Today, coaching knows no boundaries, and many coaches have clients in a variety of countries around the globe. But should a savvy coach tailor their coaching to fit a culture?
In Malaysia, managers prefer to talk about their work as members of a corporate team, not as individuals. In Japan, executives can be offended by feedback. And in Taiwan, clients prefer face-to-face coaching, rather than over the phone.
So how do you navigate cultures without hitting potholes?
Two coaches from India argue that working in Asia—where coaching, especially executive coaching is booming—requires a healthy respect for culture and social hierarchy. They’ve just finished research into the topic that involved interviewing coaches across Asia, and their work has just been published in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring.
“The findings bring out how the deeply embedded concept of social hierarchy influences the role and status of the coach in Asian culture,” write the authors, Lina Nangalia and Ajay Nangalia of the Global Coach Trust in Bagalore, India. “Whether the social hierarchy draws its strength from Confucianism or Hindu tradition, it shapes the expectations that clients have from the coach and from the process. All the coaches we interviewed adapt their practice to align with the local culture in order to help their clients move forward.”
How do coaches working in Asia adapt?
“International coaches working with Asian clients will appreciate that they need to flex their coaching style,” the researchers write, suggesting that the essentials of coaching—including the idea that coaches “partner” with clients—come from a Western cultural ethos that may conflict directly with Asian cultural traditions.
Kelly Choi, a coach based in Hong Kong, was one of the subjects of the study. She says in Asian society, a coach does not “partner,” but rather is seen as a teacher or respected elder. “They see the coach as someone more senior, more knowledgeable, like a mentor,” said Choi. “There is a teacher-student mindset.”
The result in many Asian countries, the researchers found, is that coaches tend to have younger clients, not older. “In Asian cultures seniority is important, and I would not see a young person coaching a much older person,” said Charlie Sukrit, a coach from Thailand. “My Thai clients have all been younger than myself, possessing less life and work experience than me.”
Gender plays a role as well, with many of the coaches interviewed telling researchers male managers prefer to work with male—generally older male—coaches.
As the researchers found, this is true not just for Asian clients, but for Asian coaches as well: “Kelly (Choi) shares that while she has male clients who are from Australia, she does not have male clients who are Asian…she mentions she would feel uncomfortable with a senior male Asian client because of her cultural upbringing.”
The researchers report that, in general, the coaching relationship in Asia “is not one of equals…he or she is placed higher in the social hierarchy and thus commands respect and deference.”
As a result, coaches are often called upon by Asian clients for their advice and answers as much as their probing questions. Coach David Chen in Singapore said “my Chinese clients expect me to give answers…they see me as a solution provider.”
Cindy Chin, a coach from Malaysia told the researchers her clients “expect the coach to give them ideas, advice, suggestions—when I give them some suggestions, they are very happy.”
The coaches who participated in the study warned that while suggestions are most welcome, advice and feedback can be very tricky, putting a coach at risk of offending a client. Angela Jin of Taiwan said coaches must “cement relationships before offering any feedback,” which must be delivered “in a soft and indirect way.”
The way coaches working with Asian clients have learned to handle this area: take their time to build trust. “It takes longer time to build the trust for them—to get to know me—and believe that everything they said is confidential,” said Patrick Teo in Malaysia. “The depth of coaching takes a while before it goes deep.”
Coaching ultimately can go deep—if the coach is aware of the potential pitfalls of maintaining a strictly Western approach. As the researchers write, the rewards of cross-cultural training for coaches are profound:
“Thanks to globalization, the fastest growing economies in the world today are in Asia. One of the findings from this study is that the large majority of clients (expatriates and local) work with multinational corporations, which have set up operations across Asia. This means that there are tremendous opportunities for international coaches in Asia. However, international coaches need to be aware of the local ethos, and adapt their style to be culturally congruent. A process that works for them in their culture may not be as effective in another culture; hence, they may not be able to help their clients in the best way possible.”
What experiences have you had as you’ve worked with clients in different cultures?
How have you learned the cultural nuance you needed to avoid offending a client, and to propel yourself into a new market with success?