If you’re a learning leader with global operations, nothing can increase your trainers’ skills like working abroad, and currently Asia is an optimum location. Asia is booming. If you have traveled to Shanghai, Singapore or Hong Kong recently, you know that these cityscapes are filled with construction cranes. Strikingly beautiful buildings are rising in all directions, and the infrastructure improvements are ever present. The fastest trains in the world are found in China. Although controversial, Western countries are increasingly importing advanced technology such as wind turbines for power generation from the East. Many Asian countries seem unfazed by the economic recession, and the signs of increasing wealth are plentiful.
Just as impressive is the Asian appetite for workforce education and development. These cultures have long revered learning, and their respect for knowledge is accelerating in the digital age. The value of having your trainers work in Asia will accrue from what they will learn about language, cultural awareness and emotional sensitivity.
1. Language: English is broadly recognized as the world’s principal business language, and is clearly first choice as a secondary language for Asian professionals. Presenting in English offers unique challenges for Western trainers when they are working in the East. Although global professionals are increasingly fluent in English, and many have even picked up American or European slang and accents, high-level English skills are far from universal. When working with a group of limited English speakers, it’s good to remind your trainers of some of the most basic issues. For example, the need to use a smaller, simpler and more common vocabulary. Your trainers will need to slow the speed at which they speak. Many participants are painstakingly translating from English into their language, and the process is time-consuming, difficult and exhausting. It’s often helpful to set up some sort of signal to let trainers know when they are speaking too rapidly. As trainers become absorbed in the content and process, their speech again returns to its normal rate. This is compounded by the fact that politeness is a prevalent Asian mannerism. This results in many participants pretending they understand when they actually need the presenter to slow down. Trainers must find comfortable and accurate mechanisms for initiating regular checks on speed and understanding rather than relying on participants to signal first.
2. Cultural awareness: Masking discomfort is one of many cultural differences. It is inappropriate to overgeneralize about variances since each culture and each individual is unique. Just as in a Western organizational setting, there are many Asian subcultures. Trainers must be very conscious of the existence of cultural differences, even when subtle. It’s easy to think you are on the same wavelength when in fact you are on very different footing. Consequently, it is paramount for nonindigenous trainers to be aware and inclusive of cultural difference.
3. Emotional sensitivity: Being intentional about speech and being insightful regarding cultural difference are two crucial ways to improve training effectiveness, but they are insufficient without emotional sensitivity. Trainers usually rely on emotional cues to gauge audience response, but Eastern participants can be far less demonstrative of emotions than the audiences to which Westerners are accustomed. This can leave a trainer feeling unsure and uneasy. Most Western trainers use questions to increase audience engagement. This can create extreme discomfort and embarrassment in Eastern contexts. Even though Eastern audiences are coming to expect this sort of thing from Westerners, overhead questions directed toward a group can still engender negative emotion and a deafeningly silent response. Trainers are better served by first giving participants the opportunity to discuss the question with a colleague or small group before asking for a public comment. This strategy also will allow participants to compare understanding of the content and question.
Working in the East puts Western trainers in an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable environment, but doing so forces trainers to strengthen their use of language, culture awareness and emotional skills. We have much to learn from the highly intelligent and hardworking people of Asia. Training in Asia gives us the opportunity to become better educators and better global citizens.
Fred Harburg is a private consultant, writer and speaker in the disciplines of leadership, strategy and performance coaching. He has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Motorola and Fidelity Investments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.