Lack of Cultural Competency Training Can Impact International Businesses: here’s why

Cultural Competency training

Every culture comes with its values, beliefs, priorities, behaviours, and social norms, specific to ethnicity, nationality, or religion. Culture surrounds all of us, meaning we are all products of whichever cultural socialisation we grew up in, influenced by people and communities. If this is the case for our everyday interactions and national identities, it is even more apparent for businesses with their increasingly diverse teams and connections.

When there is a lack of understanding, or willingness to learn, about different cultures, especially when working with different people or in other parts of the world, mistakes are made, and offence can be easily taken. One way that businesses can prevent this is by introducing cultural competency training (or cross-cultural training) for their employees, educating them on social practices and expressions, and developing deeper empathy towards others.

But what happens when cultural competency training isn’t in place? What goes wrong when companies don’t offer it, and how can cultural competency training help? How important is it?


What is cultural competency training? 

Cultural competency training (or cross-cultural training / cultural humility / cultural dexterity) is an opportunity offered to employees to learn how to recognise the differences and similarities between cultures amongst other colleagues or destination countries (for working expats). Cultural competency training targets 4 main concepts: awareness, attitude, knowledge, and skills.

Any well-thought-out cultural competency training must always begin with the individual. Internationally mobile workforce must gain an understanding of their style, behaviour, background, self-knowledge, and cultural influences, to understand their own impact on the world and colleagues. Once this is established, being able to understand others will come more easily, enabling expats to learn which elements of culture are priorities for different people.

It is the responsibility of employers to invest in their people and teams, creating an environment of support and engagement. Cultural competency training is not a static programme. It should be a practice that grows and develops alongside a business, strengthening the workplace environment and building inclusivity amongst employees and other business relationships.

Cultural competency training is also an important practice for employees working in global marketing or sales teams, when working with and selling to different cultures and countries. By embracing the differences in cultural norms, international companies will successfully be able to get into new markets, attract international customers, or enabling a local product to be transferable to a global audience.

By integrating cultural competency training into a workforce, employers can create a working culture that recognises, respects, and values the differences between people. Without this drive to promote difference, employees are left lacking the skills to expand out into the world.


Why is cultural competency training so important for global businesses? 

With the ever-present COVID-19 hanging over us, the importance of cultural competency training has become even more of a priority for international businesses. The pandemic has meant businesses are adopting a more globalised approach, connecting with more people abroad through virtual meetings and training.

So, why is cultural competency training such a necessity? Listed below are some reasons supporting the significance of cultural competency training:

  • Developing self-knowledge enables employees to understand how their behaviour can impact those around them
  • Teaches how to recognise/adapt
  • Teaches how to value/appreciate different perspectives, communication, and behaviour
  • Improves diversity
  • Develops inclusivity
  • Broadens a business’s marketing range to different communities
  • Leads to higher staff morale
  • Enhances leadership skills
  • Attracts global attention and investment
  • Improves overall communication within the workforce
  • Encourages active listening skills

Bringing together employees from different cultural backgrounds produces a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and strategies – cultural competency training only brings this out further!


Examples of different cultural backgrounds

To highlight how much a lack of understanding between different cultures can impact the success of a company, below is a broken-down simplified list of typical cultural differences between the UK, Japan, Spain, and the USA – showing how deep cultural differences can run.

Expats between UK and USA:

Although stereotypically linked together due to sharing the same language and pop and music cultures, the UK and USA have lots of dissimilarities that get overlooked, causing issues in the workplace.

Work-Life Balance More relaxed where employees prioritise a separation between private and work-life American Dream – work culture of anyone can be successful if they work hard enough, leads to a feeling of needing to succeed Clashing in approaches to work/life balance
Punctuality Meetings rarely begin on time / last for an hour or more Meetings begin on schedule / over quickly Could cause the feel of disrespect
Communication Communication – understated, cynical, sincere, deflect praise, moderation, self-control, no self-promotion, “kind of”, “sort of” Communication – optimistic, energised, generous with praise/encouragement, sell themselves, “totally”, “literally” Can lead to misunderstandings over email / during meetings

Interestingly, the move from US to UK has the most expatriate failure ratings, where the expat (and their family) isn’t prepared – with the assumption that these two cultures really aren’t that different. Expatriate failures can be extremely costly for international businesses, with the financial costs of bringing the employee home as well as the mental costs on the employee having had a bad expat experience due to a lack of cultural competency training. Earlier studies have shown that expatriate failures can cost companies two to five of the employee’s salary!

