Many cross-cultural trainings bought in the corporate world are the right solution to the wrong problem and yield low return on investment. When a multicultural team is not performing well, culture easily becomes the scapegoat. The team’s issues, however, are not necessarily the result of a lack of cultural knowledge.
The common perception is that working on cross-cultural teams adds layers of complexity. Yet, communication challenges, trust-building issues, and power struggles can equally exist on monocultural teams. In fact, research has shown that “country” can be a poor container of culture: more differences exist within countries than between them.
Perception is a poor compass for deciding where to invest company dollars. In any investment decision, one should return to the facts and clarify the underlying problem that needs to be solved.
Why Do We Buy Cross Cultural Trainings?
In our shared experience delivering hundreds of days of cross-cultural training, we can identify three primary reasons why companies invest in it. First of all, confirmation bias kicks in. We see what we expect to see. Rather than carefully analyzing the difficulty from multiple perspectives and breaking it down to define the root cause, our brain shortcuts to confirm our belief that problems on cross-cultural teams stem from cultural differences.
Secondly, today’s work environment demands quick problem-solving and results. Reaching out to Human Resources to schedule a training is quicker and easier than working with team members to dig deep into biases and interpersonal dynamics. Human Resources – feeling the same pressure to come with quick results – then outsources the problem-solving to an external training provider (who may further outsource it to a contracted consultant). Everyone feels pro-active about taking steps to solve the problem to the best of their abilities. In reality, we have farmed out the problem-solving two or even three times, and with the addition of each party, we lose further sight of the real issue at hand.
Finally, many organizations, particularly traditional ones, have an embedded culture of training. This becomes the go-to solution whenever the way of working needs to improve. Regardless of the nature of the problem, a training should fix it. Therefore, habit dictates that we should invest in a cross-cultural training when there is a problem on a cross-cultural team.
What Happens In a Typical Cross-Cultural Training
The majority of cross-cultural trainings (and admittedly, also the ones the authors offer) are based on cultural frameworks like the Hofstede model, the Lewis model or dimensions such as those offered by Erin Meyer in The Culture Map. These models are based on the idea that culture is something that can be measured and cluster national cultures based on common characteristics such as how people deal with hierarchy or how directly they communicate. Models such as these originated with Hofstede during his pioneering studies undertaken from 1967-1973 while working at IBM. Trainings use this data to look at central tendencies in a target culture. However, the data does not isolate regional, generational, organizational, or individual differences, the last two of which are likely most responsible for the challenges experienced on any team.
As a result, a cross-cultural training focuses on how cultures are supposed to be, rather than how individuals actually are. A training about Brazil doesn’t talk about your company’s team in Brazil. It talks about working with 200 million Brazilians in general. Participants analyze cultural gaps based on one of the frameworks mentioned above in an effort to match the Brazilian team’s behaviors to the tendencies predicted by the models. This is a faulty oversimplification of the team’s interactions that fails to take unique personalities into account.
On one hand, these trainings provide “the joy of recognition”. Participants often see their colleagues’ behaviors in the cultural stereotypes. The models offer a way to structure our environment such that the world suddenly makes sense. Because our data and observations have been organized, we perceive that we now better understand different cultures. After the training, participants often say that “the material was interesting” and “the course was good fun”.
On the other hand, participants often resist the way a culture has been characterized as they can cite counterexamples in their work environments. They will refer to the Brazilian manager who does not care for personal relationships or may explain that at their German innovation center people are not rigid at all. Cross-cultural trainers then quickly find themselves defending the models by pointing out behaviors that fit more neatly, or by adding caveats and disclaimers that the models may be inaccurate, outdated, or “just a guideline”.
Also, participants rightly point out that using these frameworks to explain behaviors contributes even further to stereotyping and can go as far as creating blame. This is because as we analyze the other culture, we implicitly confirm that the problems we face are a result of the other culture. Our own behaviors, assumptions, and most importantly openness to differences, remain unchallenged. The problem intensifies when – for practical or economic reasons – only half of the team is present to learn about the culture of the other half. An “us vs. them” dynamic replaces a collective responsibility to act as one team.
By the end of the training, cultural awareness and understanding has potentially improved. Yet, managers point out that despite this short-term gain, team behaviors do not change in the long run. They see little to no evidence of new ways of working.
Consequently, cross-cultural training is often the right solution to the wrong problem.
How to Identify the Real Problem
We argued that every request for a cross-cultural training should be received with caution to avoid defining a solution before defining the problem. So what should business managers do – assisted by HR L&D – to ensure they tackle the correct problem?
We can use five obvious – yet often forgotten – steps from the High Impact Learning methodology (Brinkerhoff et al.):
1. Define the business objectives of the team (derived from the business objectives of the organization).
2. State the ‘key critical activities’ of team members to meet these objectives (i.e. “What people should do”).
3. Describe the current reality of the team (i.e. “What people actually do”).
4. Identify the gaps between #2 and #3. This defines the real problem(s) to be solved.
5. Only once #4 has been completed and verified, can the solution be designed.
While this may sound obvious, in our experience few if any organizations work through this process internally before investing in cross-cultural training. Managers, for example, are under the pressure of many operational tasks that do not allow them to spend enough time doing the deep thinking that is required for steps one and two. The in-depth dialogue required between HR and management often doesn’t materialize.
When thinking through steps one through five, it is unlikely that the outcome is a need for a cross-cultural training.
These observations resonate remarkably well with those of Robert O. Brinkerhoff, which led to several often-used learning models (the 10/20/70 approach to learning, for example). He states that in the reality of corporate training, we usually spend a disproportionally large amount of time on the learning event itself. We also spend little time upfront to get the objectives right, and little time after to transfer the skills to ensure we met the objective. The focus should be on creating the skills, knowledge and actions that ensure the key critical activities are done well by the team.
Confirmation bias and an organizational culture of training can quickly drive global managers into the arms of cross-cultural training providers. The team will enjoy the experience as the do’s and don’ts of culture are nice to learn about, but they are not determinants of international success. An open attitude toward differences is more important than studying the behaviors that people may encounter. It is the openness to learning, rather than the knowledge itself, that should be the focus of training.
It is the responsibility of a manager to avoid the ‘cross-cultural training short-cut’. By setting the example and investigating the source of the team’s issues, we model what we expect from our teams: do the in-depth work first before choosing a quick and obvious solution.