Rethinking Cross-Cultural Training: ‘Maybe It’s Culture and Maybe It Isn’t’?

Authors Ann Means and Kate Mackenzie Davey expand on their research article, “‘Maybe it’s culture and maybe it isn’t’: An ethnographic study of sensemaking, culture and performance in a multicultural team,” published in Management Learning.

People working internationally often have concerns and expectations. They may be curious about other cultures, and eager to find out how to build relationships. They may see cultural diversity as a generator of better ideas, or a barrier, or both. How will differences affect their performance, and how can they avoid unwittingly giving offense? Cross-cultural training offered to managers working abroad or in cross-cultural teams aims to address these matters. 

Our research suggests, however, that the type of training often offered may prove problematic. Indeed, a German manager, let’s call him Johann, working in India exclaimed emphatically “It’s a disaster! No way I’ll allow that in my company!” He explained; a cross-cultural trainer had presented to German expatriates a view of Indian culture that was at best outdated, at worst plain wrong. The sessions, Johann maintained, just strengthened old stereotypes and raised artificial barriers between staff members, the opposite of what was intended. In this casual conversation at a social event, Johann voiced skepticism based on his own experience. Academics too raise concerns about cross-cultural training, basing critiques on the conceptualizations of culture upon which much of it is predicated, and models which are described as limited, simplistic, and deterministic, even, vividly, as “the perpetuation of cultural ignorance.” Sometimes presented as “software of the mind,” such frameworks imply that culture is both static and deterministic. As Johann asserted, such training may be counterproductive.

These reflections on cross-cultural training were prompted during our ethnographic study, in which we examined links between notions of cultural difference and team performance in an Indian-German team. Our participants were keen to learn about each other’s cultures; there was little formal cross-cultural training, much informal discussion of cultural differences. Over time, they experienced differences (for example food, language, working patterns, communication styles) and some difficulties. Analysis of our longitudinal data suggested processes of stereotyping, and of readily accepting cultural difference as an explanation, as “cause and excuse,” for problems. Crucially, this allowed searches for alternative explanations to close down.

Ann Means, left, and Kate Mackenzie Davey

What does this suggest to us, then, about cross-cultural training? Our analysis underlines the dangers of overly simple models. Culture matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters. One participant reflected at the end of the project about problems team members had experienced: “maybe it’s culture, and maybe it isn’t.” Maybe the project was simply a tough one. Maybe some of the issues encountered were to do with systems, or design, or institutions. In order to incorporate these insights, we argue that training should consist of a more nuanced discussion of wider cultural, organizational and social contexts. And crucially should allow time and space for addressing complexities and learning from experience. Yes, start with acknowledging cultures, similarities and differences and similarities, but also take account of the range of factors, actions and interactions which combine to generate outcomes.

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Ann Means and Kate Mackenzie Davey

Ann Means has her Ph.D. in Organisational Behavior from the University of London. Kate Mackenzie Davey has her Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Manchester. She is a retired Dean of College at the University of London.

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