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4 Reasons to Make Space for Intercultural Learning in Corporate Settings

A guest blog by Stephan Hild, originally published in German on his company blog.

Effective intercultural business training can turn your employees and executive staff into more mature and considerate leaders who will have a significantly broader and deeper behavioral and cognitive repertoire when dealing with challenging situations in global business. Here’s what you’ll need and how it will pay dividends for your organization. 

Some random quotes from actual client conversations we had over the years:
“We put together a new international project team who will come together for their kick-off meeting soon. So we thought it might be a good idea to give them a bit of input on, like, intercultural management and virtual collaborations. We envisioned doing, like, a half-day session.” 
“Our international sales team will be at the head office for our annual meeting. Can you do something with them so they’ll work more in alignment? Not more than a day, though. You know how expensive it gets when salespeople don’t produce.”
“Our global leadership team consists of more than 30 people from 12 countries. We need a moderator who can help them get a better grasp of the cultures represented in the group, and how to deal with them. Can we do this before the team dinner?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m always glad when companies care about developing their employees’ cultural competence at all. But do it like this? Really? Well, I turned down two of the requests above. Why, you ask? It wouldn’t have been worth their investment. Instead, it would have created another company who comes to the conclusion that “this cultural training stuff is fine and dandy and also quite interesting, but it didn’t really move the needle for us…” Of course it didn’t! You set it up to fail. Effective intercultural learning takes time!

Here’s why.

Reason #1: The success conditions for intercultural communication and cooperation are diverse and complex

Simply speaking: there’s a ton of material to work through and lots of stuff to learn. Several factors influence intercultural interactions, e.g. how people perceive hierarchies and status, how we view time, and, as a result, how we plan, or what people consider to be “normal” and appropriate communication styles. It takes time to not only understand these and other relevant parameters but also to get enough opportunities to interpret other cultures’ behaviors based on this new information as well as opportunities to adjust our own behaviors in light of these differences.

Of course, trainers might simply “trim back” their programs to meet the scheduling and budget demands of their clients.
We could simply reduce the amount of relevant material we present.
We could simply lecture from the front of the room without being invested in our clients’ success.
We could simply pretend that culture is simple.
If it were so, our clients would have already resolved their intercultural issues. 

Reason #2: Effective intercultural learning has to take into account the cognitive and affective elements of human personality

When people struggle with international tasks where do these challenges typically originate? They are reactions to behaviors that appear strange, reactions to experiences that aren’t anchored in our minds as familiar, plausible, or even morally acceptable. That which feels foreign creates tension with our innate cultural imprint which is rooted deeply in our limbic system – a very old part of our brain. Our unreflected, emotional responses to this tension, in turn, inform our own behavior, creating a vicious cycle that can only be broken if we are willing to apply empathy in relating to another person.

Relating while acknowledging that our own interpretation of the experience is one of many possible ways of giving meaning to the situation. Relating while recognizing our knee-jerk response without allowing ourselves to be guided or hijacked by the emotions. People have to experience this very process of intentionally breaking through our learned behavioral patterns before they internalize the learning. We need to practice this interrupting of our auto-pilot several times before we can measure results. That’s what happens in intercultural workshops – and practice takes time. 

Reason #3: Only if we truly know ourselves will we realize how much we expect of others

First and foremost we have to become more aware of our own imprints if we want to become more efficient in dealing with people from other cultural backgrounds. Knowing with which implicit expectations we enter into interpersonal exchanges, which values are particularly important to us, or why certain behaviors will drive us up the wall is an enormously important first step towards successful communication and cooperation. For program participants to begin accepting this type of self-reflection and for facilitators to guide this process with a systemic questioning framework requires that – you guessed it – that we have enough time. 

Reason #4: Nobody is as smart as the entire group present in the room

Enabling and facilitating collective, social learning which allows every single individual to learn from each other’s experiences and expertise is time-consuming. It is also highly effective when participants generate inspiration for each other and spark new light bulb moments within the group. 

Conclusion

Effective intercultural business training can turn your employees and executive staff into more mature and considerate leaders who will have a significantly deeper behavioral and cognitive repertoire when dealing with challenging situations in global business. 

What it takes to accomplish this: A time-out for your team from their day-to-day obligations. Give us at least two days for an in-person workshop with an advanced blended learning concept. 

What’s in it for you? You get to quantify that yourself. Simply ask yourself some of these questions:

  • How much time (i.e. money) will your organization save once your international virtual team works with less friction and tension?
  • How much more productive will your company be once your employees pull together and empower each other’s full potential?
  • How much more efficient will your foreign team members be once they feel like they belong?
  • How will your leaders’ results improve once they understand how their international team members expect to be lead, managed, and inspired? 
  • How much will your organization save once the number of prematurely terminated expat assignments decreases? 
  • How many more prospects and leads will you generate during international trade shows and global delegation trips?

Still on the fence? Well, then… let’s compare before and after. We got the tools for that. Ready to talk?


Stephan Hild works as an intercultural business trainer, coach, moderator, and mediator based in Munich. Helping individuals, teams, and organizations to embrace internationalization, to perform well on international grounds, to leverage opportunities, and to minimize risks and costs – this is the overarching goal of his cross-cultural workshops and team-coachings. Stephan grew up in Munich, Bavaria, where – after extensive stays abroad – he is based again today, together with his Portuguese wife. He describes himself as a passionate Münchner and a passionate global citizen at the same time. Stephan holds Master’s degrees in business administration and environmental sciences. He is fluent in German, English, and Portuguese. Stephan keeps himself updated on the latest state of training/coaching/moderation techniques, such as LEGO® Serious Play®, experience-based learning approaches, and simulation games.

This article has been translated from German and is republished here from Stephan’s company blog with his permission. 


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