August 2019
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TD Magazine

The Multicultural Development Balancing Act

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Discover a learning leader’s framework for success.

As organizations deepen their focus on achieving diversity, many enlightened enterprises are going beyond demographics to address workplace inclusion. And it’s about time. Establishing a sense of belonging is especially critical when it comes to multicultural employees, and this factors in significantly in recruiting and retaining these individuals.


L&D programs, which have a key role to play, often reveal a disconnect between how multicultural employees and their managers perceive needs. For example, language-related communications behaviors may be culturally informed, but management may view these as performance issues. A multicultural employee seeking training may zero in on a tangible issue, like language or accent, instead of tackling potentially uncomfortable concerns over cultural fit. And managers, lacking the tools necessary to identify and communicate their perceptions accurately, may be uncertain how to address multicultural differences through any lens but performance.

This disconnect can erode diversity and ultimately undermine inclusiveness efforts. As a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, “Without inclusion, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth won’t happen.” A diverse, inclusive workplace isn’t just nice to have; it directly affects engagement, retention, and productivity. For example, multicultural teams can outperform their competitors that lack in diversity by 35 percent.

In my experience as a training partner to learning leaders, it has become increasingly common to hear concerns about multicultural retention. L&D teams may question how they become better at building a welcoming, inclusive environment that will encourage multicultural staff to stay and grow when they already put so much effort into recruiting for diversity. To create a winning approach to inclusion, learning leaders must perform a delicate balancing act, drawing on inputs from all stakeholders to accurately identify, assess, address, and measure multicultural development.

Let’s explore an integrated framework for multicultural L&D that meets employees’ needs and better equips managers, all in the context of building an inclusive workplace.


Ensure nonjudgmental assessments

Despite the proven benefits associated with inclusiveness—those with inclusive managers are “1.3 times more likely to feel that their innovative potential is unlocked,” according to Harvard Business Review—many leaders today are challenged to understand and accept customs, behaviors, and communication styles that differ from their own. They may also be reluctant to voice critical comments that could be interpreted as insensitive or culturally loaded. But it’s not only fear of political incorrectness; many in senior roles simply lack the appropriate vocabulary.

Communications coaches often hear complaints from management that an employee doesn’t speak like them or needs English language improvement. Manager feedback can be uninformative—either too broad or indirect, lumping language and communication-related concerns together, or harsh, even judgmental, isolating development needs to a single issue, such as accent abatement. But what if the development need is rooted in culture-specific behaviors rather than inadequate language skills?

To help managers accurately describe multicultural development challenges, learning leaders should draw on specialized coaches’ expertise. For example, cultural communication barriers can easily cause subpar written or verbal work, leading to rework. Rather than speculating on the source of the concern, a coach or manager can objectively zero in on its impact, based on job competencies, and pose questions such as:

  • Do the employee’s written communications need to be reviewed or revised before they’re sent to a client?
  • Have any customers provided feedback on this employee’s communications?
  • Do other team members struggle to communicate with this employee?

Some learning leaders are helping management to embrace the concept of positive indifference, the ability to overlook cultural differences that aren’t especially important or attention-worthy and to instead be open to diverse (and perhaps non-U.S.-based) behavioral norms. As one experienced coach observed of the American business culture: “The expectation that multicultural talent will have to ‘fit in’ is no longer realistic or appropriate.” Also, it’s important to consider the potential for unconscious bias and help managers to recognize it and its impact on their decision making.

Next, learning leaders must focus carefully on how multicultural employees express their own development needs. Some may view training warily as a remedial process for problems that need to be fixed. This impression can be compounded if coaching is offered only in the context of performance evaluations. An inaccurate assessment can cause demotivation and reduce employee engagement, directly affecting the bottom line. According to Gallup research, companies with disengaged employees experience significantly lower earnings per share than those with highly engaged employees.

When actions or patterns occur that cause concern, learning leaders should cast a wide net and ensure they are addressing the real need. That could include:

  • conferring with other members of the HR and learning team or specialized training professionals, with requisite cross-cultural experience to get a fully informed understanding and assessment of need
  • aligning developmental needs with job competencies to ensure targets are observable, objective, measurable, and realistic.

Align needs pragmatically

Once both the employee and the manager have been heard from and the development needs assessed, learning leaders should focus on how well the two sides’ perceptions align. For some multicultural workers, receiving feedback is a new experience and may reflect more restrictive or uniform cultural norms than they are used to. Getting feedback for the first time about a lack of clarity in his speech, one multicultural coaching client said, “I had no idea they felt that way. It’s good to know now, but I had never heard that from them before.” This can be a demoralizing time. If the changes these employees are being asked to make seem unreasonable or unrealistic, or reflect a cultural hurdle too daunting to overcome, they may well consider moving on to another job.

