A number of developments have led to an increased complexity of the contemporary line managers’ task. Globalisation has resulted in the increase of virtual teams where managers have direct reports based in multiple locations - often with different cultural backgrounds. Equally, managers of co-located teams work across cultures due to an increasingly mobile and diverse workforce. In parallel, the expectation of the line manager to act as a coach to their team members has become prevalent and many job descriptions mention coaching skills as a key requirement. Apart from the informal use of coaching as a management style, many organisations implement formal ‘Manager-as-Coach’ programmes.
Global organisations that implement Manager-as-Coach programmes need to consider the special context these are set in: a challenging triangle consisting of the three dimensions ‘Manager-as-Coach relationship’, ‘coaching across cultures’ and ‘coaching virtually’. All three of these dimensions have to be mastered for a successful coaching outcome. Usually line managers are expected to master this task with very little appropriate support. The following questions spring to mind when considering the special requirements of this context: What are the coaching skills required for coaching direct reports remotely across cultures? How is the coaching best undertaken in terms of technology? What are the pitfalls to consider?
Although some research on managing virtual cross-cultural teams, virtual coaching and the Manager-as-Coach exists separately, line managing with a coaching style in a virtual and cross-cultural setting hasn’t been addressed specifically. In this 3-article series findings on potential issues and best practice from existing research and practitioner literature are combined to shed light on the coaches’ skills requirements. Further, recommendations how organisation that plan a formal Manager-as-Coach model can support line managers of dispersed multi-cultural teams are made.
Cross-cultural coaching is an established practice for external coaches. As the difference in cultures is inherent to cross-cultural Manager-as-Coach relationships, this article reviews and evaluates the relevant learnings from cross-cultural coaching practice.
The evolution of cross-cultural coaching
Research and literature on the influence of culture in coaching is still emerging. Although plenty of studies on culture in the business environment have taken place, organizational culture has received more attention than national cultures (Abbott et al., 2013). A further issue is that cross-cultural research and coaching has been dominated by Western thinking and bias with 'Western' being treated as synonymous to 'International' (Abbott, 2010; Plaister-Ten, 2009; Szkudlarek, 2009). The dominating cultural models in the business and management literature are based on comparing national culture (Hofstede, 2001; Trompenaars and Hampden Turner, 2012). Passmore and Law (2009) propose that little empirical research has been done to test the validity of cultural models and the organisational culture in global companies could dominate over the national culture of employees. Although it is acknowledged that the dimensions these models are built on provide a common vocabulary and common language that benefits cross-cultural coaching, many authors point out the danger of stereotyping individuals based on generalisations derived from their national culture (Abbott et al., 2013; Baron and Azizollah, 2008; Passmore and Law, 2009; Plaister-Ten 2009; St Claire-Ostwald, 2007). This is due to the positivistic and dimensional approach of the models that depict culture ‘as a rigid and static force that must be worked around to avoid problems’ (Abbott et al., 2013, p. 487).
Using culture as a dimension in executive coaching has been proposed to increase the coaching effectiveness (Rosinski, 2003). However, there are multiple paradoxes that that have to be considered and managed in the coaching engagement. Abbott (2010) proposes that every individual is influenced by their cultural background, therefore any coaching will need to cover the aspect of culture; but it doesn’t make sense to focus just on culture as there are always multiple influences on the coaching engagement. A focus just on culture would assume that culture can be treated in isolation when developing strategies for change and development. A holistic approach to integrating culture into mainstream coaching is emerging where a global dimension is ‘built-in rather than added-on’ (Abbott, 2007).
Skills required of the cross-cultural coach
A review of the cross-cultural coaching literature identified the following key skills required by the cross-cultural coach. It is understood that many of these skills are best practice for many coaching genres and settings, but they have been mentioned as being particularly relevant for effective cross-cultural coaching assignments and their usefulness for the virtual cross-cultural Manager-as-Coach context is evaluated here:
- Creating rapport, trust and a safe space (Plaister-Ten, 2009; Merrifield, 2010): Reframing the existing relationship of the coaching pair is important so a relationship that is conducive to coaching can develop. For example, in a culture with a focus on respecting hierarchies it could feel uncomfortable for both coachee and coach to reflect on their performance and talk about issues of a more personal or emotional nature that might arise through the coaching with their manager.
- Language skills: Insufficient fluency is a barrier for both coach and coachee to articulate themselves subtly and more time for thinking, processing and clarifying understanding needs to be built into cross-cultural coaching (Peterson, 2007, Merrifield, 2010). It can be assumed that this would be an issue for overall work performance of anybody working globally, however due to the different nature of the coaching conversation more specific vocabulary may be required. Existing language skills might be sufficient for managing projects but not for unpacking the subtleties of an experience. Therefore further support in learning languages might be required.
