Cultural Cross-Training

July 7th, 2010

As my wife and I drove away from a stunning 4th of July weekend in Lewisburg, WV, my mind was overflowing with the cultural experiences of the past two days. Of course, I am immersed in diversity of all kinds, but attending—or to be more precise, being a part of—our friend’s wedding reminded me anew how difference is transformative if I don’t undermine my ability to learn from it.

As we traveled the interstate from our central Virginia farm to West Virginia for the wedding, I was getting more and more nervous. I don’t like big social affairs with lots of people I don’t know, and I was sure this was to be one of those affairs. Moreover, our friend is of Persian descent (on her father’s side) and of European-American descent (on her mother’s side) and she and her new husband live in Mexico. There would be people there with cultural backgrounds and experiences foreign to me. And, she is a generation younger than I am—a full-fledged Gen-Y’er to my Boomer background—so I knew there would be lots of young people there, too, and sometimes they have the uncanny ability to just bug me (I continue to be astonished by the old-fogey voice in my head sometimes).

On top of it all, this would be a community of social activists, people committed to transforming the world, not through business alone, but also through social profit organizations, political activism, artistic creation, and philanthropic work. I’ve never seen myself as someone courageous enough to deal with the world that way (part of the reason my brilliant wife is my hero and greatest teacher).

More than anything, I was just worried about being so out of place.

For me this is the worst part of the diversity experience. It’s that moment just before engaging with people who are different when I feel uncomfortable and anxious, not knowing exactly what I am getting myself into. And I find that I make up stuff to feed the anxiety. I just knew for sure that it would be a large gathering of strangers from strange places who would look at me as an outsider… I knew it would be in the woods and that it would be hot and there would be bugs and I would be uncomfortable…I knew there would be a reception and everyone would hug each other and want to catch up and I would be standing alone looking at the flower arrangements…I knew I would not really enjoy this, and that I would have to put on a nice smile for the whole weekend…I knew I would HATE THIS!

I’m not alone in loathing this moment. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders and managers who would agree that they avoid dealing with difference because it raises the same kind of apprehension for them. In my case, it was around a social gathering. But in business organizations, the same sentiments arise when managers are assigned to a new global team, or are linked with a client who is different in significant ways.

But as is often the case, the positive impact of really engaging diversity puts to rest so many of the fears and anxieties that run rampant in our heads. I knew that the most important thing I could do was drive the car, get to the wedding and just be there. In those fearful moments, the most important thing you can do is to show up. Be willing to join the new team with an attitude of wanting the team to be successful. Connect with the new client with the goal of offering that client the best customer experience you can. This mindset is the starting point.

From there, you really become more skilled and effective by practicing cultural cross-training (NOT cross-cultural training, but cultural cross-training). That phrase (and the title of this post) was inspired by Christina, one of the new friends I met this weekend. She is an accomplished dancer and was describing how she learned the variety of dances she had mastered from Indonesia, India, and elsewhere. She described her learning journey as “cross-training,” a term most often associated with athletic training or HR training and development, but a term which is most apt for the activity that leaders must constantly undertake. Cross-training frees you from the kind of debilitating paralysis of anxiety that I was fighting as I drove to WV. How do you practice cultural cross-training?

Learn about a variety of distinct cultural perspectives. In athletics, you learn to run, jump, swim, bicycle, etc. so that you have a repertoire of skills that help you strengthen different parts of the body. In the same way, leaders must learn deeply about the variety of the “cultural” perspectives their people bring to bear—national cultural perspectives, vocational perspectives, social class perspectives, problem solving perspectives. No one can learn about all the diverse perspectives that people bring to the table, but understanding the differences that matter for what you are trying to achieve is a great starting place.

Use the distinct cultural perspectives flexibly. In the same way that one of the major tenets of athletic cross-training is alternating training methods as a way to strengthen the body “in different ways to improve overall performance,” so too does cultural cross-training require that you continuously expose yourself to and engage the variety of cultural perspectives you need to know to help you become more proficient in shifting your frame of reference and perspective when you need to.

Be mindful of the goal. The cross-training you do must always be in the service of a larger objective. In athletics, it is in the service of greater overall physical performance for an event for just physical fitness. At the wedding, it was about coming together as a community to celebrate the newlyweds. In your business, it will be about achieving your strategic objectives, whether profit, value creation, growth, or innovation. Whatever the goal, cultural cross-training is best sustained (and apprehensions best eliminated) when that goal is at the fore.

My cultural cross-training took place after we arrived at the wedding. I saw how unfounded so many of my anxieties were. It was a moderate-sized gathering (not gigantic) of people who, though they looked and acted quite differently from me upon first glance, were compelling to me, as I got to talk with them, in the ways our passions and perspectives converged. The people I met—youthful, senior, Persian, progressive, conservative, Latino, creative, Indian, pragmatic, expressive, reserved—came together for the purpose of blessing this new couple and that purpose was what mattered the most. I talked with people about family and politics and community action, and business and leadership and we told stories together and laughed together. When it got to be too much for my introverted sensibilities, I took a walk around the beautiful countryside and then came back and that was cool too.

I managed not to let my apprehensions keep me away from a setting in which I could engage and learn from differences I knew I would encounter. I got to practice cultural cross-training in WV this weekend and as a result I learned a lot about cultures and perspectives I had not considered before. I feel better equipped with what I know and a lot more curious about what I don’t know yet on topics ranging from classical Persian music, to Napa Valley, to helping at-risk kids. I was part of a truly remarkable celebration this weekend and am so much the richer for having been there. Making this kind of effort is what every leader who wants to leverage difference must practice. I got my reps in this weekend. When will you get yours next?

Leave a Reply