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Business, Culture Edition Dr Tony Draper

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By: Dr Tony Draper •  4 years ago •  

15 years of coaching in the Asia Pacific region and 18 years before this in corporate roles with a global company has given me the opportunity to experience many cultures. I have coached executives, run accredited coach training programs and facilitated workshops for leaders to develop a coach approach in North America, Australia, India, the UAE, China, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. I am often asked how coaching, coach training and leadership varies across those different cultures. While I do not consider myself an expert in cultural diversity, I have discovered through experience what to watch out for and what strategies work.

Despite our differences, human beings are more alike than we think, yet we instinctively seem to start from a position of difference. While I believe we have more in common, I also recognise there are differences that will influence my clients’ line of thinking, their decision-making and their way forward.

My approach focuses on the strong link between coaching and leadership. Most of the people I coach are leaders within organisations and the main focus of our coaching is around their development as leaders. In leadership coaching workshops, I support managers/leaders to incorporate a coaching approach in the way they engage with people in the workplace. In fact, a close colleague sums it up as ‘coaching is leadership and leadership is coaching’.

Coaching across cultures is impacting an increasing amount of coaches in Australia and New Zealand as the cultural diversity of our population increases. As coaches, we no longer have to work overseas to find ourselves crossing cultural boundaries and these boundaries can be layered. For example, I am currently coaching a Sri Lankan engineer, who is relatively new to Australia. His whole working experience has been in Sri Lanka and Singapore, but he now finds himself leading a team of 10 Australian engineers on a major infrastructure project. This means I need to consider the cultural difference between my client and myself as he explores the challenges involved.

Pitfalls – where culture trips you up

I am confident that at some point, you have experienced an unexpected outcome when trying to bridge cultural boundaries. One of the funniest lessons for me was in India when I was asked to run a masterclass for coaches. It was to be a virtual masterclass and the people who were invited to participate had to register to attend. In all, 37 people took the trouble of registering but on the day, no one showed up! What I learnt was that, in India, when a senior colleague invites you to an event, your answer is automatically yes, even if you have no intention of going. Contrast this with Australia or North America, where if 37 people went to the trouble of registering, more than half would likely show up. If they did not want to attend, they would either tell you or simply not register.

In many Asian countries, I have found that when speaking to people, they will be nodding, but it would be wrong to assume they are agreeing with me. In fact, nodding in agreement is a sign of respect towards a person seen in a position of seniority. They would avoid objecting simply to not risk offending me. In Western cultures, people have no problem expressing different opinions to their manager and the manager expects it. When coaching other cultures, the key for us is avoid making any assumptions.

When people are placed in a different culture, where other behaviours are practised, their ingrained cultural blueprint can be very difficult to shift. I coached a young Fijian man who was extremely bright and full of ideas. He was working for a fast-paced, energetic Australian manager who created an environment where people were free to raise their ideas. My client saw this all around him, and even though the environment was conducive, he could not bring himself to do what he perceived to be challenging his senior. This was holding him back and became the focus of our coaching. As a result, he was able to bridge this gap and his career has since taken off.

If you assume clients will come because they signed up, assume they agree because they are nodding or even assume that getting the report ‘by the end of the day’ means close of business – you may find yourself out of luck. The way people perceive time, respect self and many other concepts can vary wildly.

The good news is that coaching works in any culture. The trick is to be aware that there are differences and to understand what you can do to minimise the impact of these differences.

A way forward – what works for me?

Believing that people have a lot in common is important because it underpins our approach to all interactions. Think of the manager who only focuses on what is wrong and not working. Holding that focus can lead to a workplace where an individual’s contribution is not valued because their success is left unseen. As coaches, we understand the importance of believing that our clients are creative, capable, wise and resourceful. Imagine the impact on our relationships and subsequent interactions if we viewed our clients as broken and in need of fixing. I believe that focusing on what we have in common creates an environment that opens up possibilities. If we focus on the differences, it shuts things down.

Taking this to a deeper level, consider what lies at the heart of coaching. If we hold to the definition of coaching as ‘supporting people to get what they want without doing it for them or telling them how to do it’, we look to support them for who they are, connect with what motivates them and engage them to move forward.

At its heart, successful coaching occurs when we tap into intrinsic motivation. Coaching involves three key aspects of intrinsic motivation, as set out by Dan Pink in his research on motivating people:

 Autonomy (self-determination)

 Mastery (a journey of development and learning)

 Purpose (a cause greater than themselves)

In his book ‘Drive, The Surprising Truth about what motivates us’, Dan Pink points to numerous studies around motivation that all lead to the same results irrespective of the participant’s culture. This approach leads to accessing all three levels of intrinsic motivation and, as a result, coaching at this level transcends culture.

It is important for the coach or coach trainer to be aware of differences in the concepts of self and, by extension, personal motivations. In Western society, self is very much the individual, while in many Asian cultures, self includes the family. In African cultures, ‘family’ includes a wider circle of people, including tribal members with no blood relationship.

Trust the process and be curious

As coaches, we all know how important it is for us to minimise our impact on the outcome. We do this by remaining curious and avoiding judgement and assumptions. I find language is one place to leverage curiosity, especially when coaching clients for whom English is a second or third language. If a client says, “I do not want to show aggressive behaviour”, I will ask, “What do you mean by aggressive behaviour?” and the answer can be different, depending on the culture.

Adopt a learner’s mind

Over the years, I have always enjoyed the intra-developmental aspects of coaching. Often my clients bring fascinating perspectives and insights about cultural differences they love to share. Exploring these insights and their impact enhances my clients’ awareness and provides great learning for me too. In short, adopt a learner’s mind but recognise the elephant in the room. I find it very valuable to raise the difference in culture and discuss its potential impact on our relationship. We discuss how we will address this if it does emerge, because this builds trust and opens up the conversation right from the outset.

Be prepared to flex your style

The coach needs to look at the culturally-based leadership tradition as well as at the more specific leadership within the context of the coaching conversation. There is a strong guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition in Asia. This means the coach is expected to bring wisdom to the coaching. This tradition is stronger than in Western cultures, so a successful coach in Asia must be prepared for this. Therefore, to remain true to core coaching competencies, the coach must learn to bring wisdom to the conversation while leaving the coachee at choice.

The relationship

Building a strong relationship is extremely important. In Asian cultures, as a rule, I find that this may take longer. Reflecting on my experience of doing business in India, I found that the relationship needed to be built before we could talk business. This is true in coaching as well, so the coach needs to invest time in building the relationship before the client will open up. This could also be related to the coach being perceived as the wise advisor, so be prepared to work through this at the start.

Based on my experience, I believe that the fundamentals of coaching run beneath cultural radar. They are basic to human nature across cultures. What’s important for coaches and leaders is their cultural awareness and recognising the impact of culture on people’s thinking, behaviour and approach. Armed with this, the coach is more effective in enabling successful outcomes in others.

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