Management Courses: The Challenge of Cultural Differences

management coursesHere’s a question: can management courses developed in the UK (or any part of the Western World I guess) be useful in training managers who live and work and who are nationals of a country with very different cultural norms and values?

Some time ago I was contacted by Laura, Country Director of an International Non Government Organisation (INGO), who wanted to discuss with me how my video management courses ‘The 10 Minute Management Toolkit’ might be used to help a group of Iraqi managers develop their skills in improving employee performance

Here’s how Laura put the question

Management Courses in Iraq: The Question    

Hi Joan,

I wonder if you work in cross-cultural settings at all?  I have a team of Iraqi managers who are quite competent but they almost uniformly use disciplinary action to try to improve performance, there is little notion of positive motivation or collaborative processes. 

I have been considering using your videos to work with the team but wonder how effective it would be for the country director to facilitate such workshops?  Is this something that you would be able to discuss if we can connect by phone over the next days?

Just let me know.

Thanks a lot.


The Response

Laura and I spent some time together (via Skype) discussing the needs and challenges facing her and the managers. I explained that I had learnt a lot about working with Western management models in delivering management courses in Ghana and Tanzania and that my 10MMT videos were used worldwide (including in a mining company in Saudi Arabia). Having done more than enough showing off by that point, I moved on to exploring options with Laura around, firstly, how the videos could be used and then around how to address the managers perceptions of cultural differences (i.e. would the techniques explained and demonstrated in the videos work in Iraq? Would the managers see any value in the techniques?)

We agreed that a series of short sessions, in workshop style, would be most practical and effective (you can see a simple example HERE)

In terms of the cultural issue we agreed the simplest way forward was for Laura or the facilitator of the workshop to address this up front by engaging the managers with questions on the lines of:

  • Can these models work around here? Why? Why not?
  • What can we use? What shall we ignore?

So, what happened? Here’s Laura’s feedback

Management Courses in Iraq: The Feedback 

Dear Joan,

This is a much belated email follow up of conversations that we had over a year ago about management training in Iraq.  I promised you that I would let you know how it went and I just wanted to do that even though it did not go as planned.

After you and I spoke Iraq began hosting a rapidly increasing number of Syrian refugees and my staff became quite busy responding to this influx. What was going to be multiple management sessions with follow up and guidance over the formal staff performance evaluation period turned into 2
half-day workshops separated by about 3 months; neither aligned with the formal performance evaluation period.

We had a half-day workshop on clarifying performance objectives and then providing positive and corrective feedback.  There was a lot of discussion about how difficult it would be to be as direct in the Iraqi culture as was modelled in the video.  When we followed up three months later however to
continue this conversation and check in to see how things were working, staff noted that actually there are individuals who prefer direct feedback -it seemed to be those that have been working with western organizations for a while – but others who have a harder time with it.

It was a good conversation to have I think because we started to create an environment where colleagues should expect to give and receive positive and corrective feedback because feedback is a valuable part of professional development.  I think that once that groundwork is laid it is easier for
managers to have the kind of conversations that they need to have.

The team in Iraq continues to build on their management skills and I wanted to be sure and follow up with you and thank you again for the materials and for your kind contribution to our country program.

All the best.


Summary: It’s About the Conversation

As Laura points out, using the 10MMT videos provided a vehicle to have a conversation about how an environment could be created where feedback can be utilised for professional development. The benefit, as I see it, of using a video (rather than having someone deliver a training session) is that the conversation – particularly the criticism of the models, theories or training – is much easier to have

And a final word from Laura

I agree with what you have said in your summary but also want to add that the low investment* makes ROI higher – we didn’t make converts of everyone, we just created a framework for the conversation but that’s ok because we didn’t shell out a lot of money on the effort. My experience of developing Capacity Building Plans for local NGOs (LNGOs) in Iraq is that they were, by and large, quite keen on strengthening their capacity for “western” management techniques like strategic planning, stakeholder engagement and HR management – including effective performance evaluations. 

There exists so little in terms of indigenous OD support for domestic organizations that I think that there should be some space for this idea of “virtual” management training.  Traditionally, foreign assistance for these organizations (for- and not-for-profit) runs for 1 – 2 years max.  Then nascent organizations are encouraged to turn to “indigenous providers of capacity support”, in order to strengthen the local market for these services in the interest of long-term sustainability.  But the expertise is not always available locally and if it is they do not always have the appropriate tools. Providing support to these local organizations in a cost-effective way is actually something that I am pursuing and would like to connect about using your materials again if I gain traction. 

Management Courses Using the 10MMT: Want to know more?

* I offer discounts on the cost of the videos to registered charities and INGOs / NGO’s. If you want to know more about the 10 Minute Management Toolkit management couses, how you can use it to help the managers in your organisation improve employee performance and any discounts you may qualify for contact me  HERE for an informal discussion

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