October 11, 2021

5 Steps to Create Impactful Cross-Cultural Training

By: ELM Learning

dei mission statement

If your company is an international organization, you know all too well about the perils of communication getting lost in translation. The perils may not lie in a language barrier, but in a difference in etiquette, communication style, or even in how feedback is given and received. Stretching your organization across different countries and cultures introduces a complicated layer to your workplace environment, including your employee training. Learn what companies can do to create an effective cross-cultural training program.

Cross-cultural training essentially acknowledges the differences across different cultures through instruction for employees who work for global organizations. Differences in communication styles, tone, body language, and work ideals can play a big part in how a company operates, particularly when employees are working with coworkers from all over the world.

Cross-cultural training might initially seem superfluous, especially when you’re in the thick of adapting and retooling the way you work. But never before has cross-cultural training been so important, especially as virtual workplaces remove the borders that previously segmented your team. 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. Cross-cultural training serves to help employees feel seen, understood, and empathetic to their coworkers, no matter where they are.

Why Create Cross-Cultural Training?

Why bother with cross-cultural training? You expect the same from your employees no matter what country they’re from, or culture they identify with, right? While that may be true, different cultures approach work in different ways, which can result in employees feeling frustrated or stressed if there’s a lack of sensitivity to cultural norms. Taking the time to help colleagues understand each other makes all the difference in setting expectations and building a rapport among employees from different cultures. Still not convinced? Here are some of the issues cross-cultural training can solve for your organization:

  • Addressing Communication Issues. Some cultures tend to address issues by focussing on the positive, while others offer negative feedback when there’s a problem. In the same vein, some cultures prefer to soften the blow with their language while others are straightforward and blunt. To be clear: There is value in different types of communication. Still, helping coworkers understand differences in cultural communication can help them adapt, ensure clarity, and reduce hurt feelings.
  • Teaching Policy and Etiquette. Certain cultures have specific ways of doing business. Whether addressing a professional greeting or topics that should be avoided in casual conversation, cross-cultural training helps coworkers learn more about their colleagues and how best to interact with them.
  • Reducing Stereotypes. In the past, cross-cultural training could sometimes fall into a pattern of creating and reinforcing stereotypes. Stereotypes like “all German professionals are extremely unemotional,” or “all Japanese employees are very respectful” aren’t necessarily hurtful, but they aren’t particularly helpful, either. Good cross-cultural training helps dispel stereotypes by offering context, using real-life examples, and helping employees remember that their colleagues are individuals regardless of their culture.
  • Adapting to a Global Workforce. 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. Cross-cultural training offers the tools and practice necessary so employees are better able to adapt to their changing workforce quickly and confidently.

Five Steps to Get You Started

You know you need to address the cultural issues surrounding your global organization, but you might not know where to start. After all, chances are that you’ve introduced a bevy of new policies and initiatives during the last year or so; you definitely don’t want cross-cultural training to be lost in the shuffle, without any real impact. These five steps can help you start thinking about the proper framing for your cross-cultural training and how to deliver it to your employees.

#1 Get Strategic

Your employees might already feel overloaded with all of the new ways of working they’ve learned over the past year. Marketing your cross-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) onboard.

#2 Get Honest

Unless you have boots on the ground across all locations, departments, and silos, it’s impossible to create truly honest cross-cultural training. 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 cross-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. Doing so captures their emotions in a more meaningful way and primes them to pay better attention to potential solutions.

#4 Focus on Communication

If you only have the time or bandwidth to focus on one facet of cross-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 already dealt with issues stemming from these topics. Gather feedback and come up with training solutions that address them .

#5 Practice Makes Perfect

Employees are often nervous about deploying their new skills in the workplace, particularly when they relate to topics like cultural sensitivity. Make sure that your training has space for learners to practice their new skills in a safe and low stakes way. Perhaps have them  tackle a problem with a “buddy” from another culture or read case studies and offer ideas and solutions to a past problem. Whatever you decide, safe practice reinforces their newfound knowledge and lets them see the benefits before bringing it back to the workplace.

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 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.