I was once running some training in Kenya for Kenyans. I became exasperated that getting the delegates to come back to the training room after coffee breaks and lunch was like an exercise in herding cats! Some would wander back into the room and then wander out again to speak to someone else, others would be on their mobiles and seemingly quite reluctant to finish those conversations. When I stopped to think about it I realized that I was experiencing a cultural difference. My Anglo Saxon culture had taught me to operate through time. In other words to be always conscious of ‘what has happened before’ and ‘what will happen next’ as well as dealing with the here and now. My Kenyan participants on the other hand had a culture that operates in time. This means that their consciousness was purely in the here and now. They weren’t being rude by not being prompt back to training; they were just fully focused on the current moment. To them it would have been the height of bad manners to rush a conversation with a client in order to get back to training. Now you and I could argue forever about who was right and who was wrong, that’s not the point. Different cultures have different values and we need to work with them rather than get tied up in thoughts of right/wrong, good/bad, better/worse.
Of course when we talk about culture and how if effects the coaching relationship we need to realise that it is not just a matter of considering nationality, race or religion. We need also take into account the cultures people may have become used to in previous employment, in education or in the home. More importantly perhaps, we need to think about the prevailing culture in our own organisations if coaching has not been the norm.
There are many dimensions to culture and we need to consider, amongst others
Do people rise through the organization on merit or is status gained through age, length of service or qualifications?
Some cultures value flat hierarchies with everyone free to express their views, others are used to bosses telling everybody what to do.
What have people been used to and how much scope is there to move up and down the communication spectrum?
Do we apply coaching at the level of the team or the individual?
Are the people that we coach comfortable with emotional language and very open in their discussions or more reserved; wanting the coach to always take the lead?
Of course, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They are simply views that we need to think about in order to give coaching its most solid platform.
Finally, if you find yourself coaching people who will be experiencing cultural change, raise awareness by having them identify the similarities and differences with their current culture, and help them to take responsibility for making any necessary adaptations.