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

Employees key to bouncing back after the recession

Few companies have come through the past 2-3 years unscathed by the recession. Leaders should consider the impact the recession has had on those who have survived in your organization. How are your employees doing at riding the wave of the economic crisis?

  • Are they disheartened, barely hanging on?
  • Are they committed to your organization and doing everything they can to maximize revenue?
  • Are they coming to you with innovative solutions to bring new customers?
  • Are they maintaining your reputation or just waiting for an opportunity to jump ship?
  • Have you been so focused on surviving the recession to pay much attention to the needs of your employees?

Most companies cut training and development when times get hard.  At the same time incentives and motivational processes take a hit, leading to a discouraging scenario for employees.  If layoffs or deferred hiring also are used to cut expenses during a downturn, the surviving employees are asked to do more with less. The accumulative effect is a disengaged workforce that puts in minimal effort, feeling that the organization doesn’t do anything to earn their commitment.

Not all of this is fair, of course, since employers have to do something to ride out the storm. It’s important for business leaders to understand the value of learning during challenging economic times. The old adage, “You have to spend money to make money” comes into play here.  According to a 2009 study by The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and i4cp (Organizational Learning in Tough Economic Times), 38% of companies plan to place more emphasis on learning during the economic crisis. The remaining 60% are either maintaining pre-recession levels or cutting back, some drastically.

The reality is that there’s never been a better time to focus on talent development within your organization.  It is your employees that will pull your company through and help your regain traction as the economy begins to recover.  Managers and business owners must become astute at managing performance, growing talent, and leveraging strengths to maximize human capital.

Because people are the cornerstone to any business – the foundation upon which the organization either stands strong or falters, the wisest thing for companies to do is become experts in managing human performance.  A strong human capital strategy includes an assessment of desired verses actual performance, analysis of strengths & competencies and selection practices to ensure the right people are in the right job, and a commitment to developing people that doesn’t waver despite market and economic fluctuations.

The good news is that human performance management doesn’t have to be expensive! And the return on investment pays off quickly. The key is having a plan and sticking with it. Once processes are in place they can be maintained through feast or famine.  Keep in mind the toll that the economic crisis has on your employees and consider budget-conscious solutions that will keep them engaged. Your employees want to succeed, but need to know they can trust management to support them.

As businesses make difficult decisions about how to pull through the current economic downturn, they must think beyond the knee-jerk reaction to slash costs to the bone. In ASTD’s Economic Survival Guide, the message is “Survival of the learning function in a down economy is all about leveraging existing best practices, eliminating redundancies, and creating programs or situations where employees can learn from each other.” You may want to invest in the services of an organization development consultant to initiate your human performance analysis, which will ensure you’re focusing on the most valuable efforts that lead to sustainable performance and position your company for success as the economy bounces back.