Coaching Cross-Culturally

Posted by on Sep 13, 2013 in Blog | 5 comments

Terry R. Bacon, PhD, and Karen I. Spear, PhD

If I don’t know I don’t know, I think I know

If I don’t know I know, I think I don’t know

                                               R. D. Laing, Knots


When you coach someone from a shared cultural background, it’s a one-on-one encounter.  But when you coach someone from a cultural background different from your own, there are more than two of you in the room.  The history of relationships between your culture and your client’s poses an invisible filter between you, peopled by the generations who have gone before who color your perceptions, preconceptions, expectations, and perhaps even biases toward each other.  If you are a Euro-American coach working with a client whose cultural history includes a colonial relationship with people from your cultural history, it’s practically unavoidable that the power imbalance of that past colonial relationship will influence your client’s perception of you, and probably your perception of your client.  And, since the colonial dominance of the West over the rest of the globe spanned most of Asia and India, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, and South and Latin America, not to mention the indigenous and other minority populations of the United States[1], this age of global business evokes and potentially reenacts those past colonial relationships of dominance and exploitation by the people whose history you represent.

Much of the literature on conducting global business makes a good-hearted gesture toward cross-cultural understanding by focusing on the externals of cross-cultural communication:  gestures, customs, careful use of language, etiquette, avoidance of idiomatic expressions when talking with someone whose native language is different from yours, and so on.  This paper attempts to get closer to the heart of cross-cultural relationships because the coaching relationship goes deeper than the levels of functional cooperation that are necessary to do business.  The coaching relationship requires the deep levels of trust, mutual respect, and understanding that facilitate self-revelation and exposure, as often of one’s failures and weaknesses as one’s successes and strengths.   To arrive at this level of intimacy, the coach must have deep knowledge of the cultural and psychological structures that form what anthropologists call the “worldview.”  As Eduardo and Bonnie Duran caution: “Without a proper understanding of history, those who practice in the disciplines of applied social sciences operate in a vacuum, thereby merely perpetuating this ongoing neocolonialism.”[2]  Or, as R. D. Laing observes in the epigram we’ve used to open this paper, “If I don’t know I don’t know I think I know.”[3]

Understanding worldview requires more than intellectual knowledge.  It requires an emotional intelligence that is rooted in deep understanding of difference.  The kind of deep understanding we are describing resides in an open, non-defensive and non-dominant attitude to ways of constructing and being in the world that can be sharply at odds with each other.  Such intelligence encompasses self-knowledge of the cultural blinders we generally don’t even know we have.  It includes the kind of empathy that can pick up interpersonal and intercultural tensions and surface subterranean identity conflicts over living at the interface of seemingly incompatible worldviews.  All of these operate in the invisible domain of culture that nevertheless shapes our beliefs, values, predispositions, preferences, definitions of truth, our identities, in short nearly everything about us, in ways we never fully realize until we work closely with someone who lives across a cultural divide.

This paper explores and interweaves three research “cultures”: the literature on global business, anthropology, and clinical psychology.  The goal is two-fold: to help coaches develop a mindset and the background knowledge that will help them develop the intellectual and emotional intelligences mentioned above and to suggest productive techniques for coaching clients who work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. To accomplish these goals, we first present five dimensions of cultural variation and their implications for coaching:

  • Collective versus individualistic cultures
  • High context versus low context cultures
  • Achievement versus ascription cultures
  • Objective versus subjective cultures
  • Present-oriented versus traditional cultures

Since a coach can never know all the subtleties that distinguish one culture from another, understanding cultures in terms of these themes is a more efficient and effective way to begin to reckon with one’s own cultural predispositions and to help make them more transparent to clients who work in cross cultural situations.

This section concludes with a consideration of the unique challenges that face a person who is bi-cultural.  For the large numbers of business executives whose advanced education and business practices are Western but who also live, work, and define themselves according to the worldview of their home culture, bi-culturalism is a daily and often ambivalent reality. The paper concludes with a discussion of how cross-cultural contexts challenge conventional understandings of coaching and push toward an enlarged definition of what’s involved.  The lessons of global business increasingly point toward finding synergies between cultures instead of polarities.  Coaching cross-culturally is a laboratory for these larger organizational processes.