Even with all the inputs in place, it’s challenging to align need and prioritize training. Clear linkage must exist between the identified needs and the job competencies. And getting development objectives addressed in the right order is critical. Initial needs discussions with management and the employee may reveal, for example, that a technical skill should be the employee’s primary focus before the individual addresses communications needs. That can be a pragmatic choice, because communications-related behavior changes can be the most difficult and time consuming to take on, requiring a well-coordinated, positively positioned team effort from the start.


Carefully select resources

Time—employee time, HR time, and manager time—is the most expensive ingredient in any training. According to the Association for Talent Development’s 2018 State of the Industry report, organizations spend an average of 34.1 hours per year training employees. Thus, before any training or coaching are planned, HR, L&D, and management sponsors should ensure that the coaching candidate demonstrates a real and sustainable commitment to the program.

Next for learning leaders is considering the range, scope, and experience of coaching and training resources available and, critically, whether they specialize in multicultural needs. If an external resource is appropriate, the L&D team must be prepared to vet potential providers, determining experience, reputation, and degree of specialization. L&D should find out what geographies, cultures, and languages the suppliers are familiar with; and make sure the suppliers are suited to the organization’s expectations and culture. Questions to ask include:

  • Does the potential provider have intake policies that allow for a wide degree of flexibility, such as the option to meet with a few coaches before making a final selection? (Note that the employee should be part of the selection process.)
  • Will the HR or L&D team make the nonjudgmental assessment available to the coach and enable access to the coachee’s colleagues as needed to confirm initial need and reaffirm program direction over time?
  • Is the coaching staff familiar with the employee’s culture and language?
  • Will coaches help educate management, providing them the tools and vocabulary to support the ongoing development of multicultural staff?
  • Will the selected coach meet the learning leader’s and L&D’s needs—for example, being willing to work with the organization’s existing assessment systems in addition to bringing in fresh ideas and proven approaches?

Measure and share results

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Incorporating metrics into the development program is critical. Research suggests that this rarely happens consistently, especially in communications training programs. Effective measurement efforts involving all relevant stakeholders should be rooted in evaluation best practices, such as:

  • Accurately measuring return on behavior. Will progress toward the cited goals start out positively, only to diminish or disappear at performance review time? Or is there a sustained, measurable strengthening over time? Calculating the return on behavior tied to a recent multicultural coaching initiative, I found that 67 percent of program participants were quickly promoted; 100 percent showed effective return on behavior; and, 78 percent achieved development goals. These results had a direct positive financial impact on the organization in both reduced costs of vacancy and increased retention.
  • Establishing reasonable expectations and milestones for change. Work with the coach and training partner to determine how often some form of check-in and assessment should be repeated over the program’s duration.
  • Ensuring participatory program measurement. Regularly take the pulse of employees, even informally, to reinforce motivation. In one recent coaching session, a client said that coaching was useful not only in helping him reduce his accent but in improving his overall leadership communications effectiveness. Touch base frequently with managers to remind them of their personal commitment and ensure they’ll be prepared for milestone conversations.
  • Keeping the momentum going. Development programs often begin with all the stakeholders enthused and on board, but momentum fades as day-to-day business concerns take priority. The coach or training partner should have a clear plan to take the lead, and to keep learning leaders informed and involved. A multiparty effort is required to ensure the “stickiness” of the program; everyone must be accountable and working as a team.

Creating an inclusive multicultural learning ecosystem in which employees’ and managers’ needs are addressed requires a shared commitment at every step. By solving the training balancing act, learning leaders can ensure the success of individual development initiatives and also make a sustained positive impact on the culture of their organizations.

About the Author

Nadia Nassif founded Springboards Consulting in 2008 to help companies unlock the full value of their employees through tailored coaching programs. Springboards works with Fortune 500 companies across four continents on global learning and communications training initiatives and has successfully coached and helped to promote more than 1,000 coaching clients. As CEO, Nassif has built a team of affiliated coaches with expertise in leadership and executive presence; speaking, presenting, and interpersonal communication; understanding cultural norms; effective networking; and professional writing skills. Nassif has significant experience working with learning leaders and executives across industries and has particular expertise in creating coaching programs tailored to the needs of multicultural professionals.

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