could accomplish.

To create a harmonious workplace requires that we look at each individual and learn to appreciate what they bring to the party. We have a tendency within our human nature to look for homogeneity – we immediately seek out those who are like us. It makes us feel comfortable, part of the group. But diversity is all around us, and we must promote harmony through building rapport with those who see things differently, looking for areas of agreement, but mostly striving to appreciate their point of view and working to integrate the best from all sources.

Honor.

The final characteristic of investment-based performance improvement is honor. Honor and harmony are kindred spirits, since honoring someone can lead to harmony. But I keep honor as a distinct characteristic because of its importance as a mindset toward other people. Honor has to do with “a showing of usually merited respect.” When we honor someone, we hold them in high regard. We see them as a person of value, worthy of investment.

In another sense of the word, we consider it an honor to work with certain people, or to be recognized by them. When it comes to investing in someone else, to make their ability to perform at their peak level, we should consider it an honor. That person may be on a different level in a corporate hierarchy, but if we choose to see it as a privilege to assist them in their success, our ambition takes a back seat.

Investment-based performance improvement, using the 4 H’s as the philosophical starting point, sparks a positive change in the workplace. Whether a certified performance technologist, a supervisor working with a team of customer service reps, or vice president of national sales, you are making an investment in the lives of others. Ambition has its place, but when our ambition centers on our own power, glory, and advancement we quickly become blind to how investing in the performance of others raises all of us to a higher level. When you raise others up, you go a little higher yourself, but then you realize that isn’t really what it’s all about after all.

For more about Human Performance Technology and the Certified Performance Technologist designation, visit the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). If you decide to join, make sure you list me as the one who referred you!

Fundamentals of Performance Improvement: A Guide to Improving People, Process, and Performance

Project Management Skills Should be Required for Everyone!

Project Management Lifecycle

An organization I work with recently switched to a new email server. The plan was that at the flick of a switch everything would migrate to the new server and in less than five minutes everyone would be up and running. A week later the mess is still being cleaned up.

Very few IT projects that I’ve participated in have been implemented without some unexpected glitch. In fact, I think the mantra of many in IT is “expect the unexpected.” The point being, as optimistic as one might be, it’s a good idea to think about what could go wrong and plan accordingly. And just as importantly, communicate accordingly.

In the scenario I described above, even if the switch would have worked and the system was up within minutes, there was additional set-up that every user needed to complete to activate the system. No one anticipated this. No email message with self-service instructions was provided, so the IT staff has had to work individually with everyone in the organization to get them set up.

Unfortunately, situations like this happen all the time.  We get focused on the core task and forget what is happening up and down stream. As a college professor I believe a critical skill that every college graduate must learn is basic project management. The project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) focuses on five key processes:

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and Controlling
  5. Closing

There are also nine areas of knowledge that are central to managing any type of project:

PMBOK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not everyone who leads a project will need to be concerned with every aspect of these nine areas of knowledge. However, a basic education in project management will promote the acquisition of a project management mindset that identifies areas of risk, possible derailments, and contingency plans. When employees are taught to anticipate what might happen, whether in customer interactions or technology implementations, communication can help control the process and curtail the need for inefficient crisis management if things go wrong.

The key to managing any project is asking the right questions before the project moves an inch. Here are a few that apply to almost all projects, and should be asked by everyone whether they are managing the project or not.

  1. What, exactly, is changing? What will be different when we’re done?
  2. What might go wrong? What will happen if things go awry? What makes for a good project implementation?
  3. What is my role? Do I need to communicate information down the line?
  4. Do I have critical information or concerns that I need to share with someone in charge?
  5. What assumptions am I making about the project?
  6. Are there others who may be affected by the project who don’t know as much as I do? What might I need to share with them?
  7. What could be done to make the project as smooth as possible?
  8. Would it help to create a FAQ document? A job aid or quick reference guide? What would help me do my job easier – that’s usually important to everyone.
  9. What has been communicated about the project? Is it sufficient? If someone walked in off the street could they make sense of what was happening?
  10. What are my co-workers most likely to ask questions (or grumble) about?

Failure to effectively manage projects results in inefficiency, including re-work or additional work, and causes hours of grumbling among staff. A little pre-planning and an extra communication effort can make a huge difference in the execution of a project. Going back to my original example, if the questions above were given any consideration, a whole week of stress, confusion, and reduced productivity could have been avoided.

The One-Page Project Manager: Communicate and Manage Any Project With a Single Sheet of Paper

Order The One-Page Project Manager from Minding the Gap Bookstore!

Absolute Beginner's Guide to Project Management (2nd Edition)
Order The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Project Management from Minding the Gap Bookstore!