Collective versus Individualistic Cultures:  Agency and Responsibility

Some years ago when Karen was serving as a dean at a public liberal arts college, the governing board mandated that all pay increases, including cost-of-living, were to be merit-based.  While this is a standard business practice, it was new to the college because funds had been scarce in previous years and salaries across all disciplines and ranks were below average.  So the practice had been to give across-the board pay increases.  While some of the academic departments were overjoyed with the change, others were quite resistant.  To the governing board, it seemed only “natural” to reward exceptional individual performance and silly, even unthinkable, to reward average or below average faculty the same as the stars.  Put this way, it’s a hard proposition to argue with.  But for the faculty who were resistant to the new mandate, reality looked much different.  Their departments had developed strong collective identities.  The faculty believed that outstanding individual performance was a result of a supportive group culture, and that singling out any individual for special recognition would disrupt the harmony of their group.

The governing board had issued an all-or-nothing mandate that was rooted in deeply held but unexamined and unchallengeable “truths” that were then universally applied.  The reality was that instead of either/or, the merit pay issue could have been better handled as both/and.  As a result, what we’ll call the “group identity” departments resorted to subterfuge by agreeing to rotate the merit awards among members of the department from one year to the next and to fabricate the required justification.  Sadly, the culture clash between the unquestioned individualistic position of the board and the collective position of these departments resulted in the departments acting dishonestly toward the institution rather than disrupting deeply held, internal values.  Viewed as an isolated instance, one might shrug it off.  But the larger ramifications were that institutionalizing one act of dishonesty in the departments’ dealing with the administration (which was seen as simply the enforcement arm of the governing board) opened the gates to other acts of dishonesty in other spheres of interaction because trust and mutual respect were undermined.  Consequently, the department’s group identity became even more oppositional to their identity as members of the college community, and their overall relationship with the administration seemed to them more justifiably antagonistic, both overtly and covertly.

We open with this example to illustrate three things: 1) the invisible nature of culture and the unquestioned values and worldview that go along with it, 2) the multiple groups to which the concept of culture can be applied, from national to corporate to religious to work group, each of whom has the capacity to construct a unique and in many ways a binding culture, and 3) the relationship between culture and power, particularly when a dominant culture exercises its will over a minority culture, sometimes out of a paternalistic sense that the dominant group knows what is best for the minority group, but sometimes without ever recognizing the role of power in the relationship. Therefore, we use the term “culture” advisedly, recognizing that it operates at multiples levels of inclusiveness and that for every generalization about culture, such as “Western culture,” there will be individual or sub-cultural exceptions.  Despite these cautions, the concept of culture is a necessity for naming the very real differences that shape—or distort—one group’s interactions with another.  Without this very useful concept, one would tend to view the story related above merely as an instance of uncooperative individuals, a bunch of people who refused to be “team players,” which, sad to say, is pretty much how they were viewed at the time.

How is this cultural variation between individualistic and collective cultures useful in coaching?  In two ways: 1) in coaching relationships between a coach who holds values largely individualistic in orientation and a client who may lean more toward a collective world view (or vice verse) and 2) in coaching clients whose subordinates may vary along this dimension but who do not necessarily perceive either the immediate or long term ramifications of their different worldview.

In terms of coach/client interactions, these observations open up a number of dilemmas that are culturally grounded:

  • What if you have a client, say from a traditional Chinese family, who has been taught that achieving insight is a foolish waste of time, that what counts is keeping busy, not dwelling so much on yourself, and keeping your mind on more productive activities, that is, activities that benefit others?
  • What if you have a client, again from an Asian culture, whose performance history indicates that a lack of assertiveness is holding him back, but for whom assertiveness is regarded as undesirable self-promotion?
  • What if you have a client, say a Native American, who experiences deep ambivalence over abandoning the home culture as the price of success in corporate culture, and this ambivalence shows up in a career plateau?
  • What if you have a client, say a Nigerian, who experiences her identity not as a unitary self but as a member of an extended family, clan, or tribe, yet she works in an organization that defines value, responsibility, and accountability along individual lines?
  • What if you have a client, say a Japanese, who is responsible for supervising a number of subordinates but whose cultural background views criticism as the worst kind of humiliation and praise as an inappropriate singling out of individual merit from the efforts of the group?