- Flexibility in applying diverse communication styles and coaching approaches (Baron and Azizollah, 2008; Keane, 2012; Merrifield, 2010): Cross-cultural coaches should consider verbal and non-verbal communication differences and adapt their style accordingly e.g. when it is not suitable to use eye-contact or the formality of how to address somebody with their name. For the cross-cultural Manager-as-Coach this means they need to be comfortable with applying varying styles for different team members. The question arises whether adaptability is only the responsibility of the manager or also of the employee. This will depend on the communication skills and level of cultural awareness of the employee. A certain level of cross-cultural knowledge is for instance required to tolerate something that would be considered offensive in the native culture and to recognise it as cultural difference. On the other hand it might lead to confusion if both coach and coachee adapt to the other culture and mirror each other’s culture without being authentic to their own culture anymore. Further, personality preferences also have an impact on communication styles and could be misinterpreted as cultural differences.
- Ability to work with uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity and change (Abbott, 2010; Plaister-Ten, 2009): The trend of global companies to outsource services to economically developing and emerging countries means cross-cultural line managers are likely to coach employees based in rapidly changing environments which bring complexity and uncertainty with them. The complex nature of culture generally means there is a high requirement on the coach to work with uncertainty and ambiguity which could be challenging for coaches from a culture with a tendency to avoid uncertainty (Hofstede, 2001).
- Knowledge of client culture and cultural theories (Abbott, 2010; Baron and Azizollah 2008; Merrifield, 2010; Peterson, 2007;): How relevant this is depends on the coaching model and client context. For example, the value of positive and negative feedback could vary between cultures and some cultures could be more used to reflection. Cultures with ‘high power distance’ could expect the coach to be directive and the question has been raised whether in this instance mentoring would be a more suitable intervention (Abbott et al., 2013; Hofstede 2001). Several authors make the point that it is unrealistic to fully know or learn a culture but coaches need to understand the role of culture within their work (Egan, 2010; Passmore and Law, 2009, Peterson, 2007). Naturally there is a danger for a coach with high cultural knowledge to see everything through the cultural lens. While acknowledging that an awareness of culture is useful, some authors question the special relevance, on the basis that culture is a group phenomenon and coaching typically is concerned with the individual (Peterson, 2007; Egan, 2010). Keane (2012) supports the focus on the individual but proposes that it is not possible to separate cultural components of an individual’s identity. Having knowledge of national cultural characteristics can help to unpack what is at play in a specific situation, however the larger context also needs also be considered. A systems approach can help to navigate complex situations through accommodating ‘the multiple external influences and cultural norms that the coach needs to be aware of’ (Plaister-Ten, 2009, p. 78). In practical terms this could, for example, mean examining the economic, political and social structures of a country and the education system (Plaister-Ten, 2009). In summary, cultural knowledge is beneficial for coaches but needs to be balanced with a focus on the individual. Coaches need to be aware if something is a universal human experience, culture specific or personality related, which supports the holistic global coaching approach that integrates culture amongst other things (Abbott, 2010; Egan, 2010; Keane, 2012).
- Awareness of own culture and challenging assumptions, values and biases (Baron and Azizollah 2008; Egan, 2010; Keane, 2012; Merrifield, 2010; Plaister-Ten, 2009; St Claire-Ostwald, 2007). Various tools exist that can increase cultural awareness for coaching purposes. For example the Cultural Orientation Framework (Rosinski 2003), the Cultural Kaleidoscope (Plaister-Ten, 2010) and parts of the Expatriate Coaching Framework (Abbott and Stening, 2011). These tools and frameworks could be valuable for both the managers and coachees in order to raise their self-awareness prior to coaching. In particular they can help ‘global nomads’ (who have moved between countries all their lives and subsequently don’t have an innate cultural reference) understand which different cultural contexts they draw on in their behaviour and decision making (Burrus, 2011). Keane (2012) points out that the skills developed in cross-cultural coaching, such as being aware of difference and suspending one’s agenda, can be useful for working in coaching relationships with other aspects of difference such as gender and religious belief. This means developing line managers’ cross-cultural coaching skills helps mature the diversity of organisations generally.
- Self-development (Abbott, 2010, Hawkins and Smith, 2006; Passmore and Law, 2009). As cultures are dynamic and cross-cultural coaching is an emerging complex field, staying up-to-date with research and best practice will aid the development of any coach working across cultures. Best practices for coach development such as supervision and reflective practice should form part of any global virtual Manager-as-Coach programme.
In summary, awareness of cultural differences is useful but it is important to keep the focus on the individual coachee and to develop the coaches self-awareness. Many of the skills required for coaches working across cultures are based on generic communication and global management skills - line managers will have developed these already by managing global virtual teams. Developing managers as cross-cultural coaches will be an opportunity to hone those skills further. What is specific to the coaching context in question is that these skills need to be assessed against this context, developed, refined and consciously put to practice.
For more specific information on how managers can coach successfully remotely see:
Article 1: Manager-as-Coach
Article 3: Coaching Virtually
For references see the full version of this article
By Claudia Filsinger, an Executive Coach with the Executive Coaching Consultancy and lecturer in Business, Management and Coaching at Oxford Brookes University Business School.
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