Cross-Cultural Coaching: A necessary practice in multicultural cities

by Andreea Munteanu

Consider for a moment how easy it is to misinterpret someone’s meaning or tone when they are from our community. Now consider how difficult it is to avoid that scenario when 28 cultures collide in social and economic projects in the EU Quarter in Brussels. Andreea Munteanu is a HR Professional and a Performance Coach in Brussels and describes the challenges of coaching in such a multicultural city.

It’s already well-known that “Coaching is the second fastest growing profession in the world”. Together with this growth, more diversity in the coaching approaches is appearing, and is required.

Regardless of the area: life, health, career, performance or business, the process of coaching has reached a cross-cultural dimension, defining the emergence of “global coaching”.

Given the dynamic of our life and work nowadays, people have the opportunity to move all around the world for reasons of employment, starting a new business or creating the life style they have always wanted. Some large cities in Europe are famous for their international community, because high percentage of the population is made of expats.

One of such places on the map is the city of Brussels, situated in the heart of Europe and hosting the most important EU institutions and events. In terms of diversity, Brussels has always been strongly dominated by migration over the past one and half centuries and today is no different. According to the Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis, in 2017, the percentage of expats in Brussels is 35%, out of which 23% are from the category of EU28 member states.

In this multi-cultural context, we have to wonder how is coaching changing, and what should we change in our coaching practice?

Well, first of all, this is how we start to talk about cross-cultural coaching and the need to get ready for it. From one point of view, being a coach in a multicultural environment can look like a great opportunity to experience diversity and get clients easier, from another view it could be a real challenge.

In order to understand how culture could influence our coaching practice, we need to clearly establish what culture is. Gert Jan Hofstede, a social psychologist who has conducted extensive research into the differences between cultures and countries, defines culture as being ‘the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another’. In other words, he describes some differences in the individual who embodies subconscious assumptions, patterns of thinking and feeling that manifest as a result of the culture in which one has been educated. Therefore, the cultural influence becomes very relevant for the personal and professional development of the client.

In Brussels, for example, the mobility of people and capital, particularly due to the expansion of the European Union, has made coaching by definition a cross-cultural practice. Inside European institutions and agencies, as well as inside the companies that work within the EU sector, the diversity of nationalities is very high.

We understand the need for cross-cultural coaching simply because many contexts are in some way “multi”, “cross” or “inter” cultural when we refer to teams, projects, departments, structures, meetings or events. In such environment, the HR policies are investing in the development of people and teams by providing training in topics related to intercultural communication skills, cross-cultural teamwork or international cooperation. In light of the EU motto which is “united in diversity”, these practices are part of the strategy of creating synergies across cultures.

In this multicultural context, what are the challenges for coaches?

Today we can have a client from Germany, tomorrow another one from Romania and the next day one from Greece. How do we deal with the cultural influence? An assumption of cross cultural coaching is that there are multiple realities and that each situation described by each particular client requires a unique approach. In the working context, there are plenty of situations where cultural issues come to the fore, but also there are plenty of differences we might encounter in our client’s thinking, feeling and acting. In coaching, we often deal with the limiting beliefs or irrational thinking patterns, which in cross-cultural coaching could gain another dimension. These might be part of a society’s value system, religion or survival habits in a cultural area, so how do we work with them?

Unfortunately, in cross-cultural coaching there is no ‘Seven Steps – One Size Fits All’ model. Coaching conversations should become a means to leverage cultural differences for individual, organizational, community and societal development.  In this respect, it’s worth mentioning Rosinski who in 2003, published “Coaching across Cultures’ and invited coaches, organizations and individual clients to view culture as an advantage rather than as an obstacle. He places culture as a key influence in coaching effectiveness and provides tools and methodologies for coaches to use with clients.

Another important contribution in this aspect is brought by Earley and Ang (2003) who introduce the concept of ‘cultural intelligence’ in the individual interactions across cultures, described by:

  1. Knowledge of cultural difference;
  2. Capacity to change behaviour to accommodate difference;
  3. Motivation to change behaviour in the light of knowledge of cultural differences and capacity to change.

First of all, a level of awareness about culture might be necessary when engaging in cross-cultural coaching. Coaching across cultures requires a common language to assist clients and to make sense of their personal stories. There might be a need to discuss cultural influences with a degree of depth and sophistication.

“He was a very good manager but the cultural differences were acting as an obstacle for him.”

An experience I had recently with a client who was dealing with some intercultural issues reveled that some obstacles may appear in the life of our clients because of their own dealing with intercultural differences in life or at work. The cultural shock, home-sickness, low level of tolerance or adaptation to high levels of diversity in people and environments could raise serious issues for performance and life satisfaction.  My client was a manager for a team that was not performing well. He was faced with lots of issues and obstacles in communicating and connecting with his team. He couldn’t understand why people act the way they do, what are their underlying believes, what drives them and what are their real needs that he could address. He was lacking a common language with them.

In the coaching process, it was important to approach the cross-cultural dimension of our work, to raise the awareness between the cultural differences that might exist and establish a common vocabulary which later on has helped us to tackle complex situations regarding his ability to communicate with his team.  He was a very good manager but the cultural differences were acting as an obstacle for him.

In the same way, we could be very good coaches, but still culture could be an obstacle in our practices. The question would be how to prepare ourselves, in order to adapt and make an opportunity out of the cross-cultural coaching?

Andreea Munteanu Ph.D.

Andreea Munteanu is an organizational psychologist and  HR consultant in the business sector, delivering training and coaching with managers and leaders from various companies. She has experience in working with cross-cultural groups and teams, being a trainer and coach for youth in different European projects. In the last year she has worked in the Council of the European Union in the Human Resources, Staff Development Unit.