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The impact of culture

5th Apr 2011
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Following on from Peter Clayton's piece on body language in the Middle East, Kwintessential's Neil Payne also shares his experiences with the community.
As a trainer I remember times working in the Middle East where I was pulling my hair out. I very quickly learnt not to expect participants to brainstorm, work in groups, use their imagination or carry out tasks based on their own experiences. Initiative was a no-go area. Looking back, I was culturally naive. I blamed the participants for being one-dimensional. In reality I was one-dimensional. I had my own expectations of what a good trainer is and how participants should behave. In Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Syria this was not in line with local expectations. If I had been more culturally aware, my courses would have gotten off to much better starts.
Forward some 10 years and a little cultural awareness later, any training I deliver in the region would look completely different. Why? Because I now understand how people in this region like to be taught and what they expect from me as the trainer. I have adapted my training style to suit them and no longer expect it to be the other way around.

Expectation

"Why does culture impact the training environment? Simply put, because culture helps define how we are taught, how we learn, what we expect and how we communicate. "
Why does culture impact the training environment? Simply put, because culture helps define how we are taught, how we learn, what we expect and how we communicate. It influences all the behaviours and internal processes one experiences in any training environment. We can't escape culture in many of the things we do and training is no exception.
How does culture impact the training environment? At its most basic, culture influences a) what the trainer believes makes for a good course and b) what the participants expect. When the cultures involved come from different ends of the spectrum it can lead to an ineffective learning environment. For example, should the presentation skills trainer believe he/she is going to bring out change by getting people to talk about and demonstrate their weaknesses then he/she is not going to be successful in say India, China or Malaysia. Participants would be expecting to be told what the perfect presentation is, take notes and go away to work on it themselves. Talking openly about weak points is simply a no-no. 
Academics have a tendency to define cultures according to models or dimensions. Although I believe the real world is a lot more complex, these simplified models do allow for successful illustration of cultural differences. There are many of these models and those readers interested should research them to appreciate their value for the training environment. For the sake of brevity only one of these models shall be examined in this article to demonstrate how they can be applied – hierarchy.
Hierarchical cultures emphasise the importance of rank and status. Northern European and English-speaking countries tend to be egalitarian whereas Asian, Latin and Arab countries are usually more hierarchical. Anyone with experience of hierarchical cultures will appreciate the rank afforded to teachers. Similarly the trainer is seen as an expert and someone with wisdom who should be respected. Although it may feel immodest, a trainer visiting a hierarchical culture should emphasise their expertise and experience. This assures participants that they are in good hands. On top of this, the trainer's plans for the course, goals and structure should all be made clear. Participants from a hierarchical culture won't be comfortable with a basic introduction of yourself, loose or unspecific agendas.
In egalitarian cultures, participants tend to expect to learn from each other; they expect brainstorming, feedback, opinions, debate and dialogue. The trainer is seen as a peer and acknowledged as being there to facilitate the learning. By contract, in hierarchical cultures participants expect to be taught by the expert, i.e. the trainer. Logic deducts that since this person is being paid, they must be an expert and therefore it is important to sit, listen, take notes and learn (and hopefully pick up a certificate at the end too!) So one can imagine what happens when a Chinese trainer comes into an egalitarian culture and essentially 'presents' information.

Cultural communication

What happens when you form small discussion groups in a hierarchical culture? Correct. You need to be aware of the power dynamics within that group. If you expect a manager and subordinates to sit in a break-out group to give honest and open feedback on a company's management style then forget it. Even amongst subordinates any hierarchical relationship will affect the effectiveness of the exercise. When forming small groups, you must be aware of participants' status.
As trainers we expect and anticipate that participants want to hear each other's thoughts and opinions. For those working in hierarchical cultures they may notice that some participants don't seem to really give any value to their colleagues' thoughts. Why? Again due to hierarchy they feel their colleagues' opinions don't really matter; what matters is the expert's opinion, i.e. yours. Why else would you be there training them otherwise?
"I appreciate it is all very well and good to explain how cultures differ but what about practical tips? Essentially this comes down to personal styles, experience and creativity. Anyone working internationally will need to be adaptive. What would you do differently in the above situations?"
I appreciate it is all very well and good to explain how cultures differ but what about practical tips? Essentially this comes down to personal styles, experience and creativity. Anyone working internationally will need to be adaptive. What would you do differently in the above situations? One trainer may decide not to have brainstorming sessions at all whereas another decides to extract people's thoughts in writing rather than vocally. One trainer may keep management and subordinate levels separate whereas another may word questions differently to ensure people don't feel as if they are openly criticising. One trainer may want breakout sessions and ask each small group to report directly to him/her whereas another may identify senior people within small groups to speak on behalf of them. Essentially, there are options.
The subject matter is wide and fascinating at that. We have simply skimmed the surface of one aspect of culture above; that of hierarchy. Once we start to examine individualism, risk aversion, task orientation, etc you can begin to appreciate the real impact of culture.

Conclusion

A trainer must do their homework before they travel. Look into, research and understand the people you will be teaching. If you get their learning habits then you deliver an effective course. It is not uncommon to hear trainers say that they learn more from their learners rather than vice-versa. This is even more apt when working with groups in other countries. Learning about another culture essentially gives you a new perspective and a new perspective tends to lead to creative thinking.
The founder of Kwintessential, Neil Payne is currently the managing director of the company overseeing global operations. He is also responsible for the management of cultural awareness training in Europe. As a trainer Neil specialises in the countries of the Middle East and Islam as a religion. He works with both the private and public sector on a number of initiatives ranging from assisting businesses set up in the Arab and Muslim world as well as diversity initiatives in the UK. Having grown up in Kuwait he returned to the region after his BA to travel, work and study in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Malaysia and Iran

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