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Book Review - Diversity in Coaching

02 Apr 2016
Book Review - Diversity in Coaching

The book ‘Diversity in Coaching’, working with gender, culture, race and age points to the pressing need for coaches to attend to the complexity of environments characterised by cross-cultural teams across multinational companies and national borders; whilst calling for leaders to embrace individual differences regardless of gender, culture, race or age. It is well-referenced; delivering academic rigour. The first of three sections sets the scene for diversity in coaching practice; with chapters on Europe (drawing on the Bresser report (2008)), North America and Australasia. The second section offers experiences from global executive coaching practitioners in Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC nations) and Japan, the Middle East and South Africa. The third section focuses on ethnicity in the United States and United Kingdom and includes chapters on gender and age.

Not surprisingly perhaps, given its relatively fledgling status, the book seems to lack a clear definition of ‘cultural coaching’: (it) “aims to promote understanding, respect and cultural sensitivity in individuals, teams and organisations,” (p.48); “the extent to which the coach is culturally informed,” (p.65); “a more international way of coaching,” (p.25). The book also does not draw an overarching conclusion; each chapter is autonomous, reflecting the experiences of 21 international practitioners and on occasions this causes repetition.

The first section provides a good overview of cultural theories and an introduction for those who may not have considered the impact of culture in the coaching relationship. It may have benefited from an up-front explanation that there are tensions between culture when it is assumed to be something that people belong to collectively and the meanings that culture holds internally for individuals; affecting thoughts, feelings, perceptions, behaviour and in turn, management style. My own research suggests that in coaching, these meanings have been largely unexplored. A scene-setting explanation would perhaps have assisted the introduction of the Universal Integrated Framework (UIF) model (p.12) developed by Law et al (2007) and later chapters (3, 14) that go on to explore some of these tensions.

Section two of the book is highly insightful. It brings real life coaching experience to bear in diverse marketplaces around the world. Each chapter paints its own portrait of the social, historical, economic, political and racial context and explains how this might impact the approach to “culturally appropriate” coaching; drawing upon literature and offering case studies where appropriate. For example, Chapter 5 explores ‘Coaching in South Africa’ and draws upon social identify theory (Tajfel, 1974) as a lens through which to explore the South African context and its complexities. In this case, the integral coaching model (Flaherty, 1999) is proposed as a solution.

Section three offers excellent chapters on gender and life transitions. Indeed, it could be argued that a coaching kitbag is not complete without an understanding of the theories of adult development and transitions. (Other titles that may be of interest in this field include: Sugarman, (2001) and Hudson and Mclean (1995)). Also addressed in section three are the issues of racial minorities: ‘coaching black British coachees’ (chapter 12, p.165) and ‘coaching black American coachees’ (chapter 13, p. 181). Whilst these chapters could be at risk of perpetuating stereotypes, there is the pertinent suggestion (p.192) that a coach must accept the paradoxical situation that “it is critical to consider race in order to get to the point where race does not matter.” Dealing with paradox was one of the core qualities of a cross-cultural coach identified in my own research.

One of the book’s greatest values is the emphasis upon ‘culturally sensitive coaching’ that is embedded throughout, particularly in section two. Reinforcing the findings of my research; in culturally sensitive coaching it seems that there is no one universal cross-cultural model or process. However, it is important to consider the impact of, for example, history, economics and social structure on the psyche and the impact this might have on organisation structure and leadership styles. My research suggests that this lends itself toward a systems approach to coaching.

Along with the advances of globalisation, a person’s cultural profile – or cultural self - may be complex: born in one country; educated in another; work in another/s; have family resident in another. These global citizens may have conflicting goals and values and, being ‘caught between cultures’, are likely to represent a challenge for coaching for generations to come. The book does not however, appear to focus hugely upon the impact of ‘serial expatriation’ or the evolution of ‘global citizens’ and ‘melting pots’ (by 2050, the total “minority” population is projected to represent 54 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the US Census Bureau).

My research suggests that the ‘jewel in the crown’ of cross-cultural coaching is in the “un-learning of cultural responses that no longer make sense to the coachee.” Unlearning cultural patterns is not easy, according to Hofstede (2003). This approach considers the impact that culture has on the presenting issue; getting to the root cause before raising it into awareness in a culturally-sensitive manner and subsequently determining culturally-appropriate steps forward. The book has plenty of good examples and case studies of this approach; such as framing suggestions with quotations from the Quran (p.117) or the suggestion that a transpersonal approach (p.104) to coaching may accommodate the social values inherent within a collectivist society such as China.

The need for coaches to be self-reflective is explained and a useful exercise is offered (p.32) for coaches wishing to examine their own social identity before embarking on a cross-cultural engagement. The authors do not always indicate where they are currently resident, or how much time they have spent living and working outside of their own cultures. An American and a Brit living in the UK and coaching an Indian person for example, are each likely to have differing perspectives.

The book does not appear to contemplate the possibility that cross-cultural coaching may not be applicable for all coaches. My own research suggests a need for coaches to have experienced extended or repeated tenures outside of his/her own culture in order to have acutely well-developed qualities; such as questioning own cultural assumptions or the ability to tolerate ambiguity. As Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1997, p.20) state, “a fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish.”

In summary, the book illustrates the diverse nature of coaching practice worldwide. Whilst providing many models, techniques and processes it does not, and should not, claim that any one approach is ‘the best’. The book does not go so far as to suggest that concepts of self differ across cultures and therefore differing psychological constructs such as responsibility have different meanings in different cultures. But it does reiterate throughout the need for an alignment to cultural beliefs and goal setting in the coaching process that must be culturally appropriate. An approach that will surely contribute towards the building of trust across cultures.


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