Cross-cultural training
Training & Learning

How to Make Sure Your Cross-Cultural Training Isn't Shooting You in the Foot

Although the cross-cultural training market is set to grow to $1.22 billion by 2024, spending an arm and a leg on training isn’t enough unless it translates into on-the-ground impact. Case in point: 78% of leaders believe their workplace is inclusive, but only 32% of their employees actually feel included. This gap in perception can lead to serious consequences.

The recent policy shift at Basecamp, which seeks to shut down socio-political discussions on the company’s internal communication channel, is the perfect example. On top of the ban, the company also disbanded a committee of employees who had volunteered to work on diversity and inclusion issues at the company.

In the wake of the new measures, one-third of their employees have resigned, and the company has received significant backlash. It serves as an example of what not to do: tout diversity and inclusion in principle, fail to grapple with its complexity, and attempt to drive it out of the workplace altogether. Basecamp, like every company, would do better to dedicate itself to cross-cultural training that creates ongoing opportunities for dialogue and learning.

When executed properly, cross-cultural training unlocks the endless potential of a diverse team. It doesn’t just give employees information about different cultures—it empowers them to continually adapt to diverse backgrounds and modify their workplace behavior when needed.

The following three principles are the pillars upon which effective cross-cultural training is built. (Before we dive in—are you curious about the role of HR in DE&I? Check out the webinar below to learn more).

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1: Cultural knowledge has its limits, but adaptability is endless

For a company to achieve cultural competence, it has to offer training in a way that fosters ongoing curiosity and adaptability. Sometimes, cross-cultural training programs feel like trivia practice: They teach learners fun factoids about other cultures that are meant to keep them from accidentally doing something disrespectful. But that doesn’t address the root of the issue.

The most effective cross-cultural training opens up an exchange of ideas through which employees learn how to go forward with the skills to independently adapt their behavior and make a more inclusive workplace. This ability to tune into a coworker’s culture without preconceived notions and judgment tops the list of skills required to work effectively in a global world. Here’s how that skill can create stronger, more inclusive organizations:

Psychological safety: A culture in which employees can express and be themselves leads to psychological safety, which, in turn, increases productivity. In a safe environment, even if employees make mistakes—because, let’s face it, they will—they’ll be better prepared to treat their coworkers with respect, own their mistakes, and contribute to a welcoming and inclusive environment.

Employee retention and satisfaction: Employees who feel a sense of belonging to their workplace are bound to experience satisfaction and naturally want to stay at the company. Cross-cultural training gives your company a smarter, more cohesive workforce and boosts retention.

2: Everyone (regardless of background) can tap into active learning during cross-cultural training

Typical cross-cultural training can quickly be relegated to shining a spotlight on cultural minorities while the majority watches in silence. Instead, effective cross-cultural training encourages every team member to participate by offering lessons and activities that engage everyone and work toward systemic change.

Use techniques like perspective-taking and goal-setting to make your cross-cultural training more active for all participants:

Perspective-taking: Perspective-taking refers to activities where you walk in someone else’s shoes to understand their point of view. This gives everyone a chance to practice empathy and see another person’s perspective, even if they don’t experience any friction in the workplace because of their cultural background.

Goal-setting: Setting clear goals makes cross-cultural training relevant for each and every participant. It gives them something to work toward once they complete the training session, too. These goals can be something like challenging stereotypical jokes in the workplace about underrepresented groups, like some of Basecamp’s employees who denounced a list of “Best Names Ever” that had been circulated internally for many years. The list included customer names that they viewed as funny, and is a good example of cultural insensitivity.

Goals don’t have to be grand to be effective. They can even be something as simple as learning about a festival a coworker celebrates, and wishing them an appropriate greeting. In turn, the coworker learns about a majority festival, and how all celebrations ultimately aim to bring people together. It makes the coworker feel like less of an anomaly and gets everyone to participate. Plus, it avoids putting cultural minorities in an awkward position by forcing them to be the center of attention for the whole training.

Related: 6 L&D Tips for Breaking Down Language Barriers in the Workplace

3: Collaboration is the mainstay of effective cross-cultural training

Humans learn by doing, and sociocultural skills are no exception. When employees work closely together through collaboration, they get to know each other better and get a first-hand experience of verbal and non-verbal behavior that stems from cultural differences.

Making cross-cultural training a collaborative practice means putting your money where your mouth is. When you’re talking about learning from each other, the best way to do this is to learn with each other. Collaboration enables the sharing of experiences and perspectives through discussions, Q&As, and even courses.

In a global workforce, it’s easy to have presumptions about common practices in another culture or country. Collaborative cross-cultural training can help tackle that kind of implicit bias with the help of a quick course. For example, here at 360Learning, an American employee created a course to help educate European coworkers about the culture of gun ownership and the Second Amendment in the US Constitution, since this is an issue at the root of many cross-cultural misunderstandings, even within the U.S., let alone across continents. Coworkers are able to react to the course and comment on it. They can even engage in a Q&A and give feedback on the course, which enriches the cross-cultural training through direct interaction and collaboration.

By capitalizing on a liberal exchange of cultural knowledge, collaborative training enables peer learning and motivated employees to bring their diverse selves to work without fear of isolation. It elevates equality and inclusion to a whole new level.

Related: How to Develop Anti-Bias and Diversity Training That’s Truly Effective

Active cross-cultural training makes diversity an asset for your organization

An impactful cross-cultural training model has a domino effect. It’s worth starting because, well, it’s the right thing to do, but it also leads to a number of other positive business effects. To start, it produces an environment where employees can work collaboratively and feel a sense of belonging. It also results in better performance and higher retention, ultimately making the company significantly more profitable. Investing in cross-cultural training means becoming future-ready, as youthful minorities are set to take center stage in the coming years.

What makes a successful employee training program? Click here to find out.