Even defining the coaching challenges this crisply implies that they are easy to spot.  But more likely, until a coach can recognize the cultural roots of the problem and articulate them as such, coach and client are likely to talk past one another, if they talk at all.  Research on persistence in conventional counseling/therapy shows that over 50 percent of minority clients terminate the relationship after only one meeting, compared with 30 percent of white clients, and they are much less likely to seek help in the first place.[4]  While we have argued at some length that coaching and psychotherapy are quite different, in the absence of similar research on minority persistence in coaching, it’s not unreasonable to assume a similar outcome.  Sue and Sue argue that the prime reason for these low persistence rates is that counselors are not trained to meet the needs of culturally different clients; that in fact, western psychology as it is taught today is still predisposed to characterize non-westerners as genetically, intellectually, or culturally deficient with little understanding of what it means simply to be culturally different.  All the examples above illustrate very different conceptions of individual agency and responsibility between individualistic and collectivist cultures.  These are based not just in different geographic cultures but even within sub-cultures of a specific organization.  Coaching clients through these challenges requires both understanding and imagination to create a third way that accommodates both cultural traditions in a business setting.

High-context versus Low-context Cultures: Achieving Meaningful Communication

Anthropologists and communication theorists distinguish cultures in terms of the degree of explicitness they attach to communication.  Some cultures, mostly Western, are low-context cultures that practice explicitness and directness in their communication style. They depend on the people in the immediate communication situation to convey meaning and create a unique context.  The purpose and outcome of the communication—the transaction—take precedence over the interpersonal relationships involved.  Making assumptions transparent, preparing detailed legal agreements that anticipate all contingencies, defining terms, getting down to business: all these are ways in which low-context cultures practice communication.

High-context cultures, on the other hand, prize subtlety and indirectness.  China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Spain are examples.  They depend on a shared cultural context to carry meaning.  Instead of getting down to business, high-context cultures tend to rely first on existing relationships outside the business arena so that shared understandings make explicitness unnecessary.  Or they take time to build relationships if the participants are strangers—often maddening amounts of time to a transactionally-minded low-context person.  To a low-context culture, this style of communication can look undisciplined, evasive, untrustworthy, uninformed, (dare we say “stupid”?), or just plain lazy and a waste of precious time.  To a high-context culture, the explicitness of low-context communication can look boorish, pushy, patronizing, indelicate, distrustful, unnecessarily detailed (stupid?) and insensitive.

The distinction is closely related to what Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner call specific versus diffuse cultures: “In specific-oriented cultures a manager segregates out the task relationship she or he has with a subordinate and insulates this from other dealings [i.e. low context]. . . . However, in some countries every life space and every level of personality tends to permeate all others” [high context].[5]  Thus, in a high context society, there is little separation between business and personal life or between business and social life.  To do business, you get to know the other person and establish ties outside the business context.  Conversely, in a low context society, the business deal is the basis for forming a relationship, but the business comes first.

With their different standards for getting to know one another, individuals from high context and low context cultures strongly influence the coaching relationship.  A coach who tries to zero in on the issues with a high context client will end the relationship before it can begin.  Despite whatever pressures the coach may feel to make the relationship efficient and cost-effective, a high context client needs and expects time to build the relationship outside the coaching engagement, and the coach needs to slow down, back off, and let things unfold.  Conversely, an extremely low context client will want to cut to the chase, and may have little or no interest in forming a relationship with the coach.

