5 Mistakes in Cross-Cultural Competence Training

Experienced expats identify common mistakes in cross-cultural competence training

A vital part of success during global relocations is building cross-cultural competence. The positive effects of cross-cultural training on expatriate assignments are numerous – from building collaborative and effective professional relationships to driving more meaningful business growth. Social norms may differ hugely between the assignee and his or her new team. Without training, these differences can increase the risk of offending colleagues. It can also lead to misunderstanding managers and losing trust in the new team member. Culturally diverse teams working in the same geography can also benefit from cross cultural training.

IMPACT Group’s Global Mobility Trends 2020-2021 Study revealed that 64% of mobility and HR experts believe their organizations’ culture strongly values the skills and experience gained from global assignments. In addition, 69% believe many workers are still seeking out employers that offer global opportunities.

Despite our sudden shift into remote working, global relocations and assignments are still valued and desired by both parties. Even with the rise of virtual assignments, these solutions are necessary to help assignees understand the new culture. This is still necessary even though they remain in their home country during the assignment. In fact, 39% of participants in IMPACT Group’s Global Mobility Trends 2020-2021 Study strongly agree or agree that they will likely increase cross-cultural competence training so that diverse groups of people can work more effectively, whether they work at the same site or virtually.

Why is cross-cultural competence training necessary?

“Relocating to a new country is like moving to a brand new world,” points out Marie Galfre, IMPACT Group Career Coach. She has lived as an expat for 25 years and coached hundreds of expats living in France, Russia, Turkey, and South East Asia. “Cultural codes, habits, language, and even the meaning of common words are completely different country to country.” She has personally experienced how necessary it is to analyze these codes of conduct to facilitate a successful integration.

Lucy Foster, a Global Account Manager at IMPACT Group, shares, “If we don’t understand the culture of the new country, how can we hope to build positive and effective professional relationships?” Lucy leverages her experience as an expat to coach employees and families during global relocations. “Cultural identity goes beyond verbal communication. It is intrinsic in our values, behaviors, mannerisms, attitudes, and perceptions.” This is what makes adapting to different cultures an important tool for international business. Missing the mark in all of those areas threatens the success of the project or team.

Culturally competent individuals are typically more open to different perspectives, foster empathetic communication, and create spaces of creativity and innovation. Investing in cross-cultural competence training will enhance intra-company communication and collaboration, which in turn develops better managers and increases talent retention.

What common mistakes are made in cross-cultural training?

Mistake #1: Offering classroom-based training.

Most often, cross-cultural competence training is facilitated as a one-way flow of information. A classroom-based “information dump” doesn’t provide clear context for how the learnings can translate into more successful outcomes in the new culture. “The assignee expects to learn the host country’s culture after listening to the theory and learning about different cultural dimensions,” shares Tracy Kautzmann, IMPACT Group Director of Global Client Relations.

However, when that assignee moves and begins working and living in that new culture, they forget the theory and go back to their own way of behaving. Tracy has lived as an expat in eight countries and relocated 17 times. She knows what doesn’t work in the long run: “A full-day classroom training does not allow for the theory to change their behavior because they have not had the ‘practice’ time.” Everyone has different learning styles, so selecting a solution that focuses on both theory and real-life experience increases knowledge retention.

Mistake #2: Providing the program at the wrong time.

Companies often offer the program too far in advance of the relocation. It’s common for it to be part of the pre-visits or when the relocation is still an abstract concept. Tracy notes, “Although it is nice to have theory ahead of time in order to better prepare, not having any training or coaching once the assignee is in the host country is a mistake. This is when the employee and family will be experiencing the true cultural differences.”

This pre-departure timeframe means most of the information is forgotten by the time the relocation takes place. Lucy points out, “Ideally, the cross-cultural competence training should start one month before the relocation, while providing a mix of coaching pre-move and post-move. This enables the employee and family to use their own personal experience as part of the learning.” Providing support before and after the move increases retention of information, and real-life examples give better practical understanding of the theory.

Mistake #3: Engaging an information only, tech-delivered solution.

Many organizations have moved to online learning portals, or subscriptions to online learning services, as a cost-effective approach to providing cultural training. They are investing most of their focus on the least effective type of learning. That creates an experience gap for the employee, minimizing the effects of cross-cultural training on expatriate assignments. “What’s missing is the in-country coaching to help move the learning from theory to experience and then practice,” says Tracy. “Gaining new information from the online tools is good and necessary; however, without a coach, a lot of the theory will be forgotten.”

A cross-cultural program that is purely informational – like online lessons, articles, theory, webinars, etc. – creates a knowledge foundation, but is not an effective way to grow new skills and behaviors. Learning by coaching, hands-on doing, quizzes, open-ended questions, and role playing is a more effective way to ensure that the knowledge imparted is effectively put into practice.

Mistake #4: Focusing on the wrong aspects.

Negative stereotypes can surface due to cultural variations, which may lead to a heightened focus on difference between teammates from other cultural backgrounds. With the differences taking the spotlight, there may be less focus on how to adapt and respond to those differences.

A successful program focuses on two parts: the theory of the host country’s culture and learnings to best adapt to that culture. Marie points out, “The content of the program is key, and it should go beyond providing generic information about the country that can easily be found on the internet.” The program should dig into concrete situations, analyze different approaches, and help assignees and families to reflect on how to better position themselves in the new culture. The effects of cross-cultural training on expatriate assignments are greatly improved when individuals address the gaps and adjust behaviors to enhance cultural understanding.

Mistake #5: Believing the employee will quickly adapt since they have lived as an expat before.

Through Marie’s many years of experience coaching assignees during global relocations, she has witnessed that many people assume they already know how to adjust. She shares, “They believe they are open minded enough to understand their new environment quickly. But many times, this is not a good assumption.” One example is a senior executive who had previous expat experience. The individual was convinced that the strategic decisions that were made in the previous county would also work in the new country. Without an understanding of business norms and cultural codes, serious mistakes were made. “I also remember a global group that relocated to Russia. It was assumed they would know how to adjust. They ended up stepping back and leaving the country.” Despite all that was invested in their relocations, a lack of cross-cultural competence training led to a failed assignment.

What’s the right cross-cultural training approach?

In-country post-move coaching is a differentiator.

Thirty percent (30%) of HR and mobility professionals say that a lack of cultural agility is a major hurdle in attracting leaders to global positions, according to IMPACT Group’s Global Mobility Trends 2020-2021 Study.

We believe that to improve cultural agility, resilience, and relocation success, cross-cultural competence training must include expert coaching with individual insights and cross-cultural theory. Utilizing a blended learning approach, IMPACT Group’s cross-cultural solution is a hybrid program that ensures global assignees and their spouse/partner build skills through self-guided, online learning while working directly with a coach.

Build a flexible, globally minded workforce through cross-cultural competence training. Explore the benefits of this blended approach today.