September 2020
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What Lies Beneath

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Instructional designers must be mindful of the observable and indiscernible cultural factors that influence how learners may react to training.

"No. This is not good. You need to do a better job."


It was the end of a workshop in New Delhi, India. The focus of the day was building manager skill sets in providing feedback to direct reports. The training team carefully started the day with the WIIFM (what's in it for me?), identified and co-crafted the elements of effective feedback, and now it was time to practice giving it with a series of role-playing exercises. And despite the agreement in the room that feedback is direct, specific, timely, and focuses on the behavior, I heard almost every manager give feedback that was—to my ears—laser focused on the person in a way that made me cringe.

The participants circled their smile sheets and then left. I went back to my hotel room with a headache. What did I so colossally miss when designing that session?

Let's face facts: Business is a global endeavor, and thus so too is training. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, multinational organizations employed some 42.5 million people in 2016. In the US alone, American parent companies account for more than 22 percent of the private industry workforce. And even if you are not employed by one of the multinationals, you will have people entering a training room bringing with them their own unique, culturally shaped perspectives. How are you accounting for that as you design your sessions?

When I think back upon that session in New Delhi, I wonder how much of the breakdown was due to my cultural lens coming into conflict with participants' cultural lenses. Let me explain.

Check your cultural assumptions

Culture has been described as an iceberg. Observable elements such as dress, festivals, arts, and religious customs bob above the waterline. They are the sensory parts of a culture that people can see, hear, and feel. However, a sizable number of cultural elements—the sense of modesty, gender roles, and how decisions get made and who gets to make them, to name but a few—are below the waterline. People only will learn about those parts of the iceberg if they bump into them unwittingly or, better, go diving below the water's surface for them.

In the case of my feedback session, my US-centered cultural norms on what constitutes direct speech differed from the participants' practiced delivery of it because I did not consider the element of social status and hierarchy that another culture may evidence. Leadership communication to direct reports in some parts of the world may come off as harsh to my ears but appropriate in that workplace or social structure. What I may hear as severe and off-putting, the Delhi managers hear as helpful and appropriate—even as we both define it as direct.

How does that awareness change the session's instructional design? For one thing, it can help the designer define or clarify the business objectives. That session's desired outcome was for the implementing program partners to increase instances of specific feedback so that the person receiving that communication could implement the feedback quickly and efficiently.

Perhaps if I had taken the time to better understand the power dynamics of communication in that business culture, I would have designed the session around defining what specific sounds like within the hierarchy. I also would have realized that as someone coming into a culture with a Colonial past—one that has seen a lot of well-meaning outside organizations come and go—it was not my business to change the hierarchy and power structure of those partner organizations in India. However, it was my business to equip the managers with skill sets so that they could give feedback to drive up efficiency in the programming the organizations were co-collaborating upon.

Defining specific—the what—would have become the most important factor to the business. I may have needed to let the how of feedback delivery lie within that power construct.

When checking those assumptions that I come with, I would also have designed with a greater eye toward scaffolding. For instance, if the how of feedback delivery were a defined business outcome—for example, a multinational organization that wants staff experience to be consistent across all geographies—then scaffolding would have become my friend. While my headache-inducing session in New Delhi included co-creating the elements of effective feedback, I modeled how its delivery style would be within US communication norms.

If it were in fact important to the business that leaders exhibit those norms when giving feedback no matter where in the world they are, the training team would have needed to spend some instructional time and space on further definition and practice. The team would have done well to stretch that out and used spaced practice and repetition to embed the behavior.

A greater awareness of the cultural iceberg below the waterline has had me constantly challenging my own assumptions when I start on instructional design. For example, in the US workplace, almost everyone feels empowered to speak during a training workshop. That is a broad assertion to be sure (which I will address later), but in general few US workers feel like they cannot express an opinion or learning or share an idea within the workplace—particularly when it is asked of them.

When I originally designed a session to be given in Japan, I assumed that everyone can and would likely contribute. However, the reality is that in other cultures great deference is given to age or rank. The impact: In a development session on crafting strategic partnership plans, given the hierarchy in the room, junior leaders did not speak up with their ideas. It wasn't their place to do so, and if cajoled, they resisted. Rather than go with the original plan to hold a roundtable-guided discussion-based workshop, I changed the session to a cooperative game. Allowing participants to take on new or unique roles and requiring team cooperation to win meant that all voices could be heard in a way that drove the desired business outcome (identify and implement the components of a realistic partnership plan) and was authentic to the culture in which it was done.

Another example of age and deference in instructional design has played out in the creation of a train-the-trainer series. I consult with a nonprofit that, instead of employing the field office staff to conduct handwashing or child-rearing sessions in West Africa, trained village elders and leaders in effective facilitation skill sets. Within that cultural context, deference to age and rank results in a more effective adoption of new behaviors because it has come from a trusted person.

The practice of identifying advocates and then growing their skill sets also has translated to train-the-trainer work I have done with immigrant communities within the US and technical communities around the world. That has resulted in greater partnerships with those advocates to better understand the cultural lenses brought to the design and co-creating sessions while also respecting the cultural contexts in which they are being implemented. It's not just about session delivery, which is, of course, important; it is about designing sessions to be culturally resonant.

