How to Make Cross-Cultural Training Effective

Guest Author:
Nathalie-Michèle Sylvain – Transitaré

[Editor’s Note:  It is with pleasure we welcome Nathalie-Michèle Sylvain as a Guest Author. Nathalie-Michèle is based in Montreal, Canada, where she specializes in candidate and family assessment, expatriate support and intercultural management training. She regularly participates in global conferences and has been an invited speaker for cross-cultural topics at some of these conferences as well as at Canadian universities.]

A lot is said about cross-cultural training for international assignments. Some argue that it is very important and should be done prior to departure, others claim in should be done at the host country and others still doubt the value of cross-cultural training all together. But we tend to forget that the effectiveness of a cross-cultural training depends more on its content than on its timing. So what makes a good and effective cross-cultural training program?

Why Provide Cross-Cultural Training?
Perhaps the first question to answer is:  Why provide cross-cultural training to an international assignee? Simply stated, because a good cross-cultural program will narrow the gap between expectations and reality. Though no amount of training can ever reproduce exactly future reality, it should enable the assignee to gain a more realistic perspective of the challenges ahead. And, the closer the expectations are to reality, the easier the transition will be. Through proper training, the employee and family members have been prepared and have thought of coping and adjustment strategies. They can take some ownership of the assignment’s outcome and this will most likely turn into positive motivation to succeed.

However, when expectations are far from reality, international assignees will quickly feel that they have been mislead and this will have a direct negative impact on motivation to succeed, as they will refuse to own the outcome of the assignment but rather place all that responsibility solely on the company.

But not all cross-cultural programs out there are equal. Many focus on language, customs, etiquette, dos and don’ts, climate, history, leisure activities, etc.  Not unlike travel guides. Of course, an effective cross-cultural training should address those topics (before or after arrival in host country).  But the primary focus should be on the impact of culture on our unspoken expectations – at work and outside work.

A good cross-cultural program should focus on these key elements:

  • Management styles and culture;
  • How sources of motivation can greatly vary from culture to culture;
  • How supervision styles favoured in one culture can be catastrophic in another;
  • How hierarchy is perceived differently, and what that means when conducting meetings or brainstorming sessions;
  • What is the place of interpersonal relationships in business? Is it contract first, personal trust second? Or the other way around?

Communication Styles are Key
Another important area of focus is communications styles. Communication is not merely a matter of language; rather,  it is understanding the intention behind the words. Across cultures, this becomes more complex, as some value direct communication styles while others, preoccupied with harmony, honour, or hierarchy will often prefer an indirect style. This is when ‘that’s not possible’ becomes ‘we will see’. How long does it take an unprepared employee overseas to understand that ‘yes, yes’ simply means ‘I acknowledge that you are talking to me’ or that the answer to ‘do you understand?’ will always be ‘yes’?

An effective cross-cultural training should also take into account the company’s culture and whether the company wishes to establish its culture in the overseas location, or whether it accepts to adjust to local culture (e.g., is this a joint-venture with a local partner?  Is management local? Does it view itself as a multinational company or as a global company? etc.).

In addition, a complete cross-cultural program should address all the issues above as they pertain to expectations at school and in everyday life. It should also expose the different phases of transition (culture shock) and propose coping strategies for the different members of the family.

In Summary
When developed carefully, and delivered by an expert,  a good cross-cultural program is an essential tool in developing necessary skills to perform in an international context.  It will illustrate to the assignee what adjustments at work are needed to become as effective abroad as he or she is at home.  To achieve this, it should be done prior to departure.  Cross-cultural programs developed under this model should also be offered to anyone working in an international context, whether from home or abroad.

More About Nathalie-Michèle

Nathalie-Michèle on LinkedIn

About Transitaré

Transitaré specializes in assisting assignees and their families with cross-cultural transitions in connection with international assignments.  Nathalie-Michèle Sylvain is the Principal.  She has worked extensively overseas for Canadian and American employers, and focused on international human resources issues.  She holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Behaviour from Birbeck College, University of London.