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The Top 10 Myths of Cross-cultural Training

By Dean Foster, President and Founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, LLC
Knowing how best to take advantage of interculturalists’ services can increase your chances of successful international assignments

More than 25 years ago, a small group of interculturalists got together to offer what at the time was a novel idea—to provide intercultural information and training to businesses working internationally. It seemed so obvious to us, all wide-eyed and fresh with our anthropology and international business degrees and overseas experience: Business is done differently in different cultures; therefore, until you learn what those differences are and how best to manage them, you are at a distinct disadvantage. Juiced with an exciting idea and more energy than experience, we were immediately challenged by clients who did not see the need to spend money on our new and unproven idea—something they were currently doing well enough without, thank you very much.


Fast-forward a quarter century. After much mutual “education” and many expensive and calamitous experiences of missed opportunities, blown deals, and wasted human resources, most organizations have come to view intercultural training not as an expense, but as a necessary investment that ensures the success of an international project. Along the way, many new fields were born: international mobility, global talent management, intercultural training and consulting, and others. New needs have emerged, including short-term assignees, perpetual expats, and technology-driven solutions.


As might be expected, myths and legends have also developed around cultural training. In the hope of dispelling some, here’s a list of what I regard as the top 10, gleaned from the experiences of a quarter century of providing intercultural training support, and offered in the hope that organizations can get on with becoming interculturally competent, and interculturalists can get on with helping them to do so.




A good cross-cultural training program works; a bad one doesn’t. Good cross-cultural training provides the most efficient, pre-emptive way of developing the broadest set of culturally appropriate behaviors required for personal and professional success abroad. Clients who start out with, for example, a 30 percent rate of early/premature returns from assignments abroad can reduce that rate below 5 percent with cultural training. Considering the costs and problems associated with early returns—the inability to adjust to the culture being the primary reason—this represents a massive success story for good cultural training.


On the other hand, if the training is poor in design, delivery, content, or goals, the outcome will also be poor. There are established criteria that should always be evaluated when looking for a good, successful cross-cultural training program. But judging the effectiveness of cultural training without considering the quality of the program is faulty logic, incorrectly interpreting a correlation as a cause.




It does—but only if it’s training, and not just an opportunity to passively access limited generic cultural information. There is a difference between training for cultural knowledge and skills, and the mere gathering of information about a culture. You can read a book, listen to a lecture, or chat with an expert in person or online, but none of this is training. Training allows for questions and answers with experts, exploration of how the information being received actually works within the personal context or situation of the receiver, and most importantly, development and assessment of the ability to transform this knowledge from cognitive fact to implementable behavior.


Organizations need individuals who can behave in new and culturally appropriate ways when they live and work in a different culture—not merely people who may have learned something relevant about a new culture by accessing untested information via the Web or otherwise. Providing access to a website (which may contain limited, skewed, or even incorrect information) or a tool (which may also contain limited or dubious information and does not necessarily allow for developing and measuring the ability to implement new behaviors in personally relevant contexts) is not training. Any dollars spent on such tools typically will not produce the return on the investment that is necessary for successful global work.


Finally, unless there is accountability, merely providing access to a website or Web-based tool of cultural information does not ensure that assignees will actually use it. Studies show that most individuals who are provided access to such tools never or rarely look at them. Then again, maybe that’s not really an issue; if these tools do not, by themselves, produce the cultural competency skills required in the first place.




Good cultural training requires knowledgeable, trained, and certified interculturalists who possess correct and relevant cultural information and are able to transfer it in a way that allows attendees to develop new behaviors that they can apply immediately to their day-to-day work. The best person to do that may not, in fact, be a country national. Culture affects all aspects of human endeavor—including the ability to be a good cultural trainer.


In some cultures, for example, speaking openly and honestly about one’s homeland to non-nationals can be difficult, especially if negative or problematic issues need to be addressed. These nationals may feel the need to present only a positive image of their country, play down differences, and minimize potential problems. This is not helpful to program participants, who need accurate and unbiased information. Other individuals speaking to non-nationals about their country may feel compelled to highlight only issues that make their culture uniquely different, challenging, and difficult for any outsider to understand. Again, this kind of cultural agenda is not very useful for a program participant.