Coaches who understand these cultural differences can also be extremely effective in helping clients who work in multi-cultural situations read and respond to the cultural imperatives of individuals with whom they work.  The coaching situation can become a place for the client to name and to unravel cultural knots that get in the way of communication, job satisfaction and effectiveness, and productivity.

Achievement versus Ascription Cultures:  Status and Trust

Cultures also vary widely in terms of who has status and where status comes from.  In ascription-oriented societies, factors such as age, gender, social connections and social class, family background, and religious or spiritual status define status and thus whom one might look to for advice.  These societies define status based on who the person is.  On the other hand, achievement-oriented societies tend to define status based on what the person has achieved: educational credentials, both in terms of degrees earned and where they came from; business stature in the hierarchy; amount of experience.

In actuality, these two distinctions can be rather tightly intertwined.  A wise elder can give such consistently bad advice that no one seeks it anymore, or a talented, educated high potential, fast tracker can get derailed because he didn’t go to the right schools or because she is a she.  Some “ascriptions” are harder to cross than others: social class, even in a society like the United States in which everyone claims to be middle class, can be hard to work one’s way out of, especially when compounded with race, ethnicity, or gender; harder still when the local culture or business culture denies their existence but clearly makes decisions based on them.  Likewise, even the most achievement-oriented culture still looks for certain markers of ascription: the right references, the right schools, the right dress, even the right physique.  There is a tendency to think of ascription-oriented cultures as traditional and achievement-oriented cultures as more modern and progressive, but it is more useful to see how sources of ascribed value change and continue to influence all societies.

One of the challenges of coaching is to establish credibility with the client, even after the client organization has accepted a particular coach based on whatever criteria it uses.  What if you have a client, say from a staunchly religious Latin American country, who believes that discussing personal problems, including work performance, is the province of the clergy?  How do you establish credibility as a coach?  Or a client from an Asian country who doesn’t recognize that your Ph.D. makes you a real doctor or who believes your training in counseling or coaching is meaningless because psychology is not something worthy of study?  In cases like these, where a client places great weight on authority, the coach may need to take extra steps to be sure the client’s superiors convey their respect for the coaching engagement, or to ferret out other sources of authority that the client holds in high regard to ally herself with these.

Understanding clients in terms of this dimension of cultural variation can be quite useful in helping them uncover biases and predispositions that may be limiting how they work with subordinates or even how they present themselves.  The executive who conceives of nearly all work-related issues in terms of sports or war and talks about them this way, for example, may fail to engage a significant number of his subordinates if not alienate them altogether.  The ascribed valued being placed on these two activities may carry little meaning to someone who has participated in neither or who has moral, cultural, or political reservations about their worth.  An executive who places too much emphasis on ascribed values may overlook the talent that is right in front of him.  Or an executive who does not recognize a client’s predisposition for working with certain kinds of people based on ascribed values—elder statesman, respected educational background, correct community or international ties, nationality, etc.—may undermine the client’s confidence in the business relationship.

Implications for cross-cultural coaching

  1. Allow cultural differences to be visible, self-conscious, and acknowledged.
  2. Recognize that in coaching, as in any communication situation, the message that ultimately counts is the message the other person creates in her mind, not the one you intended          to send.
  3. Get at the real meaning:  (a) Pay unusually deep attention to the person as well as the words being said.  Empathize to understand the other person’s context in order to build rapport and trust.  (b) Frequently paraphrase the message you think you heard; ask questions.  (c) Suspend judgment about the other person; assume good intent.
  4. Recognize that the other person is more willing to forgive error than arrogance.
  5. Find synergy:  (a) However unsettling, own up to yourself to any notions you may hold of cultural superiority so you can begin to accept and value difference.  (b) Recognize the multiple meanings of a situation from the perspectives of different cultures.  (c) Articulate the multiple assumptions that are being made based on cultural differences.  (d) Use differences creatively to seek solutions from multiple perspectives and find one that is mutually acceptable.

