Weaving culture into coaching and leadership is crucial, not only because cultural diversity is an integral part of our reality, but because when coaches and leaders tap into people’s intercultural potential they promote creativity, boost performance and enable unity.
This guide presents ‘coaching across cultures’ and its four interconnected levels of applications: individual, team and organisational development, which in turn contribute to societal progress by promoting unity in diversity in place of division or uniformity.
This guide also introduces the cultural orientations framework (COF), which is a roadmap to navigate the cultural terrain.
Coaching across cultures: why and what for?
Traditional coaching and leadership have assumed a worldview that is not universal and is increasingly insufficient to help address the complex challenges in our turbulent, interconnected and global environment. For example, communicating in a direct manner prevents misunderstandings by favouring clarity, but may inadvertently offend your coachee. Indirect communication, which values sensitivity and harmony, can enrich your communication. By combining the two polarities, for example by being clear on the content and sensitive in your manner, you can achieve the best of both forms of communication. Your conception of time constitutes another example. If you consider that time is scarce, you are likely to become more productive, but by cramming activities into your agenda and by speeding up, you risk becoming overwhelmed without necessarily spending time on what truly matters. If you view time as plentiful, you are likely to slow down and regain perspective, and may paradoxically better appreciate the scarcity of time. Combining both perspectives will allow you to be efficient (doing things right) as well as effective (doing the right things).
Coaching across cultures has two objectives:
- As you might expect, it does enable more effective work across cultures (though not only in an international sense)
- More fundamentally, intercultural coaching is in essence a more creative and complete form of coaching (and leadership). The approach challenges cultural assumptions in all situations. It propels you and those you serve beyond previous limitations. It offers new options in the form of alternative ways of thinking, communicating, managing time and engaging in your various activities (Rosinski, 2010: 121–2). Consequently, if you think coaching across cultures is reserved for those working on international assignments and travelling abroad, or if you view intercultural coaching as a niche market that concerns a minority of professionals (despite the rapid globalisation of our economies), you might want to reconsider.
A dynamic and inclusive view of culture
‘A group’s culture is the set of unique characteristics that distinguishes its members from another group’ (Rosinski, 2003: 20). Our national cultures, which are still the basis for many intercultural comparisons, constitute only one of many groups we belong to, alongside our professional cultures, organisational cultures, generational cultures etc.
Our multiple cultures refer to our ‘nurture’ (what we have learned along the way, in contact with our families, schools and other social groups) and complement our ‘nature’ (what we are born with).
Our cultural characteristics are both visible (behaviours, products and artefacts) and invisible (norms, values and basic assumptions or fundamental beliefs). They are not cast in stone: we can unlearn or enrich what we have learned, and develop new characteristics that allow us to more effectively address the challenges we face. By increasing our cultural flexibility and versatility, we can improve our work and relationships with others, as well as our own fulfilment. In sum, coaching across cultures goes hand in hand with a dynamic view of culture.
What is more, coaching across cultures challenges us to think ‘and’ versus ‘or’. Referring to the examples above, the goal is not to replace direct communication with indirect communication, and scarce time with plentiful time, but to synthesise the polarities. Coaching across cultures promotes inclusion in the form of mutual enrichment (true unity) in place of either exclusion or bland uniformity (in which disparities have been eliminated and which constitutes an impoverishment).
A roadmap to navigate the cultural terrain
The COF (see Figure 1) is ‘an integrative framework designed to assess and compare cultures’ (Rosinski, 2010: 123). It offers a vocabulary to describe cultural characteristics in the form of cultural orientations (a cultural orientation is an inclination to think, feel or act in a way that is culturally determined, or at least influenced by culture – direct and indirect communications constitute examples).
The COF assessment is a measurement tool that ‘facilitates the understanding of salient cultural characteristics for individuals, teams and organizations’ (www.COFassessment.com). The tool ‘lets users view group cultural profiles in multiple, customizable ways (e.g., team, organization as well as profiles per categories/fields predefined by users, such as division, nationality, management level, merging entities, etc.) and allows them to add their own customized cultural dimensions to the 17 standard COF dimensions’. Note that ‘intercultural coaching assumes a “multiple realities” view of the world. Culture, from this perspective, is highly contextual, dynamic and fluid. Capturing data through the COF assessment in a particular moment is useful for generating conversations and making sense of change processes, but not so helpful in seeking definitive truths about individuals, groups, or societies’ (Rosinski, 2010: 129).
Four interconnected levels of application
Intercultural coaching in general and the COF assessment in particular can be applied at four interconnected levels:
If we want to have the expertise and the credibility to help others on their developmental journeys, we need to be prepared to work on ourselves first. The following questions can apply for self-coaching (intrapersonal) as well as one-to-one coaching (interpersonal):
- What are your cultural orientations?
- How do these orientations possibly vary depending on the context?
- How do your cultural orientations impact the way you coach/lead?
- What cultural orientations do you tend to overuse/underuse?
- What are your developmental opportunities?
Cultural diversity is a double-edged sword. Poorly handled, it becomes a source of polarisation, which drives team performance down. Effectively exploited, it boosts creativity, facilitates synergies, and increases performance and satisfaction (see Rosinski, 2019: 132–4). Coaching across cultures allows leverage of cultural diversity in practice: the intercultural team coaching process as well as case studies are described in Rosinski, 2010: 134–41 and Rosinski, 2019: 128–59.
‘Organizations rely on three mechanisms to achieve growth: organic growth, alliances, and mergers and acquisitions (M&As). Unfortunately, a high percentage of both alliances and M&As break down prematurely, failing to deliver the expected strategic benefits and inflicting financial damage on both partners. The main reason for failure is the human factor in general and culture in particular’ (Rosinski, 2010: 141).
Coaching across cultures allows transformation of the problem into an opportunity. When those in charge are ready to champion the process, synergies can be deployed as exemplified in Rosinski, 2010: 141–7. The COF assessment can be used as a cultural audit tool to compare the cultures at play. Cultural gaps, having been identified, can be systematically bridged. Cultural similarities are examined as well to ensure that the alternative polarities, potentially beneficial, are not missed.
By promoting unity in diversity, coaching across cultures contributes to much-needed societal progress.
Rosinski, P (2003) Coaching Across Cultures. London and Yarmouth, ME: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Rosinski, P (2010) Global Coaching. London and Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Rosinski, P (2019) Delivering value through cross-cultural team coaching. In: J Passmore, B Underhill & M Goldsmith (eds) Mastering Executive Coaching. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge, pp130–59.