As business, and business coaching, becomes more global, the impact of most business coaching approaches can be enhanced by giving more attention to the influence of culture.
In Coaching Across Cultures: New Tools for Leveraging National, Corporate and Professional Differences (Rosinski, 2003), I define coaching as “the art of unleashing people’s potential to reach meaningful, important objectives.” A cultural perspective in coaching can bring to the surface powerful issues and assumptions related to culture and mobilize them to unleash client potential and facilitate sustainable and positive change. The key approach is to value and explore differences rather than seeking to impose norms, values and beliefs. The coaching impact goes further than enhancing the company bottom-line. As coaches we have an opportunity to help foster the conditions of a better world.
I do not suggest that coaching from this perspective is superior or even the first perspective that one should take. However, I believe that it is a crucial perspective that has been given insufficient attention during the relatively short existence of the profession of coaching.
Groups of all kinds have cultures. Groups originate from various categories, including geography, religion, profession, organization, social life, gender, and sexual orientation. A group’s culture is the set of unique characteristics that distinguishes its members from another group. However, culture is not static — it evolves. Our individual identities are a synthesis of the cultures of the multiple groups to which we belong. On the surface level, culture concerns the language we use, our greetings, and our dress. Beneath the surface it can determine our thinking patterns and how we go about solving problems. It influences how our businesses are structured.
As coaches and executives we can use culture to unleash potential in many ways. We ignore the influence of culture at our peril because it influences thoughts, behaviors and emotions. It is pervasive, vastly underestimated, and can be a powerful force for positive change. We seek to unleash client potential by creating new ways of operating through drawing on many different approaches. We consider context, preferences, possibilities and consequences and come up with ways that work best for the client, within ethical boundaries.
A Practical Approach to Leveraging Cultural Differences
With a lever, you obtain a stronger force than the one you are exerting. Leveraging cultural differences means achieving more output with a given input. The input is human potential — individual or collective, in its rich cultural diversity. Through considering and leveraging alternative cultural orientations we can enlarge our views, our options and achieve synergy.
Although there is no set recipe to follow, I set out in Coaching Across Cultures a useful framework of The Global Coaching Process. Through this approach, coaches and clients can connect their personal voyages with those of their families, friends, work colleagues, organizations, communities and society in general. Different levels and layers of culture will interact and the ground will be uneven and shifting. In coaching conversations we aim to facilitate clarity by inviting an exploration of cultural influences. Clients can then leverage culture to unleash their potential and successfully pursue their goals. In this process we assist clients in finding new ways of operating that are meaningful and sustainable in their contexts.
The Cultural Orientations Framework (COF)
I have drawn together cross-cultural research on orientations across a range of human activities into the Cultural Orientations Framework (COF). One orientation is not right and others wrong. I invite clients to adopt an and approach, rather than an either/or.
The COF looks at seven categories. Here I give a brief example in each:
1. Our sense of power and responsibility;
There are three ways we can relate to the world in general, and more specifically to our businesses and our own careers. (1) We can seek to control. (2) We can be humble where we accept natural limitations. (3) We can also strive for harmony and balance with nature.
We encourage our clients to work with each of these. They can take responsibility for their lives, follow their dreams, and strive for excellence and advancement — a stance of control which can provide motivation and lead to positive self-fulfilling prophecies. At the same time, they can accept natural limitations of both themselves and their situations. Knowing one’s limits is not always obvious, but humbly accepting them is paradoxically within one’s control. Harmony is learning when to act and when to accept with humility what has occurred.
2. The way we manage time;
There are different cultural orientations to managing time. For example, many executives see time as a scarce resource. An alternative orientation is to view time as plentiful. For the client who sees time as scarce and gets caught in a daily flurry of activities without meaningful actions, we might discuss strategies for opening up opportunities for reflective thought — while at the same time making strategic use of their capacity for high-speed action. By viewing time in a plentiful fashion, the client may paradoxically appreciate the scarcity of time.
3. How we define our identity and purpose;
In defining identity and purpose, it is common for executives to refer to how much they do and achieve — a doing orientation. Another orientation is to stress living itself and the development of talents and relationships — a being orientation. For example, with clients whose preferences are for doing a lot at the expense of productive and meaningful relationships in the workplace, we may encourage them to try new strategies for building trusting, sustainable relationships. Not only can they then do more, but they may also receive the benefits of a richer personal and professional life.
4. The organizational arrangements we favor;
One way people differ on organizational arrangements is in the degree to which they are collaborative or competitive. In competitive cultures, the workplace is often the stage for a contest between individuals or work areas. The aim is to win. In collaborative cultures, the emphasis is more on working together. The European Union is an example of leveraging competition and collaboration. Countries strive to be the best. Governments regularly compare their performances with their neighbors’ to motivate performance – but there is also collaboration. Best practices are exchanged in all areas; science, engineering medicine, and so on.
5. Our notions of territory and boundaries;
In protective cultures, people are keen to protect their physical and mental territory. They like to keep their physical and psychological distance. In sharing cultures, people seek closeness and intimacy and in the workplace they freely discuss personal subjects as well as business matters. Clients who favor a protective approach can be encouraged towards a sharing orientation through greater self-disclosure. This can promote greater protection through establishing network relationships built on trust. The stronger network also builds productivity benefits.
6. The way we communicate;
There are many variations across cultures in how people communicate. For example, US business practice is typified by a direct communication style where the priority is to get one’s point across. In many Asian cultures, an indirect style is favored, where the priority is to maintain a cordial relationship. To leverage the two orientations, I suggest being clear and firm with the content while being careful and sensitive with the form. Some coaches hold bluntness as a virtue and will challenge clients directly as a sign of courage and honesty. This approach may well backfire across cultures. By holding to the substance but being sensitive on the process, coaches can leverage difference for the benefit of the client.
7. Our modes of thinking.
Much recent research has proven that there is a large variation between cultures on modes of thinking. For example, some cultures tend to favor analytical thinking. Analysis breaks a whole into parts and problems are solved through decomposition. In other cultures, systemic thinking is more common. Systemic or “holistic” thinking brings the parts together into a cohesive whole. Emphasis is on connections between the parts and on the entire system.
In the Global Coaching Process, I leverage the two forms for goal setting. Analytically, objectives are broken down into categories of self, family and friend, organization, community and the world. Systemically, interconnections between the categories indicate possible synergies, and the global perspective prevents losing sight of what is truly important.
Coaching from a cultural perspective helps unleash client potential by broadening perspectives and focusing on possibilities. A consideration of culture is a way of injecting additional passion, meaning, and variety into the coaching process by a holistic consideration of clients’ lives. My experience is that coaching from this perspective will help facilitate financial success in business for clients. In addition, when individuals accept the challenge of incorporating the cultural perspective, they take on a shared responsibility for better relationships, teams, organizations, communities, and global societies. The approach of genuinely respecting, valuing, and leveraging of difference is highly infectious. As carriers, our impact as coaches can reach well beyond the lives of our clients to truly make a better world.
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Summer Issue 2005, Volume 1, Issue 2).
Philippe Rosinski, Ir, MS, MCC
Philippe Rosinski, Ir, MS, MCC is principal of Rosinski & Company, a global consulting firm that helps leaders, teams, and organizations unleash their human potential to achieve high performance. Philippe has written Coaching Across Cultures (Nicholas Brealey Publishing/Intercultural Press, 2003; http://www.coachingacrosscultures.com). Philippe may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geoffrey Abbott is an executive coach and consultant, and a researcher with the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at the Australian National University. Geoff is currently based in El Salvador, where he is coaching international executives and researching the effectiveness of executive coaching with expatriate managers.