Why Western Style Training Doesn’t Work with Eastern Style Cultures

I’ve just come back from Asia having delivered three workshops in Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka for Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi participants and  China. This was my eleventh trip to Asia, designing and delivering programmes for international firms. I’m beginning to get the hang of working with the cultural differences. Some of these differences are subtle but they are all potentially important for trainers and coaches to take on board.

The purpose of this article is to pinpoint what western trainers need to do differently when working with Asian or mixed groups.

Some implications for training design and style

Generalisations are potentially dangerous on this subject. It is important to recognise that each country has its own unique issues. I’m grateful to loads of people for their inputs to discussions I’ve initiated on LinkedIn on this subject. Here are some general thoughts as a guide:

  1. Design programmes that recognise the different attitudes to status. I have noticed that, if you have a mixed hierarchy group in Asia, the juniors will tend to wait until the seniors have spoken. So if you want to address this, you need a different process for collecting opinions or making decisions other than asking the whole group for thoughts. Try buzz groups or breakout groups. But above all you’ll need to acknowledge the status of the senior people in the group.
  2. Consider involving the senior local executives to co-train on the programme. Not only will this help get the culture fit right, but it helps to get more local buy-in. This can be particularly important if you are working on an initiative from a western-based head office. Even a satellite office in your country doesn’t usually like interventions from head office! The potential downside of using locals to co-train is that the local training style and skills might be different to yours, leading to some mixed messages or confusion.
  3. Don’t push for too much honest feedback in exercises – This might feel uncomfortable because harmony is more important than honesty in most Asian cultures. In terms of feedback to you, there is likely to be a tendency to give you the answer they judge is what you want to hear, rather than what we would call the truth.
  4. Show more respect for seniority, age and wisdom – Try to avoid challenging senior people or older members in group discussions. This might feel uncomfortable to the group.
  5. Avoid doing anything that might risk somebody ‘losing face’ – Avoid putting anybody on the spot that risks them looking foolish in front of colleagues.
  6. Don’t do too much facilitation in the form of ‘pulling’ issues or processes from the whole group – they will be expecting to be told what to do and might feel uncomfortable with any attempts by western trainers to ‘empower’ them.
  7. Avoid having an attitude of thinking that western ways are better than eastern ways – the west and east have evolved different training styles to match our different cultures. It can be tempting to take out any frustrations we may have on the group, but this should obviously be avoided at all costs!

When working in our own culture, we just need to consider psychological filters when designing and delivering training programmes. When working outside our western culture we need to consider cultural filters as well (see Coaching Across Cultures, by Philippe Rosinski). Western trainers need to try on eastern ‘moccasins’ to attempt to get insights into these cultural filters.

With international expansion continuing and western and eastern firms forming more joint ventures, it is becoming increasingly important to get the training styles right for all cultures.

We are all so lucky to have these differences in the world. I welcome any further thoughts and insights from readers.

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One Response to Why Western Style Training Doesn’t Work with Eastern Style Cultures

  1. Joe Lee says:

    Hi Tony,
    #7 may seem true. However, if a trainer is willing to hold on to the empowering method, the participants will appreciate it. I’ve seen thousands lives being transformed with that, whether in KL or Singapore.

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