It's the kind of e-mail you pray will never be written about you. My South African friend, Zwanda, sent this to me after a week of hosting an American trainer:
I'm in recovery at the moment. I just spent the week hosting an American trainer who was in town, and it has been a disaster. The essence of his workshop was good—but it could have been much better presented by someone more culturally-sensitive. I have never met anyone more insensitive to a local culture—nor a more proud, pushy, and condescending person in my whole life. We clashed over cultural issues from the moment he arrived to the last minute he left. I even told him that he is terminally-offensive in our culture. He said he is not American but trans-cultural.
He never once asked to see anything I had done—that just made me feel like nothing we have is worth anything.
As the globalization of business surges forward with racing speed, so does the demand for corporate training. But how do we ensure our training is effective and respectful? I've done a lot of teaching around the world, and I've made my share of mistakes. I've also spent the last several years researching the challenges faced when teaching individuals from culturally-diverse backgrounds.
One study I conducted examined what happened when North American trainers traveled overseas to teach one-week workshops to local leaders in places throughout Africa and South America. Every one of the North American teachers described the eagerness of the local leaders for the training. The North American leaders were struck by how hungry the locals were for the material taught. Notice the contrast between what one North American trainer said compared to one of the South Africans who sat through his training:
North American trainer describing his teaching in South Africa: "They were so engaged. They sat and listened, and they didn't get up and go to the bathroom every five minutes or constantly ask for breaks. The room was really hot and humid but that didn't seem to faze them. They were so respectful."
South African leader who sat in the teaching:
"I'm glad he felt respected. But he needs to realize we would never think about talking or getting up to leave in the middle of a lecturer's presentation. It would be unheard of for us to do that to a teacher much less a foreign guest. It doesn't necessarily mean the content was engaging."
This trainer's assessment may have been accurate in a North American context, but on the whole, the South African leaders who participated in the training gave very low marks to the relevance and value of the training they received. It's important to note that these North American trainers were highly effective back home. It's not that they were bad teachers. But when they employed the same teaching strategies and content in a new context, it fell flat.
Cultural intelligence offers a better way
Taking on a cross-cultural teaching assignment doesn't have to lead to failure. Some trainers are able to anticipate and adapt to the unpredictability and challenges of cross-cultural teaching while others can't. Conventional wisdom says this just comes down to common sense and intuition, but research doesn't support that. Instead, the difference lies in a trainer's cultural intelligence quotient (CQ). Cultural intelligence is defined as the capability to function effectively across national, ethnic, and organizational cultures. You've heard about IQ and EQ?
CQ stems from this same body of research on the forms of intelligence needed to be a successful facilitator and trainer. Anyone can enhance their CQ, which in turn, allows them to move in and out of many diverse cultures effectively. CQ enables trainers from outside a culture to interpret unfamiliar behaviors and situations as though they were insiders to that culture. It's a seismic competitive edge for corporate trainers who want to tap into global markets.
Enhanced cultural intelligence begins with understanding the four capabilities included in cultural intelligence:
1. CQ Drive: Your interest, confidence, and drive to adapt cross-culturally.
2. CQ Knowledge: Your understanding of cross-cultural issues and differences.
3. CQ Strategy: Your ability to plan effectively for culturally diverse learners.
4. CQ Action: Your adaptability in the midst of cross-cultural teaching and interaction.
As trainers become more culturally intelligent, they learn to adapt their content, teaching strategies, the ways they interact with participants, and even their delivery style. For example, a culturally intelligent approach to teaching individuals for whom English is a second language includes these strategies:
- Slow down. Slow down. Slow down.
- Use clear, slow speech. Enunciate carefully.
- Avoid colloquial expressions.
- Repeat important points using different words to explain the same thing.
- Avoid long compound sentences.
- Use visual representations (pictures, tables, graphs, etc.) to support your training material.
- Mix presentations with a balance of story and principles.
- Hand out written summaries.
- Pause more frequently.
This is just a sampling of what emerges from training with cultural intelligence, which in turn, yields enhanced learning.
The joke's on you
I was recently on a flight sitting next to a Chinese-American business woman. She often travels to China to translate for English-speaking corporate trainers who conduct seminars there. She commented on how most of the American and British trainers with whom she works start their presentations with a joke or humorous anecdote. This is an approach that seems to work well for them in their own context. But my seatmate told me when they do that in China, instead of translating what they're saying, she says to the Mandarin-speaking audience, "Our presenter is telling a joke right now. The polite thing to do will be to laugh when he's done."
Our training experiences don't have to be fodder for irate e-mails and humorous airline chit chat. With cultural intelligence, training in a new environment can not only be effective but deeply satisfying.
[Portions of this article were adapted from "Leading with Cultural Intelligence."]
David Livermore, Ph.D., is the author of the newly released book, "Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success." He is the executive director of the Global Learning Center in Grand Rapids, MI, a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and a senior research consultant at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, MI. Livermore has conducted training for, and consulted with, leaders in 75 countries across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. For more information, visit www.davidlivermore.com