Benefits of Cross-Cultural Training
22 February 2007 Jeff Toms
Understanding and working with people from different cultures is not always easy or comfortable. Jeff Toms, director of marketing and client services at Farnham Castle discusses the importance of cultural training and support.
The challenges of finding people who will succeed in an international setting and providing them with the preparation they need to become effective are considerable, and companies and other organisations often underestimate the investment required to make such transitions go smoothly.
The fact is that up to 40% of assignments where experienced managers are sent abroad fail to deliver the results expected by corporate headquarters. A major cost of failure is time. A disastrous expatriate assignment can take years to repair as a new manager is selected, briefed and trained, damaged local morale and trust are re-established, and lost market opportunities are assessed and reacted to.
This is not only detrimental to the company but to shareholders and indeed the managers themselves. So with the risk of failure so high how can organisations ensure successful international assignments?
THE CULTURAL QUANDARY
The most important aspects in the effectiveness of international assignments are training and support. A study conducted by Diane van Ruitenbeek from the University of Manchester researching the 'psychological contract' between an organisation and its international employees found that two major factors influencing poor performance were a lack of understanding of local culture and language problems.
On the whole, most basic aspects of local culture will be different from our own and even the most every day activities like driving a car or buying food become unfamiliar, unpredictable and unreliable.
Our society works because we assume the majority of our tribe has the same beliefs and values that we stick to. We gain comfort, safety, connection and much more from belonging to familiar groups. Employees that are being relocated need to be aware of local culture in order to gain those same benefits in their new location.
GETTING BY IN BUSINESS
For employees sent overseas the biggest part of local culture they will experience is business culture and this will often prove the toughest challenge. When taking up a role in another country it is easy for employees to fool themselves into thinking that everything is broadly the same.
They encounter people who often look like them, sound like them (after hours of language training!), and smile and agree with their initial statements. However, any attempt to impose home country values and beliefs will often lead to frustration and an inability to achieve targets.
Avoidance of this comes when, before relocating, employees look at their own culture and instead of assuming their way is the only way they consider 'otherness'. They are not going into a microcosm of sameness and must acknowledge that within the world there is an infinite variety and diversity of people and corporate behaviour.
For example, strict timekeeping is likely to be impossible to implement in Latin countries.
Direct criticism of staff in front of others in Asian countries will cause the recipient embarrassing loss of face and the use of indirect language to soften the impact of what is being said will be met with annoyance by Germanic people who prefer a direct approach.
The examples above have a large emphasis on effective communication with new neighbours, acquaintances and colleagues, and even on a very basic level, is probably the most critical requirement to a quick and effective settlement.
Equally, the ability of employees to make themselves understood in the workplace demonstrates commitment to the job, and helps establish partnerships and co-operation. Managers need to acquire the skills to pass on and discuss information to achieve the desired outcome.
It is therefore somewhat surprising to learn of the indifference many companies still pay to the acquisition of basic language skills. At best, arrangements are made for a programme of drip feed tuition in the destination country after arrival (very often difficult in practice as the assignee becomes too involved in their new role), at worst there is an expectation that the individuals own language (or English!) will be the acceptable medium of communication.
OILING THE WHEELS
For any employee, embarking on an overseas project will bring large cultural shifts. To bring success organisations need to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible and evidence indicates that lack of appropriate training and support means that employees will struggle and often fail.
Going back to Diane van Ruitenbeek's study, one-quarter of those participating suggested that they had been let down by their organisation. Their pre-departure expectations of the job, working and living conditions had not been met and they indicated that their job satisfaction, commitment and performance had suffered correspondingly.
These people reported that they were more likely to quit the assignment early.
The feelings recorded above are reflected by employees all over the world, although much of the time this is unbeknown to the organisation. For employees, uprooting themselves and their families to complete an overseas assignment is a big deal and it is only fair that companies invest in them to ensure that they are properly prepared to work in a new country by providing suitable training.