Workplace learning and development professionals need to be cautious when embarking on cross-cultural assignments.
Growing global opportunities have prompted many workplace learning and development professionals to seek out cross-cultural training opportunities in other countries. While many businesspeople know enough to explore the niceties of business etiquette before entering a new culture, fewer people have developed sufficient cultural intelligence to be sensitive to more profound issues when they embark on efforts to enter, and conduct training in, other countries.
Learning professionals should be cautious when embarking on cross-cultural assignments. Drawing on research and my experiences, here are 13 practical tips for training in cross-cultural settings.
Be sensitive to other cultures
Cultural sensitivity is important, as is realizing that human beings are more alike than they are different. When first working cross-culturally, people are usually tempted to notice cultural differences first. For example, when I visited Saudi Arabia for the first time, I was surprised to learn that men and women are not usually permitted to meet in the same room and that women wearing full-head black coverings cannot travel outside their homes without a male relative or husband as escort.
These rare exceptions aside, the reality is that human beings are pretty much alike everywhere. Most everyone wants a family, a good job, a nice home life, good food, some freedom to speak their minds, and respect and dignity. While modes of dress and beliefs about religion may differ, people are pretty much alike in what they want.
It is wrong to regard people through the narrow lenses of one's own values and cultural views about what is right and wrong. If you question people from other cultures about why they believe or behave as they do, you will find out that their beliefs make perfect sense in the contexts in which they live.
Do your homework
Before entering a new country, do some research. Fewer Americans by percentage travel abroad than many other nationalities. Thus, there is a need to teach Americans simple basics about foreign travel. For example, before you embark on a trip, be absolutely sure you know the rules about visas—which countries need them and how to get one. There are easy places to find that information, beginning with a simple web search.
Work your social network to find out if you know anyone who knows people from that country so that you can talk to them before you go. At least find out if there are laws that you may inadvertently break. For instance, be careful about taking prescription medication unless it is in a bottle with your name on the label. Some drugs, such as diet medication or even something as simple as a nicotine lozenge, may be illegal in certain countries.
Also take time to learn about local conditions. When conducting training in South Africa, I was told how much HIV/AIDS affects local business planning on the African continent, a fact that I had known but wish I had researched more fully before my arrival.
Work with reliable local partners and informants
Spend time to find the right people with whom to work. That can be difficult to do because it is not always easy to check the reputation of others from the United States. But check you must. If you do not, you risk doing the work—and then never getting paid because there are many criminals eager to get you to pony up work first and then give you nothing when it comes time for payment.
When working with a partner for a first time, always ask for money in advance. It is wise to always ask for half the funds due up front to avoid the problem of not being paid anything. Work with people who have a track record of respecting intellectual property, copyrights, and trademarks. Beware of people who wish to partner for the short term and who may be looking for quick and easy ways to steal your products, services, or ideas and use them to their own advantage.
You may have a signed contract, but are you prepared to sue people for nonpayment in foreign courts? Legal recourse may work in America—but not so well elsewhere where networks of informal agreements and personal relationships are far more important than written contracts.
Pay attention to marketing
Marketing principles for training and consulting can be different in other countries. In the United States, it is common to send out emails or to offer free webinars as a marketing effort for training. Such relatively impersonal approaches do not work so well with cultures in which who you know is more important than what you can do.
As just one example, I had an experience in which a Chinese partner tried an experiment. On the one hand, the partner invested $30,000 to market seminars in Greater China through classified newspaper advertising, email, and faxes. On the other hand, the same partner marketed directly to key decision makers (vice presidents of HR) by paying them personal visits for seminar sign-ups and by offering free breakfasts with a sample of the training content. The former approach did not work at all; the latter was most effective and resulted in much business.
Consider language as well as cultural issues
Not everyone speaks English. If you plan to market in other countries, you limit yourself if the market is restricted to English speakers only. But translators are not always equally good. The best translators are not United Nationsâ€“trained; rather, they are individuals from the particular country who have some education and experience in the subject matter or industry. They know how to translate for concept as well as for words, and may even be able to cite local examples of how an idea was put into practice.
Be aware that people of other cultures are more comfortable with people like themselves. When in a public seminar, foreign nationals prefer to talk to someone who can speak their language—and is perhaps even the same gender. A particularly powerful solution is to pair up a famous foreign presenter with a local person of a different gender. While that may cost more, it can pay big dividends in the impression it makes.
Recognize differences in how people participate
Americans often are quite willing to publicly pose embarrassing business questions directly to senior leaders such as CEOs. But not all cultures are so open. Before arriving to conduct a seminar in a foreign country, ask others who have been to that country what participation style is typical and what strategies might work to get more participation. Do not limit such requests to one person. Ask several because perceptions are sometimes simply erroneous.
The first time I visited China I was told by an experienced Chinese training director that I should use lecture-only methods. After the first hour, my audience had nearly gone to sleep. I started asking participants questions—and giving them small gifts, such as candy bars, when they answered. That worked.
On another occasion I tried to teach public-speaking skills to Chinese graduate students. MBA students, it turned out, were not accustomed to public speaking and were immune to all efforts to use eye contact. So, I told the class that I would wave a 100RMB note (worth about $16) in the back of the room at some point during their individual talks and would give the money to the presenters who saw it. In teaching more than 60 people, I gave away only four bills. I learned that I had to stand right behind aspiring public speakers and direct them to look in specific places to teach eye contact.
