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When we embrace each other’s cultural differences we can work well together

It could easily be argued that everyone in the United States would benefit from cross-cultural training today. As our earlier article on the changing language map of the U.S. indicates, there’s hardly a place in the country where intercultural interactions aren’t a fact of life. But when should a company invest in cross-cultural training?

We’ve already written about the business costs of poor cultural competency and the benefits such competency can bring. The miscommunication that arises from lack of cultural knowledge can sabotage businesses in all kinds of ways. These are some specific situations in which a company would be wise to invest in cross-cultural training:

Expanding overseas

When a company is getting ready to enter into business negotiations to move into foreign markets, cultural training can help ensure success. These kinds of negotiations can take many forms:

  • Negotiating a large sale of goods or services to an overseas client
  • Seeking a distributor to market your goods in a foreign country
  • Looking to enter into a joint venture with a foreign partner
  • Outsourcing the production of goods or services to foreign suppliers

In each of these cases, those involved in the negotiations need cultural intelligence about the target country to understand the differing ways of doing business there.

Opening a facility in another country

The people involved in overseeing the recruitment and management of a foreign workforce need to understand the culture of the people who will be working for them and the conditions in which those people live. What is a normal work day there? When are holidays? How will they get to and from work? What are good incentives to use to encourage dedication and loyalty?

Sending/recruiting executives to work in a country foreign to them

Executives who will be working in another country need to have a good knowledge of the culture, most especially the management style used in those countries. Assuming that the American style of management is the norm is a recipe for disaster.

Using actual or virtual intercultural work teams

In order for the people in multicultural teams to collaborate most effectively, they need learn about and respect the different cultures of their teammates. Opportunities for miscommunication and even breakdowns in communication because of different cultural styles of interacting are common. And, even if no communication problems are apparent, collaboration may be less than optimal without training. If ways are not found to make sure that everyone feels comfortable presenting their ideas, good ideas may simply never get expressed.

In general, there are also some people who are more hesitant about expressing their ideas, but this is more pronounced in some cultures. The value of cross-cultural teams is often in the different perspectives they bring to problems, and this value is undermined if everyone isn’t encouraged to participate. The more the participants understand about cultural differences, the better they can collaborate.

Managing an immigrant workforce

It is not uncommon for many of the workers in a facility to be native Mexican, Hmong, Vietnamese, or other immigrant group. It is important for their American managers to understand their cultures so that they can relate better to their workers and recognize the sometimes subtle signs that an order has been misunderstood. Failures here can easily result in job delays, cost overruns, lost clients, and safety issues. Cultural training can head off a multitude of problems.


One of the reasons that some American businesspeople overlook the importance of cultural training is the culture’s focus on competition as the well-spring of business success. The purpose of cross-cultural training is to facilitate collaboration. According to Ellyn Spragins, Fortune small business editor-at-large, some leaders express regret about their emphasis on competition as they gain experience:

Because we are human, emotions enter the business realm. When accomplished leaders reflect on their careers, they regret making collaboration goals secondary to being right, gaining the upper hand, or holding opinions not based on facts. They often realize their accomplishments could have been greater if they’d been more focused on collaborating well with others.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, (Random House, 2006)

If they want to succeed in a globalized environment, businesses need to learn the value of seeing other perspectives and should consider cultural training an investment that can pay off in many ways over an extended period.

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