Skip to content

Business, Culture Edition Coaching Across Cultures


By: Chip McFarlane •  4 years ago •  

Organisational coaching continues to make waves around the world. Its proven success means that its reach is extending across geographical borders. Arising in the US and UK in the early nineties, coaching became established in Australia in the mid to late 1990s. The concept of a coaching approach to managing is changing the way leaders think throughout Asia. Heightened global demand is opening up opportunities for coaches who are looking to practise on an international playing field. So what are the opportunities and what are the challenges? How can you, as a coach, seize the moment and make the most of these broadening horizons?

‘But this is how we do things around here!’

Working across boundaries is not a case of simply identifying the large-scale cultural challenges such as the differences between East and West. Differences will be found on a much more granular level than between nationalities or races. There can be differences that are perceived as really important between a metropolitan city and a smaller town 100kms away. Clearly the quotation ‘But this is how we do things around here!’ illustrates an attitude or an approach to human interaction in business that can really matter for the coachee, but for the coach, the process of coaching, on the whole, typically remains the same.

Stick to your approach!

Of course, we all adapt our coaching style slightly to tailor it to an individual but changing it beyond that is potentially doing a disservice to that individual. During the coach selection process, the coaching counterpart or sponsor will have chosen you in particular for a reason, so don’t go changing your approach as that may be the exact benefit that you bring. Regardless of which cultural stereotype the counterpart appears to fall into, always remember that first and foremost they are human beings and, ultimately, we as coaches need to seek to connect with their humanity. Of course there is a cultural overlay which will bring with it differences but at the end of the day, from business to business, we mustn’t lose sight of the common thread: that we are always dealing with human problems. When that human connection is established then other challenges, such as language barriers, can be overcome. During a recent coaching engagement, the mandarin-speaking CEO of a Chinese company was conversing with me in slightly broken English. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the coaching engagement did not suffer. The feedback given was that the language issue was insignificant. What was more important than anything else was the connection created and the overwhelming awareness that I, as their coach, ‘really cared for them’.

Manage your expectations

The job of a coach is to help the counterpart succeed and grow as a human being within the systems that they operate in. Although my coaching approach may not vary significantly when working with individuals across cultures, my expectations of the developmental journey of the counterpart, where I might expect them to be and what I anticipate of them, adjusts often. Working with the environmental norms of that culture is crucial.

Take emotional expression as an example. In some cultures, it is the norm to be ‘neutral’ and contain any emotional expression, holding back on expressing thoughts precisely and directly, ensuring that emotions do not interfere with objectivity and reason in decision-making. In ‘affective’ cultures people express their emotions more freely and immediately, verbally and non-verbally. As a coach, you would quite likely be setting your counterpart up for failure if you encourage them to show more passion when the cultural norm is ‘neutral’. Setting goals around removing expression for those in an ‘affective’ culture could have equally detrimental repercussions. The key is to understand the counterpart’s environment and gauge how their level of expression can be moved within their range so that they are expressing appropriately within their context.

The perception of a good leader in one context is not the same as another

I suggest that understanding what the perception of a good leader is in your coachee’s culture is vital. It’s quite possible that through the coaching process the counterpart will transform themselves, and perhaps even the environment around them, but our job is to set them up for success in their current and unique environment. Take ‘power distance’: in China the culture acknowledges and is comfortable with hierarchy and power distance. In stark contrast, the cultural bent of Australia and New Zealand is an ‘everyone is equal’ flat structure, hierarchy is barely tolerated. Trying to impose what is considered ‘normal’ in Australia on coachees in China will not work and, after a while, it will be dismissed.

There are many parameters just like this and it is critical for coaches to do their research as they look to build their presence on the international stage. Although it is a dangerous game to assume a stereotype applies, being aware of the systems our counterparts are operating within is a vital ingredient of successful international coaching. Interestingly, some Chinese, having been educated overseas, expand their perception of what’s possible and then return to China. They have the challenge of bringing their knowledge back in a way that can be accepted and enable them to move and change and grow “how things are done”. The western notion of coaching has developed inroads because of individuals like these who bring it back with them – once others then see how effective it can be, they want it too!

Understanding the roots of a culture’s traditions

We’ve got to dig deep! It’s not enough to just explore how differences manifest themselves across cultures in the here and now. We need some sense of where these ideas, traditions and cultural norms sprang from. This in-depth knowledge allows us to effectively value and respect the culture that is different from our own. If we are going to operate in different environments, then we need to take the time to contextualise them and ensure that we get the distance right. We don’t want to collapse into the culture as we may add no value, but we also want to avoid distancing ourselves so much that there is no acknowledgement or rapport.