Be prepared to negotiate
There are two ways to negotiate money in the world. There is the American-style "take-it-or-leave-it" fixed-price approach. And then there is the back-and-forth negotiation style that is used in other countries.
Start higher than you really expect, but allow some room for negotiation. Expect that others will start far lower than you expect; do not be insulted by that. Be prepared to go several rounds before reaching a level of agreement. Before you begin negotiating prices and expenses, determine what your lowest acceptable rate would be.
Would you accept economy travel instead of the much more expensive business or first-class travel? Would you stay in a four-star rather than a five-star hotel? These questions are worth considering. Also be aware that you may have to price your products or services differently if you wish to compete in some foreign markets because they simply cannot afford what they regard as outrageous U.S. or European rates.
Be sensitive to different communication styles
Realize that people in other cultures don't always communicate as openly as in the United States. In many cultures, there is concern about hurting other people's feelings. It is said in Asia and in the Middle East that there are a thousand ways to say no and a thousand ways to say yes. In fact, if a business problem exists, in some cultures they do not want to share that bad news until the last possible moment for fear of "losing face" or feeling bad about themselves. Sensitivity to communication styles is a key issue when working cross-culturally and occasionally requires exceptional skills to pull out critical information when it is needed.
When training participants who understand English, do not be offended by their slow response times. That's because the people sometimes have to mentally translate what you said to their native language and then translate their answer back into English. People will sometimes apologize to me about their poor English, but I have learned to answer that "your English is much better than my [whatever their language is]."
Recognize the importance of personal relationships
In developed economies, results are important. In developing economies, results also are important—but may be less so or even overshadowed by considerations other than immediate results.
For instance, I was told in South America that "we can predict when a young person joins our company how far he will go—even to the point that we know which 21-year-old will definitely become CEO because he comes from the right family, has the right connections with government officials, attended the right school, and has the right connections in other places."
Be tenacious in your efforts
There is a saying in China that "you can get anything you want in China—if you are prepared to wait long enough." In huge economies, it is possible to make an impact over time. But the buccaneer mentality of "let's go in, make a quick killing, and leave" will usually fail. Local people are waiting to hand you your head if that is your attitude.
Success may depend on being patient and dedicated. That requires long-term investments of time, money, and effort to get results. In India, for example, there are numerous inexpensive training programs offered by well-qualified people who speak very good English. Making an impact takes time, visibility, the right partner, and the most clever marketing approaches possible.
Make personal safety the first priority
Never take safety for granted when you're traveling. Global organizations often have learned to assign a local mentor to someone before he arrives so that foreigners will not end up renting an apartment in an unsafe neighborhood or traveling to unsafe places in a city. Even taking a taxi can turn into a nightmare if not managed properly.
If you are a solitary traveler, make sure that you know how to reach your contacts before you arrive (such as cell phones), who (if anyone) will pick you up at the airport and how you will recognize them, and where you are going. Take nothing for granted.
I once arrived in Pakistan late at night. I was the only Westerner onboard the airplane. Before my arrival I made sure to know who was picking me up—and what to do in case, for any reason, that person was not there. Some countries, such as the Philippines or Indonesia, may have U.S.-style airport screening just to get into a hotel lobby. That speaks volumes about the need to be careful.
On another occasion I traveled to South America to conduct training for a large bank. I told them before I arrived that I was concerned about safety. They did not tell me what they planned to do about it, and I did not ask. Upon my arrival, I was greeted late at night by a large group of burly men with automatic weapons. They asked me who I was. I was a little hesitant to say, but it turned out they were an armed security detachment sent by the bank to ensure my safety.
Be cautious in what you take for granted
In developed economies, HR and training practice may be quite advanced. There may be certifications and even graduate degree programs to ensure professionalism. But in many developing economies, the opportunities to learn about the professions of HR or learning and development may not be so common. Practitioners learn by working in foreign companies and then transferring some of what they have learned into local practice by eventually moving to local companies. Bear that in mind as you consider training in other nations.
Avoid using terms that may seem common—such as training needs assessment, instructional systems design, or even something such as Kirkpatrick's four levels of evaluation. Strive for simple English that is jargon-free and readily transparent in meaning. Always define special terms immediately if you are forced to use them.
Don't take training technology for granted
Developed economies are in love with technology-assisted training. Everybody wants to try the latest fad or gizmo—whether it is mobile learning, iPad-based instruction, wikis, or even more elaborate approaches such as technology-based simulations or virtual worlds. But the practical reality is that, in many developing economies, either connection speeds are slower than in developed economies or the infrastructure is less reliable. (But it is also true that, in some countries, such as Korea, they make fun of the slow speeds of the Internet in the United States because their infrastructure is newer.) Fewer people have home-based Internet access.
Realize that even something such as offering a virtual meeting may require several rehearsals. I recently offered a virtual training session in Singapore using a popular brand of virtual meeting software. Even though we had two rehearsals, we still had trouble on the day of the training.
The lesson: Never take technology for granted when working abroad. Check and verify what they have, and how well it works, first.
As globalization continues with the advent of more sophisticated technology and easy travel, more learning and development professionals will work in other countries. As they do, they need to be aware of some practical realities to achieved continued success.