Objective versus Subjective Cultures:  Knowing and the Role of Emotions

Western culture conceives of itself as having a rational, empirical, objective relationship with the world.  Western intellectual history points with pride to the Age of Enlightenment as a turning point in the birth of this orientation and its subsequent elaboration during the Scientific Revolution.  These historical shifts made for rapid advances in technological and economic advancement and set the stage for the age of western imperialism, that treated the world as a kind of laboratory (or object) for the spread of western ideologies and a resource for their development.  This is the outward-looking, progressive west that, in its purest form, seeks deliverance from the intrusion of messy and untrustworthy emotionalism.  Western societies have epitomized the scientific method as the purest form of knowing.

Although we have used the term “emotional intelligence” to describe the cross cultural sensitivities that good coaches need, it’s interesting to observe that it wasn’t until the scientific-sounding word “intelligence” got coupled with “emotions” that western intellectuals inside and outside the business community began paying serious attention to the role of emotions in a worldview that, on the surface, has traditionally found emotions highly suspect.  Even more paradoxically, one does not have to go as far afield as eastern religion and mysticism to find cultures more aligned with subjectivity.  Southern European and Latin American cultures accept and expect emotional intensity as a marker of engagement and a mode of conducting serious business.  For someone bound up in objectivist ways of knowing and interacting, emotions simply cloud the issue and waste time. Emotional outbursts can make people extremely uncomfortable and induce a kind of flight response, most often manifested in the suggestion to take time out and let people compose themselves in private.  The associated value judgment is that this is someone who lacks self-control or who is unprofessional.  For a person for whom a subjective emotional response is a gauge of something worth attending to, something worth putting your heart in, detached objectivity signals disengagement or unimportance, coldness and distance.  The associated value judgment here is “Why waste my time and energy in something that you obviously don’t care about?” or, “This person is hiding something behind that cool façade, and I can’t trust her.”  Emotions are something you work with, not something that you work against.

Consider the opposite extreme.  The long silences that are part of Asian communication patterns are meant to convey respect for what the speaker had to say, by providing time to reflect and make a considered response.  But to a westerner, who is uncomfortable with silence and accustomed to fast-paced conversation with the frequent interruptions that signal a high level of excitement about the discussion, silence can seem detached, uninterested, disengaged.  Ironically, the self-defined objective, unemotional, cool professionalism of the westerner is undone by the silent contemplation of the Asian.

The cultural distinctions between objectivism and subjectivism are probably most familiar to coaches and clients because these distinctions are closely related to those between preferences for thinking or feeling, which have become prevalent in the business community through the widespread use of the Myers-Briggs Inventory.  Nevertheless, it’s one thing to perceive these polarities as individual traits and another to understand their embeddedness in culturally determined values and behaviors. The difficulty here is that what looks like out-of-control emotion to one person is just a normal form of expression to another.  How much play is given to emotions thus becomes a strong basis for trust in a coaching relationship because of the value judgments attached to emotionalism or the lack of it.  The clinical detachment that helping professionals strive to develop in their demeanor with clients may very well be a derived from a western value that prizes objectivity and neutrality as ways to truth.  To someone from a subjectivist culture, this value may instead convey messages about lack of care, lack of engagement, lack of empathy, lack of trustworthiness to someone who expects a higher level of emotionalism from others.

The difficulty is that this cultural dimension, like all the others, is largely invisible, even though the inferences and value judgments that result when people at opposite ends of the spectrum confront each other are immediate and keenly felt.  In coaching clients about how to deal with their own and others’ emotions in business settings, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner offer a useful analysis of questions about the role of emotions in business:

“Americans tend to exhibit emotion, yet separate it from ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ decisions.  Italians and south European nations in general tend to exhibit and not separate.  Dutch and Swedes tend not to exhibit and to separate. . . . There is nothing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about these differences.  You can argue that emotions held in check will twist your judgments despite all efforts to be ‘rational.’  Or you can argue that pouring forth emotions makes it harder for anyone present to think straight.  Similarly you can scoff at the ‘walls’ separating reasons from emotions, or argue that because of the leakage that so often occurs, these should be thicker and stronger.”[6]

There are two challenges for the coach.  The first is to help the client (or perhaps the coach herself) recognize when the value judgments related to objectivism versus emotionalism kick in, thus learning to set them aside.  The second, and more difficult one, is to help the client see that the two approaches are simply different, and that there may be strengths in the opposite approach that one’s own cultural biases have precluded the client from seeing.