Nor does being a national automatically confer the training skills to enable a program participant to develop and practice the new behaviors required for success in the host country. In fact, the trainer may be unable to understand the culture of program participants and empathize with their struggle with the national’s culture. Finally, being a national also does not automatically confer implicit understanding of the personal or professional challenges that program participants and their families might be facing.


The best cultural trainers openly and honestly communicate relevant, correct, and up-to-date cultural information, an understanding of and empathy for the personal and professional situation of the program participants, a thorough understanding of the participants’ culture, and an ability to transfer the information in a way that enables participants to practice new behavioral skills that will be effective in their new host culture.


These criteria are not often found in a country national—and often not in one person. Consequently, effective cultural training programs are best delivered by a training team, led by a an experienced senior intercultural trainer with significant life and work experience in the host country, plus a country resource professional—a country national and/or a national of the program participant’s culture with significant recent life and work experience in the host culture that mirrors the trainee’s issues. The senior intercultural lead trainer provides objective information, and the country resource professionals provide a subjective perspective.




Well, yes, partners definitely do. But so do assignees. Good cultural training programs need to address two major themes: how to successfully adjust and adapt to the challenges of day-to-day life as it affects the assignee, the partner, children, plus how to successfully manage the challenges of working in a new culture.


The reason the assignee was selected for the assignment in the first place is to do a job, so understanding the work culture is imperative. This includes differences in work values, office protocols, roles of men and women and bosses and subordinates, management and communication styles, and conflict-resolution and decision-making styles. The list of issues in the workplace that are affected by culture is extensive.


But in addition to learning about the work culture, assignees also go through the psychological and physiological challenges of day-to-day adjustment just like their partners, although the constant attention to work makes it easy to lose sight of this. Assignees are quickly consumed with work responsibilities and have a built-in network of associates in the office for initial support, so it is easy for them to minimize their own adjustment and adaptation to a strange and perhaps challenging culture. Often, in fact, the more challenging the culture, the more the assignee may hide out in work. This is not a good strategy for professional or personal success on an international assignment.


While the day-to-day adjustment needs of the partner and family may be more apparent at first, these same needs exist in the overworked assignee alongside the need for cultural information on how to succeed in the workplace, making cultural training for assignees themselves critical to the success of the assignment.


MYTH NO.6         


We need to remember that the language of business around the world is not English: The language of business is the language of the customer. That means that ultimately, in China, you’ve got to speak Mandarin; in Brazil, Portuguese; and in France, French. If you don’t, and your competition does, guess who gets the contract. However, the language of global communication in most global organizations is some form of “global English,” which means that non–English speakers do need to develop business-level English competency to compete globally.


That’s my pitch for language training. Is it more important than cultural training? Probably not, unless you are the nonworking partner of an assignee in a location where no one speaks English on the street and you’ve got to negotiate with shopkeepers every day to get dinner on the table. When it comes to the assignee working for a large global organization, chances are the language of day-to-day communications in the workplace is English, independent of the many local languages spoken in the cities where the company has offices and operations. And while speaking the local language is always an advantage, fluency can take a long time and can be difficult and expensive. Developing fluency in more than one language, an ideal asset on today’s multicultural global teams, can take even longer.


However, cultural fluency can be developed quickly, at much less cost, and is easily implementable, providing immediate returns on the investment.


MYTH NO.5         


Actually, short-term assignees, rotators, frequent business travelers, and others have a greater need for cultural training than traditional assignees when it comes to immediately implementable business-specific information. So it’s not that short-termers don’t need cultural training—they just need a different type. Traditional assignees have the luxury of time to make mistakes and learn from them. Short-term assignees must hit the ground running; they must perform successfully immediately. In short, they must not fail. Therefore, even more than traditional transferees, they must get off the plane fully culturally competent.


Adjustment to long-term daily life challenges for the transferee and family is usually not a concern for typical short-termers, most of whom are single and young. This doesn’t mean that short-termers don’t also have their own daily life adjustment challenges—their day-to-day may also be significantly challenged immediately upon arrival, and they do need basic training for managing these differences. Being younger may offer some short-termers greater exposure to cultural differences than the older traditional expat, but youthful enthusiasm is no substitute for informed behavior. Studies show that earlier and more frequent exposure to cultural differences can heighten awareness to their existence—and even benefits—but that only formal training provides the understanding that is required to work with them effectively.





