What is Cultural Awareness Training?

Published on July 21st, 2021

During a CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) webinar recently, the speaker quoted an old L&D truism: if the answer is time management training, you’re not asking the right question. This saying holds true for cultural awareness training as well. We don’t know what problem we’re trying to solve. This is down to a misunderstanding about what cultural awareness training is and what it can achieve.

If you prefer video over text, we made a short under 3 min video for you:

Consequences of awareness

Firstly, we need to address the terminology. In 1991, Prof. Geert Hofstede published his seminal work, Cultures Consequences and the business world woke up to culture. More and more business schools began to include something on culture, using the phrase ‘Cultural Awareness’ to describe what they were teaching. However, the concept of awareness is problematic. 

When you wake up with a headache, the last thing you need is ‘awareness’ of the throbbing inside your skull – what you need is a glass of water and a painkiller. Awareness training tells you there’s a problem, highlights difference, but does not give you any tools to deal with it.

Seeing the ‘problem’ from a new perspective 

Awareness by itself frames as culture as a problem to be resolved; overcome rather than a reality that can be positive, creative, innovative, as well as stubborn, resistant – or anything in between. The books and theories on culture in the 1990’s talked about ‘collisions’ ‘waves’ ‘clashes’ ‘overcoming’ in relation to culture. We now know from research and books such as Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas that culture is the essential ingredient for a successful business. 

We have moved on a long way since the 1990’s. An accepted definition of culture, coined by John Mole is, ‘the way we do things around here.’  If that is the case, then culture is everything – it’s how we ‘work, rest and play.’  Cultural training, therefore, should have the aim of helping people work effectively in their reality, their situations. National culture is a simple framework to use to explain the concepts, and because society uses the common unit of nation state, it helps us to define cultural behaviors more clearly.  

However, ‘the way we do things around here’ is much richer than merely nation state: your team, department, group of friends, family, sports club, village/town – each has a unique culture that defines what is normal, acceptable, and expected of others; it’s why my grandmother always referred to me (and nearly everyone else) as ‘duck.’  Communication and culture are as tangled as the cables behind your TV. Culture is the central ingredient in belonging and engagement. And although we’ve moved on from seeing culture as a negative, you ignore it at your own risk!

What question are you asking?

We should also be honest and state that cultural awareness training is not a silver bullet that can resolve every issue, double your growth, and make everyone love you. By itself, it will not increase retention, solve racism, or as one leader once put it, “Get foreigners to do what I want them to do!”  

It is extremely important that all concerned are truly clear on what the outcomes are and what problem it is you are trying to solve. Is training even the answer? And if yes, is cultural training the answer? Cultural awareness training works best at developing inclusion, communication, and relationship-building. For training to be effective, all learners must equally be invested in finding a solution. The best trainer in the world cannot bring world peace through cultural awareness training because too many people don’t want to change the way they are and the way they behave. 

Change is a fundamental condition of training success

Three areas of changes

Training without behavior change is worthless. If you are considering cultural training of any kind, ask yourself, how do you expect to change your behavior? What will you be able to do afterwards that you can’t do now? If you go into the training without a clear answer, you are unlikely to have more than a pleasant experience with like-minded people. Be clear and demanding about how you want to change and view your training through that lens.

Communication is everything

We’ve already discussed that culture impacts everything. But because everything we do is an interaction with someone or something, culture and communication are inextricably linked. Therefore, cultural training must be able to challenge you to rethink how you communicate.  

Do you use irony?  Do you prefer to hint or suggest, rather than tell directly?  Do you explain in detail or in general terms?  The chances are that those you work with, and particularly those who grew up in a different country or in different circumstances will have a significantly different communication style from you.  After all, you learn how to communicate from your surroundings and life experiences – which are unique to you.  Is it then any surprise that your cultural profile and your communication style are unique to you? 

Going deeper 

This is more than superficial differences in word usage (an American would probably have written ‘different than’ rather than ‘from’ in the previous paragraph).   

Have you considered what someone means when they ask you to open the window?  Are they just asking for the window to be opened, or are they expecting to you to realize that they are uncomfortably warm?  When someone tells you it will be difficult to achieve a deadline, are they in fact politely telling you they won’t or can’t do what you’re asking?  When you think someone is being rude, are they, from their perspective, being considerate of your time and headspace, by stripping away the unnecessary politeness and hedging? 

Mind how you ask 

There is a story, that is certainly myth: a British marketing director, called Ian, went to work for a large Swedish company.  On Ian’s first day, he wanted to meet his team, particularly as his brief was to drive change.  He went round the office, and said to each group of people, who were largely Swedes, “If you don’t mind staying a bit later today, I’d like to share some of my initial thoughts over a beer with you all – it won’t be more than 30 minutes or so.”  Ian went off on the rest of his induction tour of the organization.  At 5.00pm exactly, he came back to the office to find it completely empty – not one person had stayed behind.  When he came in on Monday morning, he asked his assistant whether he’d done something wrong.  His assistant said, “Yes, you made a mistake.  You asked if they minded staying late.  They did mind, so they went home.” 

An implicitly oriented thinker will understand that “would you mind” is a coded instruction; an explicit communicator may take it at its face value. 

Key principles of learning 

Awareness will help you look for those gaps in understanding – quality training will help you identify ways to avoid them in the first place. 

For training to be effective there are some key principles: 

  • The design must incorporate the science of andragogy (the study of adult learning) 
  • Learning must solve a real-world problem that impacts the learners 
  • It must be sustainable and transfer into behavioral change 

Cultural trainers often spend too long describing cultural models.  In reality, learners don’t need the models, will rarely use them and in a one-day training course, won’t remember them.  The models are important to the trainers as a way of underpinning the learning outcomes; but a learner needs behaviors and skills that improve their work and/or life in some very specific way.   

Focusing on practical outcomes, incorporating learning science, and empowering learning transfer will increase the success of your investment in any training.  At its center, cultural awareness training, if done right, will create the inclusive behaviors and cultural intelligence to create an effective, high performance, collaborative culture.  Inclusion and belonging are infectious, so if you have invested in quality cultural awareness training, the impact will be well beyond the reaches of just those people who completed the training.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

We’ve got over three decades of experience supporting over 1 million people worldwide. We’re passionate about delivering change; how can we help you?