Developing a Learning Culture

How To Create Impactful Cross-Cultural Training In The Workforce

If your company is an international organization, you know all about the perils of communication being lost in translation. These missteps may not actually be due to a language barrier, but due to differences in etiquette, communication style, or even in how feedback is given and received. Expanding your organization across different countries and cultures introduces a wealth of knowledge and experience to your workplace environment but can also introduce complex layers to areas of your organization, including employee training. 

Let’s explore what companies can do to create an effective cross-cultural training program in the workforce, and why it’s important. 

Why cross-cultural training matters 

Whether it’s your team members or the business partners your organization may be working with, a multicultural workforce has become the norm. Naturally, this means that having an understanding of the people you are working with, their culture, and the importance of workplace diversity is imperative to your organization’s productivity and success. 

Cultural training, or cross-cultural training, is adesigned to help individuals in global organizations create a framework for positive engagement and collaboration within diverse cultural environments. Cultural training does this by enhancing awareness and sensitivity towards cultural differences, increasing cultural understanding, and building necessary communication skills. 

The goal of cross-cultural training is to help employees understand and adapt to different cultures, especially in virtual workplaces where borders are removed. It helps employees feel seen and understood. It also increases empathy for coworkers, and it is essential for effective teamwork in international organizations. A 2020 McKinsey report showed companies that took action to create and promote inclusive behavior were more likely to financially outperform the other companies in the study. 

While you’re brainstorming new ways to keep your team engaged and connected, don’t forget to consider the cultural ramifications of your international organization. 

The key components of effective cross-cultural training 

When implemented successfully, cross-cultural training can directly address frustration or stress in employees due to a lack of sensitivity to cultural norms. Taking the time to help colleagues build their cultural understanding of each other makes all the difference in setting expectations and building rapport among employees from different cultures. While there is no single approach to cross-cultural training, here are some key components you’ll need to pay attention to in order to create a successful cultural training program: 

Building awareness 

There is value in cultural differences, as we can all learn from each other. Through increasing awareness, we can recognize that cultural differences exist and work to understand diverse cultural behaviors and motivators. We can avoid cultural stereotypes and become aware of our pre-existing biases. From there on, cultural understanding and awareness can allow colleagues to gain control over their own behaviors and actions to adapt to each other, ensure clarity in communication, and reduce potential conflict. 

Interactive and engaging learning methods 

In order for a training program to be successful, it must be interactive and engaging. Having higher levels of employee engagement in your training programs usually begets higher levels of active participation, which is crucial to the effectiveness of your training program. This allows employees to gain a practical understanding of how cross-cultural training can be implemented in the workplace. For example, a role-playing exercise can help not just with navigating cultural differences, but also with conflict resolution. 

Lasting training effectiveness and impact 

For some organizations, rapid growth into a global workforce can leave employees feeling hesitant and unsure of how to proceed in relationships with their new coworkers. While a cross-cultural training program focuses mainly on interpersonal skills such as empathy and adaptability, a balanced program should also impart other skills like communication, leadership, and conflict resolution. The tools and practices found in a balanced cultural training program should assist employees in adapting to their changing workforce quickly and confidently. 

Open lines of communication 

Learning to understand and respect cultural differences doesn’t end with cross-cultural communication training but continues into the day-to-day of the workforce. As such, having open lines of communication is crucial for encouraging continuous learning. When employees can communicate respectfully and transparently, they continue learning from each other. By improving active listening skills, communication issues can be resolved as they arise and can help build an inclusive work environment where multiculturalism can thrive.  

Practical strategies for implementing cross-cultural training 

So you’ve decided that cross-cultural training would be beneficial for your organization but don’t know where to start? Having a practical approach to implementing cultural training in the workplace can help ensure your program doesn’t get lost among other policies and initiatives that you may have introduced around the same period. Consider the following steps to help you start thinking about the proper framing for your cross-cultural training and how to deliver it to your employees. 

1. Set the stage 

Your employees might already feel overloaded with all of the new ways of working they’ve learned over the past year. Cultural training can often imply to employees that there are cultural issues at play, so reframe the conversation by marketing your program as an opportunity to get to know one another better. Marketing your cultural training via a hearts-and-minds campaign helps employees understand exactly why it’s necessary for moving forward. Highlight what’s in it for them: smoother communication, better feedback, and more empathy toward their colleagues. Don’t deploy your training without first setting the stage and getting employees (and executives) on board.

