Have you ever encountered disconnects with learners from other cultures? To illustrate this challenge, let’s look at an example.

Zack is a training manager who delivers corporate training to professionals from all over the world. Here are the seven key disconnects that Zack has experienced. Although he doesn’t know about their cultures, he views the disconnects as challenges for himself personally. Zack sees that they:

  1.  Don’t want to participate.
  2.  Don’t like some of the learning activities.
  3.  Don’t approach him – as their corporate trainer.
  4.  Don’t follow the rules that well.
  5.  Don’t respond as clearly as Americans do.
  6.  Don’t seem to be as competitive as Americans.
  7.  Sometimes seem fearful in the experiential activities.

Zack has consulted with a “culture coach” who is an expert in “cultural intelligence” and understands the differences between cultures of the world. The cultural orientations reveal why cultures differ from one another.

His coach explains that one culture is not better than another – just different from. Different cultures have different solutions to the same issues. The goal is to make the differences plausible and understandable – and hopefully more manageable.

Let’s examine the seven disconnects mentioned above and explore how culture influences the way learners think, feel and act.

1. They don’t want to participate.

This cultural orientation deals with embracing or avoiding “uncertainty” or ambiguous situations. Some cultures like the U.S. and U.K. are comfortable with uncertainty. Other cultures, notably the countries of Asia, are much less comfortable with uncertainty. They try to avoid uncertainty. For example, in an important training, they may not know what to expect. This coupled with English not being their first language would cause them to be quiet – not wanting to make a mistake or “lose face.” Being quiet is a strategy to get “the lay of the land.” Although their participation may be less verbal, this does not mean they are less interested or committed. Rather, they are engaged in their own way.

2. They don’t like some of the learning methodologies.

Cultural intelligence has its own logic. If a culture is better prepared for unsure, abstract things, then people tend to like more abstract methodologies, such as models, books, brainstorming, professional articles and discussions. On the other hand, if a culture doesn’t like uncertainty, then learners would opt for more concrete ways of learning like lectures, tests, videos and case studies.

The U.S., Germany, and Singapore prefer more abstract ways, while Italy and Brazil prefer more concrete ways. Essentially, participants have a cultural relationship to uncertainty, which corresponds to activities where they feel most or least comfortable.

3. They don’t want to approach the corporate trainer with questions or concerns.

This cultural orientation is called “power distance,” meaning how a culture views the distance in power between people. The American culture sees the world through the lens of everyone being equal. The Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin American cultures experience the power distance as a much greater factor. They are used to hierarchy, where people are more powerful than others. For learners in these cultures, there is a natural inhibitor to speaking with someone perceived to be in a higher position of power. Overall, participants reflect what is most comfortable for them, and comfort levels vary.

4. Some don’t follow the rules that well.

This cultural orientation is called “universalism” or “particularism,” meaning each culture’s relationship with rules and regulations. This cultural orientation lends itself to not considering rules as an absolute. It begs the issue of appropriate flexibility.

The U.S. is a “universalist” culture, where “no one is above the law.” The “particularist” cultures – such as Russia, Thailand and China – prefer to circumvent the rules and laws. For historical reasons, they see it as a better option. These cultures pay more attention to personal obligations as opposed to the law itself.

5. They don’t respond as clearly as Americans do.

People tend to value and trust their own cultural style of communication and conflict management more. The degree to which we can match a style promotes greater receptivity on the participant side.

Here are two communication styles trainers should consider when talking to learners:

  • Direct  communication: saying it like it is. This style is preferred in the U.S. U.K., and Scandinavian countries.
  • Indirect communication: positioning the message to allow for purposeful ambiguity. This style is preferred in Latin America, Asia, and Middle East.

Trainers must also assess the degree of emotionality for the conversation:

  • Emotional restraint. Some cultures trust/value impersonal, detached and objective communication more. This is preferred by the U.S., U.K., China, Japan, and Thailand.
  • Emotional expressiveness. Some cultures trust/value emotional, passionate and subjective communication more. This style is preferred by Arab Countries, Italy, Spain Russia, Israel, and Latin American countries.

6. They don’t seem as competitive as Americans.

This cultural orientation identifies how people view their own identity – as an individual or as a member of a family, team or larger organization.

Americans see themselves as individuals and look to themselves as the way to solve problems. Self-help and self-reliance are cornerstones of American culture. This is called “individualism” because people function as individuals. Competition has evolved as a way to determine who is the best. In any training simulation where there is a challenge, Americans are “programmed” to be as competitive as possible.

Many other cultures see their primary identity as a member of a group. They place their attention and loyalty to the team first and foremost – not to themselves as individuals. This is called “collectivism,” meaning the collective interests take precedence over their own interests as individuals. In a training simulation where there is a challenge, they will opt to help the team compete and not focus on themselves as an individual competitor. People appear less competitive as individuals. However, they bring such a strength to team competition and achievement.

Both individualism and collectivism bring different strengths to a training competition, or productivity in general. This cultural orientation should be discussed because if left unmanaged, it can cause resentment.

7. Sometimes they seem fearful or reticent to take part in experiential activities.

This disconnect reverts back to a culture’s relationship to uncertainty in terms of risk taking. In experiential training, people are in the moment. Americans learn in the moment. They are culturally prepared for risk taking – even if they fail, they learn. With cultures wanting to avoid or tightly manage risk, the “unknowing” side of this type of training is problematic for them. They are more cautious with taking a risk and don’t like to fail in the moment. Ultimately, risk taking is culturally based. Americans look at risk as “potential gain,” while other cultures can view risk as “potential loss.”

The Rule for Engagement

Cultural differences are complicated and complex, and they come together in multifaceted ways at the individual learner level. The rule for engagement is simple: Keep your mind open to new behaviors, as they represent alternatives to your own cultural environment for learning. Look for the value that they bring.

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