Present-Oriented versus Traditional Cultures: Time as an Arbiter of Value

The final cultural dimension has to do with how cultures vary according to their view of time.  Perceptions of time cover a variety of extremely fundamental issues:

  • time as a limited commodity that cannot be wasted as opposed to time as a synchronous experience that meshes past, present, and future
  • time as a repository of value—whether value lies in the past or the present
  • time as a repository of knowledge—the reverence for preserving traditional knowledge and customs versus the quest for new knowledge and a critical view of present knowledge and its limitations
  • time as the medium of change as opposed to time as a preservation of the past
  • time as linear, always leading to the future as opposed to time as circular, always taking one back to the past
  • time as something to be measured and doled out as opposed to time as something to be experienced
  • time as a future that threatens vital relationships formed in the past as opposed to time as a promise of better things to come
  • time as short term and time as long term.

On the surface, these orientations toward time would seem to have little to do with the conduct of business—but only among people who share a common conception of time and its value.  Our sense of time is so deeply embedded in our definitions of ourselves and in our relationships with the world that time is truly something we often cannot see and whose value we cannot grasp except when it is handled in ways that are not consistent with our expectations.  However, since our conceptions of time define how we use it and hence the values we attribute to it, human beings’ constant negotiations with each other are typically, at the heart of things, negotiations about time. Consider, for instance, the value placed on punctuality.  To be late for an appointment is the height of rudeness in present-oriented cultures, largely because it wastes other the people’s time, showing disrespect and costing money.

But time is not the supreme value in some ascription-oriented cultures, if for instance, one must choose between being on time and finishing up a conversation with a respected senior colleague.  Nor would it be at the top of the hierarchy in collective cultures when one must choose between being on time and reaching consensus on an important issue with one’s work group.  This is not simply a decision to spend time in one way rather than another way.  It is about differing experiences of time and differing hierarchies of value.

Helping clients in a cross-cultural environment reframe their perspective on their work through the lens of time can be hugely valuable because time is so fundamental.  How much of the organization is devoted in one way or another to time: managing it, policing it, dividing it up and parceling it out, measuring performance against it, determining its value by what activities or people receive more time and what or who receives less?  Does this organization seem optimal in terms of business and cultural values?  When is time the highest value and when does it give way to other values?  How is the use of time related to other interpersonal difficulties that the client needs to resolve at work?  What value judgments does the client attach to other people’s use of time?  Are these evaluations legitimate or simply culture-blind?  How does the client’s own perception (perhaps even preoccupation?) with time help or hinder his management effectiveness?  What conflicts are, at their root, conflicts over time?  When do traditional orientations to time offer solutions to problems that present orientations can’t imagine?  And vice verse.  Is it possible to negotiate a shared perspective on time for purposes of operating the business?

Obviously, coaches can, and should, ask the same questions of themselves when dealing with clients whose orientation to time is not the same.

Biculturalism and the Western Worldview

In today’s global business environment, many international managers and executives were raised in the home culture but educated in the west.  They live, simultaneously in two cultures, often experiencing a psychological push and pull to live according to two different and sometimes conflicting sets of norms.  The built-in conflicts of inhabiting a bicultural psychological space are present not just at work but also at home.  South African scholar Amina Mama raises the question: “But what should Africans be adjusting to in the era of globalization?  As young urban Africans rush to embrace the often violent and misogynistic North American ghetto cultures of rap, hip hop, and Rambo-style machismo, their elders cannot but view this as a form of maladjustment!”[7]

India and Japan are useful as case studies for helping coaches understand the limits of the western worldview as it is embedded in assumptions and values regarding adjustment and identity.  This all-too-brief analysis is useful, nevertheless, because the same themes are similarly played out throughout postcolonial states around the globe.