Who were the intellectual thinkers that shaped the cultures across China, India, Korea …?

When speaking at a recent conference in Shanghai, I was asked the question: ‘What is the relevance of coaching in a Chinese context?’ My answer was tied into traditions. The influence of Confucius, who was a great advocate of ‘self-cultivation’, lends itself directly into coaching.

Wang Yangming, a philosopher, administrator and general who cared about his people and their development, believed that introspection was important and indeed reflection should precede action. Both philosophies endorse the concept of coaching and place it firmly in traditional Chinese culture and philosophy. Happily, it hit the right chord; the audience response to my answer was overwhelming!

Practical suggestions for coaching across cultures

Do your research! Understand more about the culture and as far as you can, immerse yourself in it. If possible, start to learn the language and if you do nothing else, get out there and meet people from that culture. Go to trade delegations, Chambers of Commerce or even take in a passing film festival with a cultural twist. Consider engaging with an organisation that teaches cultural protocol and take the time to read books on that culture’s intellectual traditions.

‘Like never before, I feel like a global citizen’

There are an infinite number of ways that coaching internationally is beneficial to your development and growth as a coach. As long as this dynamic world that we live in continues to evolve at breakneck speed, you will never stop learning. As never before, I feel like a global citizen and my sense of the amazing diversity of humanity continues to strengthen. We are wonderfully curious creatures and my interest in our expression as human beings is infinite.

Chip McFarlane, MCC

Master Coach and Facilitator; Director of Training, IECL

It was as a Midshipman in the United States Naval Academy that the foundations of Chip’s ongoing interest in perceptions of leadership were laid. Since then, Chip has coached internationally, in the US, London, Singapore, Paris, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo and Australia in industries such as banking and financial services, pharmaceutical companies, IT, professional service firms and multi-lateral public service organisations. He has worked with some of the largest organisations in Asia and well-known international brands, including CEOs, MDs, VPs, Board Members and Senior Executives across the globe, and has over 11,000 hours coaching experience at the executive level. He has been a key facilitator on IECL’s organisational coach training program since 2002 and continues to teach as well as review the curriculum and the ongoing development of our world-class coach training faculty.

Share this article

Featured Articles

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

Too often we hear of the accountant whose books don’t balance, the...

Becoming an International Coach

By: Bill Sweetenham •  4 months ago •   Here is my detailed outline for a developing…

Coaching in the Time of COVID-19

By: Maria Newport •  4 months ago •   What they don’t Teach you in Coaching School…

One Question

Being a business coach is a dream job. The click you have with your coachee……...

This content is for Community Coach and Career Coach members only.
Login Join Now


By: Sean Douglas •  2 years ago •   Is data analytics the future of sports coaching?…

Are Coaches Educators or Trainers

By: •  2 years ago •   Are Coaches Educators or Trainers As all coaches know this…

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

Too often we hear of the accountant whose books don’t balance, the builder with an…


HEALTHY THINKING IN A CRAZY WORLD In 1989 the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and…

Negotiation Skills: Art or Science

By: Margot Smith •  4 months ago •   We learn how to negotiate from a very…

Trust, Purpose, Anxiety, Identity

By: Steve Barlow •  4 months ago •   “It was my first day on the job….

A Wake Up Call for Business

By: Alan Ste •  4 months ago •   Recently Bill Gates said that the one question…

Coaching Through COVID and Beyond

It happened so fast. One minute it seemed that I was gearing up for a…

Creating a Sense of Safety in Your Remote Conversations

I belong to a community that gathers online once a week to help each other…


By: Michele Toner •  2 years ago •   If you are working as a coach, there’s…


By: Chérie Carter-Scott, Ph.D. MCC •  2 years ago •   Coaching is a way of being….

Cancer Coaching

By: •  2 years ago •   1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian…

Career Snakes & Ladders

By: Margot Smith •  10 months ago •   Careers can sometimes be like Snakes & Ladders….

Coaching Behind the Mask

By: •  1 year ago •   Coaching Behind The Mask 7 Steps to Success By Steve…


By: Marie Zimenoff •  1 year ago •   How Career Coaching is Evolving to Serve 5…

Busyness Obsessions

By: Kasia Jamroz •  1 year ago •   How to win a race without the finish…


By: Michele Toner •  2 years ago •   If you are working as a coach, there’s…