How can we make corporate intercultural training work better? How can all of us be more effective with “foreign” people?

As a coach, trainer and consultant for international companies, I see that employees are often challenged to communicate effectively with foreigners: expats, clients, project members.  There are just too many misunderstandings and conflicts based on what is voiced as cultural differences. Something is clearly not working.

I have also been challenged myself by this. In spite of being internationally trained, I have had my share of struggles to be acknowledged for who I am professionally rather than judged because of my nationality, my accent or, my strangely-sounding name. As a provider of intercultural programs, I would like to share my experience and ideas for changes.

I believe we need to revamp the corporate approach to intercultural training – to ease work relationship stress, increase creativity and improve productivity.

So far, the most common form of intercultural training is 1/2-day to 1-day workshops that involve mostly explaining the differences between the culture of the participant and the culture of into which he/she is going to. They include the do’s and don’ts lists that are supposed to protect one from making costly cultural mistakes.

These programs are definitely needed, but they often do not foster enough understanding of what is important in intercultural communication. Some organizations provide questionnaires for expats which compare their behavioral patterns with those of people from their destination country. This is certainly useful, but, in my opinion, still not enough.

What is commonly lacking in these programs is the training in how to connect beyond differences and manage premature judgments.

The key question for an expat should be: how do I connect effectively with this person? What are the skills required to speak on the human to human level? This should also be the key question for people who design these programs. To facilitate human to human connection, the emphasis should be on interpersonal skills – social intelligence that is. Why? Let me provide a metaphor.

Every two people on Earth are from 2 different ‘planets’. The cultural aspect is only one difference between them, often not the most influential in terms of their potential connection with each other. The differences in their personal stories, the character, the personalities, gender, age, status, values and their perspectives on life might have more impact than their cultures.

So, the foremost responsibility of each one of us should be to see the Real Person in front of us – which requires acute social awareness. This is also the greatest challenge in any relationship, any collaboration. If we see the human in front of us, rather than, let’s say. an engineer, we can connect beyond roles and labels.

Here is one example to illustrate this. 2 professional women from 2 countries meet on a project. They struggle with each other until one shares a tough personal story about her son. The other one shares a challenge she is facing with her daughter and they immediately understand each other on a different level. What connects them is a basic human story. The skills of vulnerability, presence and listening are what make the difference here.

Behind the social skills that I mention above, is the attitude. Unfortunately, we rarely get this education in schools and therefore it is vital to provide them in organizations. We must start with the humility that nobody is better than anybody. Curiosity about other people and empathy for those in need are the key social skills. What works for me and my participants best is training through social service for others – the underprivileged, seniors, children, the sick. That is why I try to include social service in my training programs, however, I find that companies are often resistant.

One company that had a vision and readiness to leadership training through social service was G4S, EMEA region. They were preparing their key leaders to start security businesses in new regions and wanted them to be very effective from the start. I designed a 9-day program that included an activity in which the leaders had to prepare an educational evening for people from a local village.

I will never forget the impact and the learning from this evening filled with music, games, food and deep conversations between managers from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the local villagers, some of whom had never travelled to any big city in their lifetime. The power of such experiential learning is immense and lasts for a long time as expressed by the participants. They said it was the most useful activity in terms of preparing them for their work abroad.

I am glad to learn that my professional experience is similar to major research findings. Ursula Brinkmann, in the book Intercultural Readiness, based on a large research project, confirms that “intercultural sensitivity and communication is all about connecting with others”. She also finds that this is not enough – to perform well in another culture – you also need emotional and social skills, especially the ability to enjoy the unknown and to build commitment.

So how would I improve intercultural programs? Here is a short list if you are designing one or looking for an effective program for your people.  In order to serve best the programs should include:

  1. Looking at similarities between people besides differences
  2. Learning the skills of connecting to others
  3. Learning mindsets that avoid judging others
  4. Humanizing attitudes by treating others as subjects, not objects
  5. Learning the benefits of being present, open, flexible and vulnerable
  6. Teaching practical skills through experiential activities
  7. Practicing the skills in real situations such as during a social project
  8. Helping participants create structures and processes for inclusivity

In today’s world, intercultural education is of vital importance. Marshall Goldsmith lists intercultural savvy as one of the top 5 executive competencies. I encourage everyone who is serious about succeeding in the modern world to re-evaluate your approach and learn as much as you can about this. Instead of fearing collaboration with some “strange people” we can fully enjoy our differences as strengths to be explored and used for mutual benefit. However, first, we must learn how to connect to them on a level that inspires trust and openness.

Most of us require training to master these competencies.  Therefore, I want to express my support for everyone who is exploring this subject, conducting research, or trying to improve the training programs. Considering the corporate and the political problems that we are experiencing, it is time for us to make a quantum leap in intercultural education.  Please feel free to discuss any of my recommendations or add your thoughts below.

Jacek Skyski Skrzypczynski, International executive & team coach