The two centuries of British occupation of India were characterized by an attitude of contempt for all things Indian and a conscious effort to eradicate Indian culture through re-education of the young in the British mode.  The goal was to replace Indian values and lifestyles with all things English, just as the federal Indian boarding schools of the United States during the early 1900’s was a highly conscious attempt to eradicate native cultures in America.  Indians were viewed as unclean, dishonest, dishonorable, and completely inferior to Europeans.  In his study of Indian and Japanese cross-cultural psychology, Alan Sloan maintains that “the reverberating effects of this educational system are still felt today, and greatly affect Indian identity.”[8]  These effects include conflicts between very different value systems, different ways of relating to others socially, and different standards and assumptions about healthy psychological functioning and are most intensely experienced among upper class males. (Women’s more sheltered role in society tended to isolate them from the daily onslaught of British prejudice and reeducation programs.)

Bound up in these conflicts is considerable ambivalence toward those who represent Western value systems, in this case, an outside, non-native coach.  As Sloan points out, “the intense denigration of Indian culture and Indians under the colonial regime resulted in profound consequences to the Western-educated Hindu upper castes and upper-class Muslims, and complicated the processes of acculturation and assimilation of foreign elements into the Indian framework. . . . So powerful have been these kinds of identity struggles generated by British colonial rule that they continue even some forty years after Independence.  Sudhir Kakar has remarked that “beneath the guise of many overtly held value positions, deep down, Western-educated Indian men must to this day make a decisive choice between being Indian in identity or Western.  Whenever the identity investment is more Western, there is inevitably a subtle or open denigration of many things Indian.”[9]

Thus, for many Indian people today, working at home or abroad, marriages are still arranged; educational, career choices, and all other major life decisions are made in close consultation with parents whose guidance dominates decision-making; social ties and friends become part of an extended family; and a holistic Hindu world view is pervasive.  The individual lives a highly reciprocal and interdependent life in which the ongoing approval of others is central to maintaining a sense of self-worth.  One strives to become “a person centered in a spiritual consciousness and being, so that there is an inner calm amid the stresses and pulls of close familial and other group hierarchical relationships.”[10]  Sloan describes the Indian sense of self as a “we-self” that imposes quite different meanings on educational and professional achievement than is typical in the West.  “Skills and motives for achievement tend to be subsumed under a we-self and familial embeddedness rather than acquired for self-actualization.  The central cultural ideals . . . revolve around the gradual realization of the spiritual self, wherein subtle differences and nuances in inner make-up, temperament, and inclinations are all utilized in the spiritual quest.”[11]

Though the Japanese do not have the heritage of cultural denigration that Indians bring to life in a global society, they attach similar values to work.  Achievement is not about incurring individual distinction and self-actualization in a Western sense, but part of a larger journey toward inner cultivation that is as much aesthetic as functional and is only realized in connection with a family or other group. Self-containment, verbal and otherwise, is characteristic of this deeply interpersonal orientation.  Functionally, containing oneself is a necessity to maintain harmony with others in one’s family or work group.

Spiritually, it is a necessity in order to cultivate the inner psychological space needed for spiritual development.  The Japanese response to a Western-style global environment has been to develop what Sloan refers to as “a two-layered personality: a deeper core associated with traditional Japanese culture, and an upper layer associated with acculturation to American and Western influences in Japan.”[12] The coach who treats any of these native practices as quaint, or who romanticizes them by reducing them to caricatures of eastern mysticism, will fail utterly to establish a working relationship with an Indian or Japanese client.

The difficulty in getting beyond these reactions, though, is more complex than existing prescriptions for cultural “tolerance” or “respect.” At the heart of the matter is a deeply embedded, Western view of the meaning and value of work as an expression of psychological maturity.  For Western cultures, the normative pattern of individual growth is developing autonomy, or what therapists call “individuation.”  This is achieved by breaking away from the family and striking out on one’s own, achieving independence as a decision-maker so one becomes free to craft one’s own identity.  Individual freedom of all sorts—physical, interpersonal, verbal, intellectual, emotional—is the supreme value, and is assumed to be necessary to reach one’s full potential.  Affiliation with others is not a responsibility; it is an independent choice that marks maturity.