Expats between UK and Spain:

The UK and Spain often work together but fully understanding the ins and outs of these two cultures prove harder than it looks

Timings Small lunch with dinner as main meal 7 pm Lunch as main meal with light dinner 9 pm Can be difficult to sync up timings for meetings, different schedules
Body Language Non-contact culture, very little physical contact beyond a handshake High-contact culture, kissing of cheeks, standing close when talking Misinterpretation making people uncomfortable and even offended
Business Negotiations Often more formal – sometimes more task-oriented Expect to build a personal relationship/trust before negotiations Must gain an understanding of the way business relationships need to be approached

Also, in Spain, there are 17 autonomous regions in the country. This means there are 17 areas with their own particular cultures, some having their official languages, where Spaniards culturally identify based on regions!

Expats between UK and Japan:

Two cultures that are often classed as being very different are the UK and Japan, where their opposing cultures are often highlighted even more in the business world.

Body Language “me” / “I” = pointing to chest “me” / “I” = pointing to nose Miscommunication
Mistakes Opportunities to learn from, more open to discuss Often prefer to hide mistakes Affects collaboration and teamwork
Work-Life balance Prioritise private life Work can become the main priority Clashes in approaches to work and wellbeing
Language meanings “no” means “no” “no” directly is bad, instead “That could be difficult” Can cause offence if the meanings of language choices aren’t understood properly
Decision Making Make decisions quickly even with insufficient information To make decisions, require a lot of detail – can lead to decision-making being slow Can lead to frustration between the different cultures

Even with just the typical cultural differences outlined in these comparisons, it reinforces how the ways of thinking and working between different cultural backgrounds can be massively different. From hierarchical vs egalitarian, relationship-oriented vs task-oriented, team/collective psychology vs individualistic – the slight nuances in cultural differences can massively affect business relationships if not understood.


What happens when there is no cultural competency training? 

From these examples, whichever countries are working together, no matter how similar you think they might be, there will always be cultural differences. This is where cultural competency training comes in, without it issues begin to emerge.

Here are some examples of what goes wrong when your business doesn’t have cultural competency training:

  • Natural reflex to label people that are different from ourselves – this label tends to be something negative
  • Misunderstandings in communication
  • External work complaints – discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment – could lead to government fines, legal action, loss of good employees
  • Privacy / personal space – in different cultures, there are different ideas of how much or how little privacy everyone has e.g., in some cultures, people cluster tightly and in others, they spread out
  • Physical contact – different cultures have different values on physical touch, therefore the need for anti-harassment training with guidelines for appropriate workplace behaviour and cultural sensitivity is evident is needed
  • Political correctness
  • Generation gap – different belief systems between young and old

Cultural competency training can help any of these issues. Even if you don’t have full comprehensive background knowledge on every culture, shifting your attitude to being empathetic and understanding towards your colleagues can make all the difference in avoiding discomfort and conflict.

(Why Cross-Cultural Training is a Must for International Businesses in 2021)


Wellbeing and Engage 

Introducing cultural competence training to your internationally mobile workforce is a process that develops and evolves – this is no quick-fix solution! For companies to fully reap the benefits from cultural competence, their workforce must be willing and open to learning, which can only come from genuinely being interested in other people.

Cultural competence training helps create a working environment that employees are proud to be a part of, targeting all aspects of wellbeing. Training is rooted in supporting the happiness of employees, providing opportunity and space for relaxed communication and expression. Look here to see what else is involved in cultural training.

At Engage Health Group, we work across the health and wellbeing marketplace to ensure you find the right policies at the right price, and ensure your whole benefits package provides prices from across the market.

Contact our expert team at [email protected] or call 01273 974419 for FREE no-obligation advice and support.

Picture of Eleanor Chilvers

Eleanor Chilvers

Eleanor started at Engage in 2021, and is now a Digital Content Writer after studying BA English Literature at University of Sussex for the last 3 years.

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