Why Cross-Cultural Training Could Be a Waste of Money

Published: Apr 10, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By: David Livermore, PhD.

I’m amazed how often we default to seminars, conferences, and training as if they’re the panacea to all things cross-cultural.

  • Our sales people are struggling with how to negotiate effectively in China: “Let’s hire someone to train them about China.” 
  • Our personnel don’t know how to accept people from other faiths: “Let’s offer a workshop about respecting religious differences”
  • Our teachers don’t know how to deal with diverse classroom: “Our next in-service day should focus on this topic.”

You get the idea. And as one who does a fair amount of this kind of speaking and teaching, I could be shooting myself in the foot here. I see great value in education—both formal and informal; but I’m not convinced one-off training events do a whole lot to change the way we work across borders—at home or abroad.

In fact, the research shows that in some cases, training by itself, even if done well, could actually be counterproductive. Individuals may have had just enough training to think “I’m good to go. I ‘get’ those people.”

I wish I could tell you in good conscience that bringing in an expert for a day is all it takes. I certainly think speakers, workshops, and books can play a part in both enhancing awareness and offering some practical tools for how to respectfully and effectively work with people and organizations from different cultures. But as with any systemic change, improving the way we do so requires a long-term strategic process.

Some of the things to include in a long-term approach to becoming more effective across borders include:

1. Assess the cross-border effectiveness of the organization as a whole.
Some questions to begin with are:

  • What’s our level of success working internationally and/or across different ethnic cultures domestically?
  • What’s the level of satisfaction from personnel and clients/constituents who come from different cultural backgrounds?
  • To what degree do cultural differences inform our strategic decisions?
  • What’s our plan for retaining our core identity/brand while also adapting to various cultures?

2. Assess the Cultural Intelligence (CQ) of Key Personnel
Cultural intelligence. CQ. is a globally recognized way of assessing and developing an individual’s cross-cultural effectiveness. Begin assessing the CQ of strategic leaders in the organization and associates who have the most interaction with culturally diverse contexts. Then eventually develop CQ assessment into the regular HR processes. Effective assessment requires attending to the four research-based capabilities of cultural intelligence:

  • CQ Drive: What’s my level of motivation for cross-cultural assignments?
  • CQ Knowledge: What’s my level of cultural understanding?
  • CQ Strategy: How well can I plan for doing the same task in different cultural contexts?
  • CQ Action: Can I effectively adapt to various cultural situations and still be myself?

You can find more information about CQ assessments at http://www.culturalq.com

3. Create a Developmental Plan for Improving Cultural Intelligence
Don’t put everyone through the same one-size fits all cross-cultural training plan. Some have plenty of knowledge but not a lot of motivation. Others are very motivated but aren’t quite sure how to translate that into effective behavior. Empower your team to develop personalized plans for developing their CQ based upon their CQ strengths and weaknesses.

Bringing in speakers, offering workshops, and distributing books to offer a common language and vision can be very helpful within this context. However, education and training fit within a larger plan; whenever possible, provide personnel with individualized coaching to help them in this process.

4. Integrate global effectiveness into the Strategic Plan
Rather than simply relegating cross-border effectiveness to the “international sales” division or to the “diversity and inclusion officer,” make it part of the overall strategic plan for the organization.

  • How does culture need to inform the way R&D do their work?
  • How does a globally dispersed workforce and/or clientele need to shape the way IS develop their processes?
  • How will the targets identified at the C-suite level be informed by cross-border issues?

I’m only scratching the surface here. More often than not, training should be part of the mix in improving the way we work and relate across borders. I’m simply cautioning us against seeing training as the panacea to all things cross-cultural.

Increase the return on investment you get from your training dollars by using it within a more holistic, sustainable plan. Then know that your lecture series and lunch n’ learn sessions are not the end-all but simply another important piece of how you can effectively embark on the challenges and opportunities of today’s globalized world!

To learn more about Cultural Intelligence—a research based way to predict cross-cultural effectiveness—see The Cultural Intelligence Difference (AMACOM, 2011). The book is packed with dozens of strategies proven to increase your CQ and includes access to the only academically tested CQ assessment in the world.

About the Author(s)

David Livermore, PhD, is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, MI, and a visiting scholar at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He’s written several books on global leadership and cultural intelligence including Leading with Cultural Intelligence and his newest release, The Cultural Intelligence Difference. For more information, visit: www.davidlivermore.com