Providing Cultural Safety in Training

I recently had the privilege to design and deliver a personal leadership program for Vital, the petroleum company of the Federated States of Micronesia. Vital has approximately 80 staff, all of whom participated in the program over 4 weeks. Apart from the obvious attraction of 4 weeks of training delivery on a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, the challenge was exciting; building skills that would have a positive impact on the welfare of the individuals, their families and communities.

The learning outcomes required each participant to learn, or build on, the skills and behavioural change required to proactively plan their own personal development. To effectively do this also required them to have a comprehensive understanding of the company’s vision, mission and strategy.

This program was unique because of the multiple cultural differences within each training group which would have major impacts on the training design. These were identified as:

  1. Language. The participants are from 6 different cultural backgrounds, all speaking individual languages (not dialects of the same language), with only one having English as their first language.
  2. Education. This ranged from minimal secondary level education to university educated.
  3. Company Position. The roles participating ranged from the staff responsible for filling petroleum drums, to the CEO and the Board of Directors (who are respected political figures).
  4. Social Structure. The islands of Micronesia are based on a hierarchal society structure in which gender, families and/or villages are ranked. It is considered inappropriate to act outside the cultural boundaries of your social structure.

Add to this mix the fact that for some of the participants this was the first time they had left their home island. Imagine the challenge of travelling by plane from Yap, the smallest state of Micronesia with a population of 6,300, to Guam, an American territory with a Gold Coast flavour and style!

What I knew from the outset was expressing personal ideas would be difficult. There were so many barriers to overcome! Although the brief didn’t include communication skills, the success of the training would be reliant on developing the platform and language on which the people of Micronesia could talk freely to each other, and continue to use beyond the training delivery.

Developing freely flowing communication takes time, and thankfully we had time. The program is delivered over 5 days. In addition to the main learning outcomes it included risk management, continuous improvement and utilising the Company Practices and Procedures (CPPs). Communication activities were interwoven into each facet of training.

The program was launched in the first week of September. Monday, Day 1 was daunting. The room was extremely quiet as people took their seat. No bantering, no cheerful greetings between colleagues. As we commenced it was obvious that we hadn’t underestimated the challenges individuals had in talking to each other, to managers and in formulating and expressing their thoughts in verbally and in writing.

Friday, Day 5 was inspirational. Each individual was willing and able to express their plans and actions for the future back to the group. They were asking difficult questions of their managers. They were speaking up and saying what they didn’t understand, and expressing what they didn’t like. They were providing solutions to their own problems. And they were able to providing feedback to each other on decisions.

The key was to provide build a safe platform for expression. This expression took multiple forms. One was expressing themselves to their managers. Staff moved gradually through simple questioning techniques to provide interaction with managers, followed by structured evaluation of managers’ communication styles, to providing feedback on improving development in the workplace.

A safe platform was built for personal development plans. Self-awareness was built in pictures, and staff learnt to share their personal lives and ideas in simple expressions in which low language skills was not a barrier. They carefully moved on to more structured thoughts and actions in short, basic steps, which were just as effective for encouraging the university educated to think deeply. Their input over the entire program was finalised as a personal report. 50% of the class could not/would not speak on the first morning. 100% of the class proudly presented and described their personal development plan on day 5.

The safe platforms were activities in which people learnt that built towards a final output. They acknowledged the cultural challenges and provided a framework for individuals to express themselves within their capability. Day 1 included significant learning, but a low requirement for written and verbal expression. The learning content in Day 5 was equal, but the activities were built on an expectation of more complex expression.

The cultural divide need not be as wide or as diverse as that within Vital to impact on training design. Participants always need to feel safe and secure in expressing themselves, and many of the activities and lessons learnt will benefit less complex deliveries in our future training.


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