9 tips for multicultural coaching

Why coaching?

The development of global talent is a strategic priority for many organisations.  While coaching can be demanding on both the coach and the coachee (the person being coached), it is often the most productive way for enhancing performance. Training can be too general for meeting the needs of individual employees, particularly high-potentials.

What is coaching?

Coaching is a discovery and positive change process aimed at an individual’s (or a team’s) ability to get results.  The coach is a facilitator/guide for helping individuals and teams unlock their potential by developing knowledge and skills.  Trainers and instructors tend to operate on a ‘Push-Information-At’ principle, while coaches operate on a ‘Pull-Insights-From’ principle.

Why intercultural coaching?

Coaching never takes place in a vacuum; there is always a context (e.g. national, organisational, and professional cultures) that determine the appropriateness of coaching frameworks, content, and the methodologies for achieving success.  Traditionally, coaching has relied heavily on American and European management perspectives, but that might change in borderless organisations. Coaches are increasingly being challenged to improve employee performance while navigating complex differences in assumptions, values, beliefs, and approaches to work.

What are some tips for successful intercultural coaching?

Tip One – Demonstrate cultural intelligence:

You can’t know the fine details of every culture of every coachee, but you can prepare yourself for adapting effectively across cultures.  A number of researchers have identified four general capabilities for cultural intelligence:

Drive: Your ability to direct energy and effort toward cross-cultural work.  Is your passion and interest evident in your coaching preparations and interactions?  Is your enjoyment of diverse experiences, and your respect for differences, authentic and tangible?  Coaching without enthusiasm and visible respect is pointless.

Knowledge: Your drive pushes you to develop insights into cultural similarities and differences.  How are you and your coachee likely to differ in cultural orientations toward, for example, relationships, communication, risk-taking, time, and power?  Self-awareness instruments and comparative country information are easily accessible on powerful online tools like TMA World’s Country Navigator (see www.countrynavigator.com).

Strategy: Your drive and your knowledge enable you to formulate a plan for achieving best results.  A strategy can help avoid preventable mistakes, but the world is too uncertain for fixed plans.  Each coaching experience should be treated as unique because each individual has their own life experiences, and context.

Actions: Your drive, knowledge, and strategy need to influence your actions/interactions, but you must be adaptable.  Given your preliminary cultural understanding, you may have decided to switch from a direct to a more indirect communication style or have framed an assignment in a way that reduces perceived risk.  These adaptations can be counterproductive.  Slow-down to gather more specific information about the coachee.

Tip Two – Be culturally self-aware:

Effective adaptation is double-sided: what am I adapting to (the other person), and what am I adapting from (myself)?  Knowledge of one without the other – or no knowledge of both – creates tough communications challenges.

Tip Three – Be open to your own professional growth and development:

The beauty of a coaching relationship is the wonderful opportunity for two-way learning.  Great coaches find they can learn a great deal from those they are coaching.  Openness to learning is essential.

Tip Four: Avoid hasty judgments:

Borderless coaches may come across counterintuitive beliefs or ways of working.  Don’t evaluate before you learn.  Listen, and then lead the coachee to reflecting on the belief or practice – you do this by asking questions or presenting scenarios that you can explore together in the context of, for example, the overall corporate culture and the coachee’s aspirations and goals.

Tip Five – Don’t let coachee intellectual power undermine their own personal discovery and creativity:

There are many smart people in the world who value, and are very comfortable with, abstract concepts.  Their educational systems have developed and reinforced this strength, but allowing a coachee to stay at the abstract level can hinder concrete personal growth and change.  Always link concepts to the coachee’s everyday reality.

Tip Six – Invest time in explaining your coaching philosophy:

Shared understanding of your role as a performance facilitator is very important, particularly with cultures who value hierarchy. Coachees in hierarchical cultures may perceive you as an expert and authority figure.  This may encourage coachees to see you as someone they can look to for answers to their problems. The coach helps people grow from the inside-out rather than the outside-in; resist coachee dependence.

Tip Seven – Invest time in explaining your coaching process:

Lay out clearly how you expect the coaching to proceed (broad outlines), and work with the coachee to define ground rules.  The rules should be simple to follow (e.g. punctuality to meetings, and completion of assignments).

Tip Eight – Lead softly:

As a coach you are looking for positive change in the coachee (although be sure to know what ‘positive’ means in the coachee’s context).  As a coach it is not your job to force others into adopting different beliefs and behaviors.  A coach can facilitate shifts in worldviews and practices, but force typically results in resistance expressed often in passive-aggressive behaviors (difficult for a coach to uncover and influence).

Tip Nine – Remember, the power of coaching lies in questioning and self-searching, not giving instructions:

A question that is provocative without being offensive is the most powerful tool in coaching.  This is especially true of open-ended questions that provide room for reflection. Questions such as:

  • What do you think happened?
  • What was challenging about that assignment?
  • How did you react to the challenge?
  • Would another reaction be more constructive?
  • What have you done so far?
  • Can you help me understand your thinking?
  • Could I ask you to describe that further for me?
  • What do you think the impact would be if you tried another approach?
  • What would you need to do differently to get the outcomes you want?

Discover more about how our cultural intelligence solutions can position you for success  here.

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About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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