Culture is tangible and intangible. It is in what is seen, but more importantly it is in what is experienced in nearly every interaction that occurs. Even in a seemingly mono-cultural group of people, cultural considerations must be taken into account when an instructional designer sits down at the computer, when a trainer enters the learning environment, when a coach or mentor interacts with others, and when a chief learning officer executes a strategy.

It has been ascertained that when cultural consideration is not given, diverse teams are not as likely to innovate as homogeneous teams are due to perceived or real cultural incongruity. There are few homogeneous groups within organizations, even for those operating at local levels. Intentionally considering cultural differences and accentuating the strengths will increase innovation and engagement, ultimately making for a stronger learning culture and greater business returns.

What is really meant by cultural consideration, and for that matter, intercultural interactions? A large part of each person, especially as it relates to behaviors in the workplace, is cultural and related to worldviews and cultural drivers. As much as segments of society may try to categorize and separate people, cultures are not uniform and differences within cultures are sometimes profound.

In the standard sense of the definition, cultural contexts include national, ethnic, generational, organizational, gender and sexual orientation-based, institutional, and a variety of other contexts and sub-contexts. National cultures exert a powerful influence, but so do generational, disciplinary and institutional cultures, and their effects are difficult to discern, analyze and disentangle. Embedded in the larger cultural contexts are micro-cultures that form based on commonalities and similarities, yet may be divisive across the spectrum. Individuals within cultures differ and bring different personality traits that bear on any cross-cultural interaction.

Attributes of the diversity found within society include values placed on education, religion, individuality and status, just to name a few. People bring backgrounds grounded in their cultural upbringing. Things like goals, aspirations and ways of interacting that individuals feel are positive, may conflict with others’ goals and ways of interacting. Personal motivations are deeply influenced by, if not caused by, cultural factors and nuances. No wonder even within a non-global workforce culture needs to be considered!

Opportunities to Accentuate Various Views in the Learning Culture

Interestingly, cultural values, characteristics and preferences that develop with ethnic or national upbringing tend to merge, adapt, or alter according to predominate organizational or local cultural values, but they do not disappear. They remain underlying and are impactful. Learning professionals must accept and acknowledge these and find ways to utilize, and in the best situations, accentuate them for the positive.

Learning professionals must listen and observe when walking through the hallways, sitting in their cubicles or workspace, eating in the common area. Most importantly, observing others must take place in the learning environment, whether live or virtual. Professionals must check for accuracy of their own interpretations of the observations. Resources abound on predominate cultural traits, values and attributes. Even asking questions of the learners directly is an invaluable tool in assessing cultural influences.

The development of trust can bridge differences. People tend to trust the familiar, so leverage the power of in-group bias. The tendency for people to categorize others into “in-groups,” according to social categorization theory, lends itself to activities that seek out commonalities creating positive bias. When facilitating a learning session, create an environment of inclusiveness where commonalities are identified, and differences are perceived as an asset rather than a liability. This can be accomplished through case studies, if/then scenarios, and other relational learning. Learning professionals must always conduct these with the consideration of individualistic and collective learning values.

Being culturally intelligent and considerate requires that learning professionals develop a flexible set of skills, including the ability to listen and pay attention, reflect on the meaning of underlying behavior, seek out relevant information and advice, and adapt resourcefully. It requires being aware of, and willing to challenge, one’s own cultural assumptions. If a learning professional has the focus of aspects in the learning environment being planned and reliable, yet the learners respond more to flexibility and less structure, the professional must consider how the impact may affect the intended outcomes. If the organizational culture is competitive, should the learning opportunities confirm or encourage competitiveness, or should they place higher value on cooperative growth? Only the learning professional who observes interactions, is aware of their own assumptions and values, and has knowledge of the cultures imbedded in the individuals and the organization will successfully navigate questions such as that.

The Business Case for Engaging in Meaningful Diverse Interactions

Learning professionals, through onboarding and continuous quality learning offerings, influence not only the culture within an organization, but impact the business development of that organization. When the talent develops the ability to interact with others of diverse cultures, opportunities for personal and professional fulfillment abound. When those who rely on learning professionals, and the learning professionals themselves, have some understanding of different cultures, but also have problem-solving strategies and effective adaptations that work across or within different cultural contexts, business growth is a direct result.

Cultural considerations in the learning environment support multicultural team effectiveness. Multicultural team members’ abilities to interrelate translates to abilities to take the perspectives of a diverse customer base. These abilities and team effectiveness drive profitability and cost-savings. Success in culturally diverse markets can be linked directly back to engaging successfully in meaningful diverse interactions.

Final Cultural Considerations

  • Distinct cultural groups are not merely linguistic, matters of race or about specific ethnicity.
  • Each individual or perceived cultural group is different, and their unique cultural, psychological and economic personalities demand subtle, tailored responses.
  • The commitment to integrate diversity and cultural competence into an organization will increasingly pay big dividends in the coming years.
  • Integrating cultural competence into an organization does not happen by accident.

Even if an organization does not operate on a global scale, the cultural interactions within the working environment can impact the innovation and development of the talent. As learning professionals come across diverse opinions, it becomes important to understand how and in what ways culture shapes individuals, teams and the organization, and how they in turn shape learning.