Cross-cultural training: A must for many organizations
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Cross-cultural training: A must for many organizations

Used to be, the only people in an organization who needed to worry much about cross-cultural skills were those posted overseas.

But as the business world grows increasingly interconnected across national borders — and in cyberspace — chances are a lot of people in your workplace are regularly encountering folks from cultures quite different from their own. That’s why training experts now list cross-cultural competency as essential employee learning.

What should training in cross-cultural skills include? Business adviser Peter Palladino writes that trainers need to think about covering at least four areas:

  1. Communication methods and vocabulary. Communication isn’t just about the words. It’s also about the intent, subtext and context. In some cultures, “it’s difficult” might mean “no damn way,” and “I’ll get it to you soon” either tomorrow or a week from now.
  2. Management styles. The informal styles permitted by one culture might imply a lack of respect or seriousness in another.
  3. Attitudes toward hierarchy. Managers may tend to be more democratic or autocratic, depending on the culture.
  4. Expectations for work relationships. Colleagues may expect each other to socialize freely outside the workplace, or consider time away from the office as each person’s private sanctum.

Attitude adjustment

Beyond imparting information, a training program can help employees develop appropriate attitudes when dealing with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds.

A white paper from Penn State leadership professor Suzanna Windon, drawing on research in international education, lists some of these attitudes:

  • Recognition of difference. A different cultural practice isn’t necessarily bad or good, just different.
  • Acceptance of ambiguity. Some cultures prize ambiguity, because it helps damp down potential conflicts. Not everything is crystal-clear.
  • Humility. Suspension of judgment enhances the ability to learn about another culture.
  • Adventure. It’s healthy to show curiosity and seek opportunities in different situations.
  • Humor. The ability to laugh at oneself helps deal gracefully with new contexts.

Key to all these attitudes, Windon writes, is a person’s level of self-awareness of their own culture. Your culture is just one of many, and when you encounter others, they won’t necessarily recognize yours as a standard to which to aspire.

If cross-cultural training gets just one message across, that’s a good one.

This blog entry is based in part on the following research study: Deardorff, D. (2006) Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(3) 241-266.



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