Besting the Culture Challenge

How professional trainers can develop rapport with and meet the learning needs of employees when working outside their home country.

By Tim Toterhi, Senior Director, Global Learning & Development, Quintiles

Trainers are nothing if not customer focused. As consummate people pleasers, we pride ourselves on being able to quickly size up an audience and leverage our vast subject matter expertise to meet their learning objectives. And while the more experienced among us can transition seamlessly between teacher, facilitator, coach, and even cheerleader to get the best from participants, if asked in an honest moment, most new trainers will admit they are far more comfortable when operating in expert mode. After all, knowledge is power, and power is comforting.

The trouble when working abroad, however, is that you can quickly lose your footing. You still have content knowledge, of course, but the forces of language, culture, religion, and learning styles can challenge your traditional training tricks and wreak havoc on your educational spider-sense. Newer trainers often over-compensate by endeavoring to become an instant expert on the new environment—a difficult task for long-term expatriates and an impossible one when you are tapped for one-off travel to multiple countries in support of a global program rollout. So what are you to do when you have but a day or two to make the connection?

Know the Basics

Experts note the importance of speaking slowly, repeating concepts, and ensuring exercises are culturally sensitive. There are also a host of common warnings such as avoiding slang, untested humor, and local analogies. This goes double for all you sports fans. Remember, for most people, football is soccer, and while there are, indeed, bowlers in cricket, the game doesn’t come with pins or rented shoes.

Remember great speakers tailor their talks to the audience. Take a page from the pros and review your training notes to ensure your message will be well received. It takes time, but minding your metaphors will help you slam dunk that pitch to the end zone … so to speak.

Be Respectful and Inquisitive

Review Hofstede’s work on cultural value dimensions for the country in question. Having a handle on how people typically approach issues such as individualism, power, distance, gender roles, and future orientation will demonstrate respect for the culture and help inform your training approach. Combining that initial preparation with a genuine interest in the people and their culture can only increase rapport. So when in doubt, ask.

Focus on the Individual

At times, we take ourselves too seriously. I honestly laugh when I hear people say things like, “I’m working with Japan.” Let’s face it, you’re not training Japan, you’re working with 20 people who happen to be Japanese. Each of them comes to the course with their own personality, experiences, and expectations. I once had a class full of hard-charging, hand-raising salespeople who made me look like an introvert. Can you imagine if I approached the interaction with stereotypical concepts of Asian participants? I’d have failed with subtitles.

Connect Through Stories

You can learn language, study history, and appreciate a country’s artistic achievements. But the harsh reality is in most cases, you really don’t “get it.” For example, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never know what it’s like to go to high school in Shanghai … because, well, I didn’t. However, I can share a story about a teacher who inspired me, an experience that challenged me, or even a writer who changed my perspective on an issue. Your impact is born of those connections.

Be Flexible

Trainers often are under pressure to deliver a prescribed amount of content. But rushing through material in an effort to hit a possibly ill-conceived finish line does little to advance the participant’s understanding. Don’t be afraid to ditch the lesson plan when training abroad. What worked as an exercise in one country may play better as a lecture in another. Remember, the most important end state is understanding, so strive for that result.

Share on Local Terms

Unless you’re conducting a course in public speaking, default to the home country culture when asking for feedback. While many Americans, for example, are comfortable with raising their hands, members of other cultures may rather work in teams and elect a spokesperson. Part of this preference may be attributable to a desire to work in local language, but let’s face it, being called on in front of your peers is rarely a relished event.

To ensure you hit the optimal blend of country and individual preference, alternate your approach, or better yet, suggest the “safer” mode and offer others as an option. It’s not uncommon for participants of multi-day programs to increase their comfort level over time. Just be sure to allow for a natural progression of sharing and don’t force fit to your style.

Training Diverse Groups at Home

Of course, not all trainers bounce about the globe. With budget-related travel restrictions and the dawn of more intricate virtual training options, many of us are homebound. Still, given the ever-increasing diversity of today’s workforce, trainers are being asked to work with international audiences more frequently and often much earlier in their careers than ever before.

People sometimes assume that the prospect of training a multicultural audience is even more difficult than operating in a single foreign country. Surprisingly, the reverse is true. When going abroad, there is an unspoken expectation that the guest will flex to the needs of the host. When working with a diverse group, however, that responsibility is shared between all parties and is required if participants are to extract the most out of that learning rich environment. Success in this setting comes from following the tips above, but also from openly sharing that knowledge and expectations with your participants.

The best thing you can do in any training situation is to leverage your most valuable asset: your personal style. Nothing comes off flatter than a forced approach. So if you’re a storyteller, spin a tale. If you’re a jokester, have a laugh. Not all the punch lines will land, but that’s true in any setting. And the ones that do will be remembered.

Tim Toterhi is senior director of Organization Development at Quintiles. He’s worked extensively with teams in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He is also an author, coach, and presenter. He can be reached at

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