Do you speak Culture? Lost in Trains-lation…


(Originally posted 12.Apr.2011 on my old blog)

Last week I met up with an ex-colleague from the U.S. who was over in London running a workshop. It was her first time over here to run a course and she was a bit apprehensive, plus, she was facing some specific challenges from the group, which she had not expected. Welcome to when Training, Culture (organisational & national) and different Countries meet!

She came prepared with a list of questions to ask me (quite apologetic about it), but if we’d spent enough time talking “business” I’d get a free dinner out of that – I had nothing to lose, and since I can talk for Portugal and England combined, off I went…(and got my free dinner too)!

One of her questions was: What were your most peculiar training experiences or most surprising reactions from workshop participants in the region (EAMEE)?

Rather than list every peculiar experience (there are lots), I chose to share personal experiences, thoughts, observations, tips and ideas. I’d been meaning to write about this for a while and that conversation was the catalyst. Later that evening I got further inspiration from reading Rob Jones’ blog.

So here it goes…

As the G&Ts flowed, I explained that anyone who runs “corporate programmes” globally, be that in-house or as a consultant, knows full well (or should anyway) that what works in one country may not work in another (see my post Think Global, Understand Local, Act Global). You must be prepared to think on your feet and customise corporate or other content on the spot, to fit your audience.

Whilst basic principles of Communication Skills may be common sense amongst audiences in the western world, in Angola for example, a country deprived of education for over 20 years by civil war, those same basic principles may be the most interesting piece of information you’ll ever share and need therefore to spend a little longer explaining it.

Likewise, asking a group to reflect or share their ideas when their education system has been one of control and command may be too big an ask. It once took me 2 hours to get a group in Kazakhstan to openly talk and come up with ideas – this was supposed to a creative/brainstorming session…

The organisation had (has) plenty of resources to help prepare people “culturally”, such as The Cultural Navigator Tool, knowledge banks, intranet pages, fact sheets, colleagues who had been there, books and Google! Yet, the only way to really learn about these nuances is by getting there and experiencing it for ourselves.

Drinks and starter earned, now I had to work on my main course…so I carried on:

Geographical culture is only one component. The other, just as important, is you own organisation’s culture! Be mindful of the “corporate culture”, the various sub-cultures, the politics, the leadership teams and company’s operations – what’s actually happening in the business right now and how may this be affecting the group or impact how you run the session.

At this point she realised why some people in the workshop were being very negative and challenging. News of a business deal had just been announced and whilst some people knew they were being sold to the new owners, the other had no idea and were anxious. At the same time, other participants from a different Unit were totally oblivious to this since it didn’t affect their business.

Multiply that across 10 business units in over 80 countries and you have “cultural time bomb” in your hands. Luckily I only had Europe, Africa, Middle-East and Eurasia to deal with…

Before I go on, I just want to say that these events were my personal experiences and reactions. While it may give insights into the country’s culture, attitudes and behaviours, it shouldn’t be used to stereotype, label or undermine the countries/cultures/nationals referred to.

Most importantly of all, one should always be mindful of the fact that these events never happen in isolation. You need to take into account the physical and cultural environments in which you’re operating, the organisational culture and context, the programmes you’re delivering and of course, your own beliefs and assumptions. Welcome to some of the challenges facing the “global trainer”.

Now that I’ve shared my tips and insights, here are a couple peculiar or surprising reactions I experienced in my workshops:

One: In Holland, during a supervisors course, whilst talking about Performance Management, one of the participants (Mr A) was expressing how he felt about managing people and performance. It was pretty apparent he didn’t enjoy being a supervisor. As if this wasn’t sensitive enough (everyone had gone very quiet…), the guy next to him (Mr B) mutters something in Dutch and out the blue the two of start this almighty argument (in Dutch)! As Mr A gets up and leaves the room I looked around as if to ask for help, ie, someone please translate, when the Mr B responds: “He’s just being moody. He’ll get over it! Don’t worry, keep going!”

Two: While running the Diversity session or a workshop in London, I asked the group to discuss the company’s diversity vision in their groups and share their thoughts afterwards, when I was cut short by a female participant: “This is all American bullshit! What diversity? We don’t have enough black women in leadership positions. All the leaders in London are men,…”.

Before I could catch my breath I had 6 women having the most almighty argument across the room. Took 10 minutes (which felt more like 10 hrs) to calm them down…the guys sat very quiet!

Three: In Moscow, during an Influencing Skills session, I asked the all female group to discuss, at their tables, What is influencing and What is not influencing. After a very long silence and a burst of Russian language across the room, one participant stops, walks to me and goes: “What you mean influence? What’s this influence thing? In Russia we don’t need influence! Police stop we give money! You want something you tell people or we point gun to head!”

“Eerrr…gun to head? That’s a bit extreme…and it’s not something the organisation…” I said, looking at my co-facilitator who was just as surprised as me.

“No, here we all carry money and gun in car…” OK….

Four! One group of local (Kazakh) supervisors didn’t understand the need for feedback (asking, receiving or giving), not even when challenged by their expat counterparts in the course. I asked them to explain why they felt feedback wasn’t important and the response was: “Why you need feedback? You get job because you good at your job. No need to say well done when it’s your job. Don’t do a good job, bye bye, you’re sacked! No need for feedback.”

All the other Kazakhs agreed by nodding and smiling in unison, at which point an American voice said: “Oh My God! You’re kidding, right?” No, they were not kidding….

So, there you are, when training, culture and different countries meet you get “lost in train-slation” experiences! Fun to look back on but quite bizarre and surprising when they unfold live before your own eyes!