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

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