Steps to Cross-Cultural Success


As an intercultural specialist who’s lived or worked in over 50 countries, I’ve learned much about training across cultures using a combination of cultural due diligence and good old-fashioned direct experience. Being able to join these two methods makes for cross-cultural success.

Coming from southern California in the United States, I knew that I was going to face some cultural gaps when designing and delivering training sessions in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. In addition to the individualistic, egalitarian, competitive and flexible orientations of my home culture, I knew I had to account for my other identities when working abroad, that is, the fact that I am a Baby Boomer, female, African American and a Ph.D. I knew it was critical that I understood how cultural differences could affect the expectations of my international audiences.

To give a specific example, I was in Bangalore, India conducting intensive cross-cultural management courses for Indian, British, French and Israeli executives at a software company. The company had invested heavily in materials, time, travel costs and other resources to ensure a productive training session. When I learned of the make-up of the class, I immediately took to researching and understanding everything I could about their respective national cultures, academic backgrounds, ages, genders, religions and ranks. Most of this information was available through the software company’s Human Resources department and by speaking with the attendees’ immediate supervisors. Doing this pre-work, or due diligence, on the make-up of the class proved priceless. 

When preparing for our sessions, I settled on using action-based methods such as small- and large-group discussions, role-plays, breakout sessions, lectures and simulations. I was sure, however, to base the content on cultural expectations and personal learning styles, and to keep things grounded in solid adult-learning principles. For example, I considered the role that hierarchy preferences, such as those held by the Indians and French, would have on the effectiveness of small-group discussions and brainstorming sessions, which usually work best for cultures with an equality preference, like Americans and Israelis. Many of the Indian and French associates preferred ideas and solutions to come from me, the subject matter expert, rather than their colleagues. So, to meet this cultural need, for some of the more critical exercises I had the groups report to me via a worksheet. I then synthesized their comments and reported the findings back to the larger group. I also kept in mind that the Indians and French were not as comfortable disagreeing (at least publicly) with their managers or senior colleagues.

Throughout any cross-cultural work – whether international or domestic, or whether you are training, facilitating or presenting – you should ask yourself, “What kinds of accommodations are likely to increase my effectiveness?” To learn more about the cultures you will be working with, do your due diligence. The Cultural Navigator is a great place to start. You can also reach out to connections from the host culture. Never stop researching about the culture and people you are working with, and about the best way to reach them. In the end, an important thing to keep in mind is that all people want to feel valued, heard and respected.

Cheryl Williams