Why is cross-cultural training important in the workplace?

Published on December 9th, 2021

We’ve been witnesses of our world becoming more interconnected and interdependent than ever. As a result, businesses have been given a new condition for success: they need to foster an open, inclusive and collaborative work environment. They now need to actively support their employees in acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary for communicating effectively and building better relationships within a culturally diverse environment.  

The tool that proved itself to be successful in achieving this goal is cross-cultural training. Why is cross-cultural training important, what does it entail, and what benefits does it bring, are the questions we will answer in this article. 

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What is cross-cultural training?

Cross-cultural training (CCT) refers to a procedure or practice that aims to enable learners to develop the awareness, knowledge and skills required to be culturally competent in cross-cultural situations, domestically and abroad. (Bean, 2008)1 The combination of these three components is a template for intercultural adaptability and competence, which we call Cultural Intelligence (CQ): 

  • Awareness. We must control the subconscious influence of our own culture. We must recognize that differences exist, paying attention to the context and keeping track of our thoughts and emotions. This active awareness will help us manage the knowledge and skills we use. 
  • Knowledge. Includes understanding the notion of culture, its basic features, and how it affects human behavior. Gaining new knowledge about other cultures helps us to counter stereotypes and understand cultural motivations and behaviors. 
  • Skills. The key culturally intelligent skills include interpersonal skills, tolerance for uncertainty, empathy, discernement and adaptability. 

Different types of CCT are generally delivered in two models: general awareness and communication training and country- or culture-specific training. The first one focuses on developing general cross-cultural skills, knowledge, and sensitivity that will help a learner have successful interactions in any culture they encounter. The second one focuses on a single culture or country. This type of CCT gives learners basic knowledge about the culture or country, such as its history, common religions, political and economic conditions, and local business etiquette. 

Why is cross-cultural training important in the workplace?

Cross-cultural competence has evolved into the most important set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes for anyone wishing to work internationally. CCT is crucial if your company is looking to take full advantage of an intercultural environment. And without cultural sensitivity, you’re risking low job satisfaction, poor client relationships, loss of business, time, and money. Let’s take a look at some of the most important benefits that your company will get from investing in CCT. 

Strong team synergy is what brings success, and one of the main reasons why cross-cultural training is important in the workplace

An Austrian team leader is facing difficulties. They have a team of five Belgian of French origin, Portuguese, Serb, Chinese, and American of Italian origin. The team leader is struggling to find a team management style that suits everyone. How can they treat everyone fairly? How can the team collaborate effectively? The cultural styles of each conflict and contrast so regularly that the team risks chaos. 

Workforces are becoming increasingly diverse, even for teams that do not have international reach. This situation poses a double challenge; how to contribute to a multicultural team and how to manage a multicultural team. Instead of devoting themselves to the task, such teams, as in our example, often become unsuccessful because the work process is hampered by all the cultural differences. Team members could find it extremely hard to work in this group because of the risk of misunderstanding, accidental disrespect and loss of trust. 

Cultural intelligence will help team members and leaders learn how to listen and understand others. They will refrain from labeling people and will be ready to build trust and respect. By understanding the role that each person chooses to have in a team, culturally intelligent leaders can more easily build a team that is strong and effective.

Cross-cultural training holds the key to fostering strong bonds with clients and business partners from diverse cultures

Andy, a talented American architect, traveled to Mexico City to meet the CEO of a successful hotel. They were interested in seeing different ideas for the design for a new building, and Andy was very eager to get the job. He’d put a lot of effort into his work and couldn’t wait to start with the presentation. However, his Mexican hosts, although very friendly and welcoming, didn’t seem to be at all interested in business. They kept asking him about his work, interests, his hometown, and family. When they invited him to dinner so he can meet everyone better, he became extremely frustrated. Why did they invite him, if not for work? 

What happened here? Like many Americans, Andy tends towards a task-focused orientation. He’s interested in business, wants to reach a deal, and not waste time socializing. His Mexican hosts, on the other hand, believe that good business comes from good relationships. If Andy and his Mexican hosts were more open to acknowledging each other’s needs and customs, everyone would have gotten what they wanted. 

Cross-cultural training offers knowledge and skills necessary to communicate effectively in different cultures, but it also supports self-analysis. Learners become aware of the influences of their own culture on their thinking and behavior. By understanding their own influences and cultural heritage, they become better at understanding the culture of others. This is incredibly important and useful when it comes to fostering good relationships with partners and clients from different cultures. Likewise, poor cultural understanding can lead to failed negotiations, loss of partnerships and clients, and so on. Global business requires cross-cultural competence. 

Cross-cultural training supports employee growth and, consequently, company success 

While preparing for a meeting, Lisa noticed that Duri, an expat from China who had recently been transferred to work in her company in the USA, had not sent her an important report that was due to arrive the day before. She went to look for him and when she found him sitting with his colleagues, she asked him why he hadn’t sent the report yet. He immediately started apologizing and promised he would send it the same day. Although Lisa assured him that it was not a big problem, she noticed that he was very uncomfortable. After that, Duri took sick leave, and after two weeks he resigned. 

Duri has been conditioned by culture to save face at all costs. When Lisa questioned him in front of his colleagues, he felt that he would never be able to regain the reputation he had before she criticized his colleagues. With cultural intelligence, Lisa might have recognized the importance of face to Duri and found a better way to chase him up. If Duri had been better equipped with cross-cultural competencies to work in American culture, he might have learned new ways to fit in and not quit the job he was happy with. 

Just like Duri, a significant number of expatriates sent to foreign countries on assignments return home prematurely. One of the reasons for the return has been reported as the inability of these expatriates to adapt to the host country’s culture (Kuo, 409)2.  

Moreover, research conducted by Kotze and Massyn (2019)3 on the influence of employees’ cross-cultural psychological capital (cross-cultural self-efficacy, hope, optimism, and resilience) on their psychological wellbeing showed that employees equipped with cross-cultural competencies were more resilient to burnout, had higher work engagement and less emotional exhaustion. 

Aside from the support that the employees get through CCT to better fit into the new cultural environment and be successful in their work, it helps them climb the career ladder. Working in a globalized world has brought global opportunity – but also global competition. Multinational companies can look for prospective candidates in the broadest and most diverse talent pool they have ever had. CCT and cultural intelligence give people a competitive edge over their competition by providing them with valuable awareness, knowledge and skills to conduct business internationally.

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1Bean, R., 2008. Cross-cultural training and workplace performance. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research, pp.12-14. 

2Kuo, S.-L. (2012). Cross-Cultural Training Programs and Expatriate Adjustment Effectiveness. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, pp.409–413. 

3Kotze, M. and Massyn, L. (2019). The influence of employees’ cross-cultural psychological capital on workplace psychological well-being. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology. 45.pp. 1-8.