2. Listen

Unless you have boots on the ground across all locations, departments, and silos, it’s impossible to create a cultural training program that addresses every single concern. Instead, feedback will be your main source of information as you identify potential issues and build out your courses. Offering anonymous surveys is a great place to start and empowers employees to speak out about cultural issues they’ve experienced. Once you’ve gathered feedback, you’ll know what areas concern your employees the most, allowing you to create hyper-specific solutions to benefit your team members and your organization as a whole.

3. Tell a story

At ELM, we’re kind of obsessed with storytelling, and for good reason: it’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to create emotional connections between learner and material. With cultural training, you already have a story in motion; use it to your advantage so learners can see themselves in the part of the protagonist. Tell a story of how it feels to get lost in translation on both sides of the spectrum, and walk your learners through familiar scenarios. As mentioned earlier, role-playing exercises can help turn a scenario into an engaging way to practice the skills being learned. Doing so captures emotions in a more meaningful way and primes employees to pay better attention to potential solutions.

4. Prioritize communication 

If you only have the time or bandwidth to focus on one facet of cultural training, it should be communication. Communication is at the root of most cultural issues in a global organization and is a natural place to start. Once you’ve trained your employees in culturally sensitive communication, you can build on that foundation. Some communication-based topics to focus on include:

  • Common language barriers and the use of colloquialisms that may not translate well
  • Differences in cultural tones
  • Body language
  • Written communication policies

Your employees have likely already dealt with issues stemming from these topics. Gather feedback and come up with training solutions that address them.

5. Focus on the bigger picture 

The global workforce is changing at a breakneck pace and we’re all learning at the same time.

Rather than being paralyzed by the issue (or worse, ignoring it completely), address it head-on. Show your employees that you’re aware of and willing to address cultural differences even if they come with growing pains and uncomfortable conversations. You’ll find that developing cross-cultural training is a worthwhile investment in the long run. 

Overcoming challenges in cross-cultural training

As with any other project, there are bound to be challenges and obstacles when implementing cultural training. Being aware of any potential challenges can prepare you to resolve issues as they arise. Let’s look at some of the common challenges that may hinder the execution of your culture training program: 

Language barriers 

Having diverse cultures in the workforce means having diverse languages, which can result in  language barriers. Language barriers can affect the planning of your program as well as facilitation. Assessing your employees’ range of skills and common languages can help paint a picture of everyone’s ability to understand the program content and how much content can be covered per day. To address this, gather feedback on language proficiency before the program, and consider having recordings of the sessions that participants can listen to again on their own. You can also consider having translated training resources or breaking up your course content into bite-sized modules. 

Information dissemination and accessibility

How do your employees best receive information? Are they more comfortable with written or verbal information? If your cultural training program is being held online, are they familiar with and well-versed in the technology being used? Consider these factors before introducing any cultural training program, and address any issues your employees may have in accessing the information presented during the program. You can also ensure all employees have equal access to a reliable Internet connection and even provide the material in advance if Internet connectivity is an issue. 

Cultural relevance in content 

Context in content can help to relay the message of your cultural training program. For example, if your employees are primarily German, they may not understand content that references parts of American culture. Consider building flexibility to adapt into your cultural training program so you can adjust as the training program goes on. Some cultures are not as well-versed with activities such as role-playing or case studies, so challenges with understanding and engaging with these activities may arise. Some areas to take note of when designing or delivering your culture training content include:

  • Avoiding geographical or historical references 
  • Avoiding unfamiliar slang or jargon 
  • Avoiding using humor 
  • Avoiding references to politics and religion 

Consider doing an audience analysis before the program begins to assess your employees’ comfort with certain exercises or engagement activities. 

Unclear objectives 

A cultural training program can quickly flounder if there are no learning objectives set in advance. Try to have clear learning objectives for your employees, and explain them to your audience before beginning the program. Provide the rationale and benefits for the activities in the course, and create a suitable climate for these activities. Aim to have learning objectives that can be measured for effectiveness at the end of the course. For example, are participants able to describe, explain, perform, or demonstrate concepts learned during the cultural training program successfully? Having these measurements for success can help to finetune any future culture training programs.  

The path forward in cross-cultural training

Cultural training, or cross-cultural training, should be seen as a tool to increase workplace productivity and boost your organization’s bottom line. Fostering an inclusive and culturally aware work environment is crucial to attracting and retaining talent—both local and foreign—and can improve your organization’s competitiveness in international markets. While challenges may arise when building and delivering your cultural training program, gathering feedback and assessing employee sentiment before you begin can help with building a cultural training program that addresses your organization’s specific needs. When implemented correctly, cultural training can help to empower your employees to feel seen, understood, and engaged with the organization. 

Ready to bridge cultural gaps and foster a more inclusive environment in your organization? Fill out our contact form today, and let’s tailor a cross-cultural training program that meets your unique needs.