Modifications and substitutions

You can and should modify instructional design to fit within a cultural context but also do so in a way that is instructionally sound. In addition to the train-the-trainer model, the West African nonprofit has designed its behavior-changing modules to encompass songs and skits that local arts troupes perform. That way, villagers experience the training several times and in a variety of formats that is culturally appropriate.

Speaking of appropriate, other instructionally sound yet important modifications abound when examining the place of modesty, gender, and religion within a culture before you design. For instance, in Islamic cultures, there is a wariness around anything that would even hint at money and an absolute prohibition on betting (even if you are using fake money or chits). Therefore, eliminate those activities.

Further, in some countries or cultures, physical contact of any kind is a no-no. Sometimes for idea generation or energizers during brainstorming sessions, I have used activities that require a relay style of interaction ("Quickly write your idea then jog back to hand your pen to your team") or activities that would require people to circle up and pass around a ball or other object. I also have done cooperative building projects under time constraints during which many hands and bodies are in close proximity. I swap out the activities that may result in even an accidental touch with generative activities or card sorting that participants can complete solo or with one group member handling the materials.

Some cultures find connection in the sharing of personal details, while others find it intrusive and abhorrent. Swap out those types of activities—most frequently seen in icebreakers or role playing—with activities or scenarios that are less personal.


Dive below the waterline

How do you even get started? First, cultivate a sense of humility. Unpack your own assumptions and determine why you cling to certain learning activities. Cultivate a sense of curiosity about yourself and your participants. Hold tightly to the session's learning objectives but hold loosely the way that you get there.

Second, educate yourself. Numerous books, apps, publications, and organizations can help you unpack your culture and your participants' culture. One of my favorite books is Erin Meyers's The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. (Meyers also hosts a country mapping tool to compare how two or more cultures give feedback and make decisions.) has made its work to analyze the role of culture in business. I have also downloaded and used the Culture Wizard app to provide some broad analysis of themes and practices cultures hold; like Meyers's tool, this app offers comparison functionality. Also, reach out to your colleagues around the world for insights.

And speaking of leveraging your network, look beyond the people who hold similar job titles as you. I recommend that every instructional designer working in this space cultivate what I like to call "the coalition of the willing." Build cross-cultural relationships and then use that panel of colleagues to help you vet your design for below-the-waterline pieces of that cultural iceberg. For instance, in service of providing technical training for China, I have assembled a group of Chinese marketing, learning, finance, HR, and engineering folks to help me review and revise learning activities based on how they may land with their customers in mainland China.

Finally, as you dive down to view the ice below the waterline, remember that this ice has many facets. Culture is not a monolith; I've admittedly broadly appraised all the traits noted above. Are all North Americans X and all South Americans Y? Of course not. But holding those traits in mind as you start designing will help you uncover some of the assumptions you may hold unknowingly and help you design a session that will work with the cultural context rather than against it.

The Truth About an Icebreaker

Working with managers in India, I conducted an icebreaker at the beginning of the session that tasked each person in the room to write one truth and one lie about themselves on a notecard. The activity's objective was to determine how well participants knew each other, separating fact from fiction as I read each card.

But when I read the cards, I quickly realized that both statements on each were true. That was pretty consistent throughout the cards; most every manager put down two true statements rather than one true and one false.

I was stumped. Were my instructions not clear? Was there a language or accent barrier? When I tried it with a different group of managers on a different day, a similar pattern emerged. What happened?

To this day, I am still not 100 percent sure, but in looking back, there were a couple of factors that I should have considered before I decided to use that particular icebreaker.

  • Hierarchy plays a strong role in Indian organizations, as does respectful compliance. Though these managers were not part of my company, it did provide funding to them—and in some cases, influenced hiring decisions. How does that power dynamic affect frontline managers' ability to participate?
  • I thought of this activity as playful and fun but how is misrepresentation of a truth viewed in this culture? Is it safe? Is it playful?
  • Honor and reputation are important in Indian business culture. Would having someone share an untruth cause the person, even temporarily, to become embarrassed and lose face?
  • Was it a gender issue? I was the only woman in a room full of men.

Here's what I should have done: I should have checked my assumptions. The activity's purpose was to start the day with a quick and fun assessment of how well participants knew each other at the beginning of the day. Perhaps considering some of the cultural differences would have pushed me to alter the activity to something that asked them to create a visual representation of who they are (for instance, ask people to quickly design their own T-shirt or to sculpt something out of Play-Doh) instead of asking them to provide a fact about who they are not. Or I could have read a series of statements (for example, "I played cricket this week") and asked that anyone to whom it applied cross from one side of the room to another.

The redesign starts with a reflection on my own biases and assumptions.

About the Author

Mary Cropp is the director of training and development at the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a global organization that enables the development of the technology that keeps us all unthinkably connected. At Bluetooth, she focuses on strategy, organization development, and instructional design to delight and enable people to do their jobs better or more efficiently. Her portfolio of learners includes the Kirkland, Washington–based staff and the 36,000 member companies located around the world. Prior to her tenure at Bluetooth, Cropp has been on staff with nongovernmental organizations working to build capacity in the world, and with local nonprofits partnering with immigrant and underserved populations.

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