As an applied social science—specifically, a branch of psychology—the very concept of coaching is an expression of this uniquely Western worldview. With a family tree that reaches back to Western philosophy and through American psychology, coaching embodies assumptions that are fundamentally Western:

  • Coaching is based in a one-on-one relationship between client and coach
  • The reason for coaching is change in the client to help the person become a more effective individual, to continue along that path of normative development
  • Change comes about through rational insight, and self-understanding is the basis for subsequent behavioral change
  • The coach helps the client change, and the client, in turn, becomes more capable of effecting change in him or herself and the client’s organization
  • Coaching, while it explores emotions, is an inherently rational, empirical process
  • The medium for coaching is dialogue, and verbal discursiveness is necessary to achieve the desired changes

Given these characteristics, Duran and Duran characterize psychology and its applied offspring as having “roots so deeply entrenched in classic Western philosophy that many scholars agree it is simply a footnote to Plato. . . . In no way does Western thinking address any system of cognition except its own.”[13]  Derald Wing Sue and David Sue, arguably the most authoritative scholars and practitioners of cross-cultural counseling, go one step further.  Based on an extensive review of the literature, they draw the persuasive, if somewhat uncomfortable conclusion that “American . . . psychology has been severely criticized as being ethnocentric, monocultural, and inherently biased against racial/ethnic minorities, women, gays/lesbians and other culturally different groups.”[14]  The very normative invisibility of the Western worldview, they argue, is what makes it so impregnable.  As such, they contend, “it is well-intentioned individuals who experience themselves as moral, decent, and fair-minded that may have the greatest difficulty in understanding how their belief systems and actions may be biased and prejudiced. . . .  Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a meaningful movement toward a multicultural society is our failure to understand our unconscious and unintentional complicity in perpetuating bias and discrimination via our personal values/beliefs and our institutions.”[15]

Understanding that neither the medium nor the values of coaching is value-free is a first step toward effective cross-cultural coaching. The various dimensions of cultural difference presented here are intended to help coaches working with minority and international clients develop broader understandings of cultural practices and values and to help their clients do the same.  However, it is also be true that these clients likely face quite different challenges at work than do mainstream clients.  Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are alive and well in the business world just as they are in society at large.

The problems that surface in coaching minority or international clients may not be the client’s problems but the organization’s, and the coach, not the client, may need to become the change agent within the organization.  Thus, it may mean that the coach ultimately works in a broader context that than of the coach-client relationship to help business organizations themselves become the models of globalization that they need and ought to be.


 [1]Edward Said notes that by 1914, 85 percent of the earth was under European control in the form of colonies, protectorates, commonwealths, and other forms of government.  See Culture and Imperialism, New York: Knopf, 1993, 8.

 [2] Eduardo Duran and Bonnie Duran.  Native American Postcolonial Psychology.  Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995, 1.


 [3] R. D. Laing. Knots.  New York: Pantheon Books. 1970.

 [4] Derald Wing Sue and David Sue.  Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory and Practice.  3rd. ed.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1999, 11.

 [5] Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.  Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, 2nd. Ed.  New York: McGraw Hill, 1998, 83.


 [6] Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, 74.

 [7] Amina Mama. “Gender, Power, and Identity in African Contexts.” Wellesley Centers for Women Research and Action Report, Spring/Summer 2002, Vol. 23, Number 2, 6 – 15, 10.


 [8] Alan Roland. In Search of Self in India and Japan: Toward a Cross-Cultural Psychology.  Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1988, 19.


 [9] Sloan, 20 – 21.

[10] Sloan, 60.

[11] Sloan, 331.

[12] Sloan, 21.

[13] Duran and Duran, 17.

[14] Sue and Sue, 31.

[15] Sue and Sue, 34.

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