Training Sans Frontières

(by George Telfer)

“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.” (Anne Frank)

Recognising and adapting to cultural differences is regarded as a major factor in the on-going integration and success of global businesses. There is now a wealth of research and opinion on cross-cultural issues that provide a useful insight into how we can cooperate more effectively with our global partners.

In the global business community, much of the research has tended to focus on the innate differences in national and business cultures, with leadership and learning, and in particular how we learn being areas of particular interest. Even the concept of what leadership means can differ between cultures. We may have a more consistent view in European terms of what constitutes an effective array of management skills but the qualities that make an effective leader can vary considerably across national frontiers. Opinion on how organisations develop leadership and learn to lead varies too. This has had a significant effect on how leadership and management training has been approached and structured. Yet, irrespective of background or culture, ultimately as individuals, we all lead and learn in our own ways. Whatever our culture, the starting point for all effective leadership development lies within ourselves. Before we even begin to lead others across any potential cultural divides, we need to lead and enable ourselves across our own internal cognitive and emotional divides.

You may have heard the story of the Scotsman, the Englishman and the Irishman ...? Whatever our origins and wherever we go in the world, we’ll find a national or even more localised equivalent to this age-old cliché. People still seem over-intent on putting other nationalities, even communities, into convenient ‘cultural boxes’. In as diverse a collection of history, language, religion and even culinary tastes across Western Europe for example, it is simply our own way of seeing a world rather than the world and the way and means we see other nationalities and people fitting into it. Harmless fun, that is if you’re not Irish, it might be argued ... unless, like me, you’ve become rather tired of this somewhat outdated and often insensitive form of cultural stereotyping.

Over many years of involvement in 'open' and 'multi-national' leadership development programmes, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with participants from many different cultures and backgrounds. And yes, perhaps one can see and feel the passion and creativity of the French, the Spanish and the Italians; but does this mean that there are no good accountants and financial directors among them? Perhaps, too, there is something overtly logical and precise in the Swiss character – are they therefore never disorganised or late for meetings? Who would not fail to be impressed by the efficiency and planning of the Germans and have they, therefore, a corresponding shortage of creative flair within their organisations?

The cultural expectations of training and development organisations certainly play their part in the way management training is structured. The view that the French take a more formal, business-like approach in the training room may create a more intellectual approach to the learning methodology. However, might they also appreciate time for discussion and a relaxed and flexible approach to the agenda that enables a wider exchange of views and opinions to take place? The expectation that German participants require a myriad of empirical research to support their learning can make the format decidedly academic. Why is there a persistent perception that they don’t want to enjoy the learning experience and simply be bombarded with compelling academic theories that seek to change their thinking?

Historically, the British approach has tended to fall between two schools of thought. On the one hand, taking a more academic approach to management development and characterised by the ever-increasing number of MBA programmes available. Can there ever be such a thing as an MBA in leadership! At the other end of the scale we witness teams of “bonding executives” seemingly having enormous fun chasing each other through the fields and forests firing paint balls at each other!

The issues created by the many differing languages are also a potential obstacle in multicultural training. But is language the all-important key to effective and a more, experiential approach to leadership development? Language, i.e. the words we use, is perceived by most people as the essential component in communication. According to most of the research, however, effective “face to face” communication has less to do with words and more to do with how we use and express these words to others. Most significant of all are the non-verbal messages conveyed through body language and other visual cues. Often what is not said can be more important than what is said and in Japan, for example, saying nothing is a clear message of agreement and acceptance; but try interpreting silence in a multicultural setting!

Whatever our cultural backgrounds, our external behaviour is only the “tip of the iceberg”. Below the surface lie our thoughts and ideas, and even deeper in the 'human warehouse' lie our ‘hardwired’ feelings and emotions; the unseen, unheard and often unspoken driving forces of all behaviour. How does culture affect emotion and how cultural can the emotional mind be? Can we actually feel a national identity, or do we simply tend to think and act in a nationalistic and pre-conditioned way? “First the feeling then the thought” means that the emotional mind ‘kicks in’ long before the rational mind has even had the time to switch itself on. Our instinctive response to fear and our autonomous nervous system creates a biological explosion that triggers a hormonal cascade of more than thirty stress hormones inside us, all in less than the blink of an eye. Some of you may recall one of the many hundreds of brave New York fire-fighters recalling that 25 kilos of equipment "felt like nothing" as he ran from a collapsing building beside the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

It is the human factors of our anxieties and fears, our passions and motivations, our anger and compassion that individualise us, irrespective of our cultural background. They make us the unique person that we all are. The reality is that we can never really know anyone until we see beyond the cultural behaviours and masks to the feelings and emotions that lie behind them.

As the global frontiers become even more permeable, we must seek to reconcile any restrictive differences in our cultures. This is fundamental to any further progress but we also need to adapt to a less culturally limiting view of the way we lead, manage and train our people. We begin to establish rapport when we look for and become aware of the similarities as well as the differences in cultures. One of our clients takes this idea much further. A multicultural organisation in the truest sense, the organisation regularly enrols its talented managers in our courses. There can often be more than twenty different nationalities among the course participants. Our client openly celebrates these cultural differences and uses them to bring people together … “taking strength from diversity” in a volatile and competitive international market place. When we create that common purpose, it is the mutual respect, trust and support that binds people together rather than the historical, political and cultural differences that sometimes drives them apart.

When cultures do collide, it should be the similarities rather than the differences that we look for before we consider how to structure and deliver a learning intervention. As Nelson Mandela reminds us … “To really understand someone … you have to walk a mile in their shoes.” In this growing and ever changing global economy, it’s time we began to identify and recognise what it is about us that make us global and evolve a new worldly culture for the future. So … have you heard the one about the European, the American and the Antipodean …?


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