Let’s define terms: Coaching is a support intervention designed to facilitate the development of a personally successful strategy for managing a specific issue or circumstance. The coach typically does not provide solutions, information, or even the questions that need to be addressed. The role of the coach is to help the coachee identify for him- or herself the issues that need to be addressed, help the coachee come up with solutions that might work, test some of those solutions, come up with some tweaks, test again, and assess until the coachee feels he or she has addressed the problem. The cultural coach is a facilitator who helps guide the coachee through the cultural elements inherent in the coachee’s specific issue.


A cultural trainer, however, provides relevant cultural information upfront and helps the transferee and family to explore “best practices” that might work for them as they face the personal and professional challenges of adapting and adjusting successfully to their new host culture. Good cultural training should prevent most of the issues that cultural coaching addresses, as training is pre-emptive and preventative, while coaching is curative: what to do after a problem has emerged. Coaching, in order to be efficient, needs to be extremely issues-specific, whereas cost savings and efficiencies from training increase precisely because the skills and information being provided are broad and comprehensive.


Ideally, transferees and their families can benefit from a combination of cultural training and coaching. The best kind of cultural training always includes an after-training coaching component to address any specific bumps that transferees and families might encounter as they go through cultural adjustment. But even without follow-up coaching, the value of the cultural training will always be there. However, coaching without cultural training cannot provide all the information and behavioral skills that transferees and their families require in an efficient and cost-effective way.


MYTH NO.3         


Seeing cultural training only as a “nice-to-do” soft service represents a failure to value the most critical skill organizations working globally need to develop: the ability to transfer hard-skill expertise across cultures. Given that hard-skill expertise exists in all organizations that compete on the global stage, organizations that can do this have the competitive edge over those that cannot. Therefore, if cultural competency is the tipping point, failing to formally train for this competency guarantees failure in the 21st century.


I know of no organization that would make a million-dollar investment in a new process or business system and not train individuals to run that system with maximum skill. An investment of that magnitude requires assurance that it will perform. International assignees and their families each represent an average investment of approximately $1 million when the assignment succeeds—more if it fails. And yet, if there is no training to manage cultural differences, the ROI on that investment is put at risk each and every time. The same can be said for global teams who are not trained forth cultural differences they will experience when working with each other. Given the costs associated with global projects, how could developing the cultural competencies required for success ever be seen as a “soft skill,” a “nice-to-do”?


MYTH NO.2         


While international assignees and their families will experience challenges once they have arrived on site, providing assignees with as much information as possible about their new host culture before they step on the plane may be far more beneficial than addressing real-life bumps later on. There is no doubt that experienced transferees may realize a greater benefit from training once on site, as previous relocations have already reset their barometer of what to expect when making such a move. However, it is absolutely critical for first-time assignees to be equipped with pre-emptive information and skills, and a clear-eyed knowledge of exactly what to expect and how to manage it when it occurs.


In an ideal world, some kind of training support would be available to assist and support transferees and global teams at every point in their global work cycles. Although most of us don’t live in an ideal world, we can provide assignees with the support they need in some way as they go through these cycles. The question becomes knowing the options available for the different needs that emerge and, given the organization’s resources, selecting those that solve those needs in the best way.


And the No. 1 myth about cross - cultural training…

MYTH  NO. 1       


It should be obvious that the costs associated with delivering this service are minuscule compared with those of a failed or underperforming assignment, a missed opportunity, or a badly performing international project. Nevertheless, we hear this myth expressed so often that we need to reiterate: Cultural training is no more or less expensive than any other kind of training. So the issue isn’t really the cost. The issue is whether this kind of training is valued or not. Whether these costs are viewed as expensive depends on the value assigned to the knowledge and skills being gained. Knowledge might be viewed as expensive, but ignorance is always more expensive; the costs of not knowing are always greater than the costs of gaining knowledge; prevention is always less costly than the cure; and when working in the 21st century, the price paid for cultural ignorance will always be more than the cost of training to prevent it.


Dean Foster is founder and president of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, LLC.  He may be reached by email at dean@deanfosterassociates.com.


Doron Neev

Director, New Business Development, Israel

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