Culture is all around us. And there are a variety of cultures — even within our own familial groups. With the heightened awareness of racism in America, ignited by the tragic murder of George Floyd, respect for other cultures is increasingly recognized as a critical skill in the workplace. For larger organizations, many relationships extend overseas. It could be damaging to lose a client due to ignorant behavior or a remark made from an unaware employee. That’s why it’s super imperative to build cultural awareness as an organization.

What is Cultural Awareness Training?

Cultural awareness training creates an understanding and respect for other cultures and backgrounds other than our own. It teaches employees and leadership how to address their own unconscious bias and how to consciencely make the decision to respect others. This means appreciating the value that each unique culture brings and not regarding one’s own culture as superior or as the “right way of doing things.” And in today’s business world, people and organizations cannot afford to not be culturally aware. Globalization and the emergence of new technologies has shrunk our world. We can now communicate with anyone from anywhere. This is why it’s imperative that we learn how to address any unconscious biases and preferences before engaging in these key relationships.

Why Cultural Awareness Training is Important

The purpose of cultural awareness training is to build cultural competency as a skill. Cultural competency is the ability to interact and socialize with people outside of one’s own culture freely. It is a skill that can be taught and that workplaces should invest in making sure their people have, especially when making global partnerships and managing global onboarding. Cultural competency can give your people the confidence to collaborate and communicate effectively with one another in lieu of cultural differences and backgrounds and help lower retaliation, discrimination and harassment cases in the workplace. This can help mitigate risk and sustain a positive company culture.

Cultural competency can also help training managers understand and manage the different behaviors of their learners. Charlene Solomon, co-founder and president of RW3 CultureWizard, explains that as learning leaders “you have to recognize that there are differences in cultural backgrounds, so people have different values, different expectations and consequently, different behaviors.” By understanding this nuance in behavior, training managers can learn how to effectively respond to their workforce.

Not only can it help with understanding your learners, but it can also help with leading a team. Keith Warburton, chief executive officer of Global Business Culture, shares that successful leadership in one company culture may not be successful in others. “I think the challenge that many leaders have is thinking that there’s one way of doing things and that they can apply U.S. leadership training globally,” Warburton says.

Now that you understand the importance of cultural awareness training to build cultural competency as an organization, let’s evaluate the steps to designing a cultural awareness training course.

How to Design a Cultural Awareness Training Course

1. Self-assessment: The first step in learning how to be culturally aware is to first be aware of ourselves. Solomon shares that with a cultural awareness training course “people should first learn about their own background and cultural preferences.” With a self-assessment, company leaders and employees can get feedback about their culture and expectations. This can help highlight any implicit biases your people aren’t aware they even have. These assessments can also help learning leaders measure the organization’s level of cultural competency and pinpoint any areas of improvement.

2. Address unconscious bias: With the data from the self-assessments handy, learning leaders can then help learners address their own unconscious bias. What many people don’t realize is that we all have unconscious biases — implicit preferences that guide our decisions and behaviors. This is based on the way our brain works — the brain takes mental shortcuts to save us time and energy. However, sometimes these shortcuts can cause us to be bias toward what is more familiar to us. Solomon shares that biases can color our experiences. When we feel biased toward something, we give it the halo effect. But when we’re confronted with something different than ourselves or what we’re used to, we naturally try to find flaws to support our biases. This can negatively affect team communication. This is why a critical step in cultural awareness training is to address these unconscious biases and learn to be more aware of them. “In other words, we’re working on our perception filters,” Robert Pianka, co-owner of Global Agility Services, shares. Training must identify what our initial perceptions are and work to make sure that it aligns with an interculturally competent workplace.

3. Bridge the gap: At the end of the day, we’re all people living under the same sun. “Every day the human race gets up as the sun goes around them. Everybody tries to get their breakfast, get their kids up for school, have coffee (or tea) and do whatever it is we all do. We’re all putting on our shoes and pants the same way,” Pianka shares. Despite our differences, everyone around the globe has similarities. What people need to learn is how to use these similarities to bridge the gap. Warburton shares that we must first accept our differences and then ask ourselves, “What can we do to make this work? How can we make it work for individuals and our organization?” To help their people bridge the gap, learning leaders can use storytelling to help learners relate with someone of another culture and recognize the similarities we all share as human beings.

The Bottom Line

Many business leaders acknowledge that culture awareness training is important especially when making global business partnerships. However, there are cross-cultural differences that are not limited to a global workforce. “A large portion of the U.S. workforce was born or raised in a different culture, or has multicultural parents,” Solomon shares. You never know who may have a different belief or value system other than your own. That’s why it’s so imperative to be aware of our implicit biases and to build cultural competency, so we can make stronger relationships in the workplace and celebrate the beauty in our differences.