In Coaching on the Axis, Kahn (2014: 21) introduces the notion that business exists within a distinct cultural context which is characterised by market forces. He advocates that all coaches start with the cultural context as their starting point, developing an understanding of the phenomenon of culture, and particularly corporate or organisational culture. He explains that the generalist view of culture aligns well with systems thinking, and describes culture as emerging from social interactions, and being the result of shared symbols and meanings (Kahn, 2014: 22). “Culture is the intrinsic social fabric through which organisation occurs, consciously and unconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally. Culture provides the code that allows human beings to predict behaviour, maintain relationships, and find meaning and purpose, it supplies us our language, which facilitates the meaning structure for living. Culture is ultimately the foundation of our social order” (Kahn, 2014: 22–23).
Important for team coaches, is that when organisational culture is dysfunctional, leadership is the tool the team can use to unlearn difficult cultural assumptions, and to develop ways of adapting and being more effective. Both leaders and team coaches need to understand the deeper levels of a culture – organisational and societal – to understand the assumptions on which the group is operating; some assumptions may be liberating and true, while others may be limiting and untrue.
Cultural competence in coaching
Coaches need to understand what, when, how and how much culture matters in practical, interpersonal and organisational situations. To manage intergroup conflict, we need to equip managers and leaders to understand “how cultural differences work” and “how to turn cultural competence into a competitive advantage”. Consequently, the following personal competences are important for managers: flexibility, resourcefulness, tolerance for ambiguity, vision, cultural self-awareness, cultural consciousness, and multicultural leadership (Egan and Bendick, 2008: 387).
Cultural competence is defined as a “set of congruent behaviours, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals, enabling them to work effectively in cross-cultural situations” (Cross, Bazron, Dennis and Isaacs, 1989: iv–v). It starts with managers’ personal cultural intelligence, or ability to operate in a variety of situations, whether they arise from cross-functional assignments within a company, diverse work teams, or foreign postings (Earley and Mosakowski, 2004: 2).
The role of the culturally-aware team coach is to explore and develop self-awareness around each team member’s deeply-held assumptions and paradigms about themselves, and about others who are different to them. A combination of coaching and intercultural skills is essential not only for leaders, but for the team coaches who will be able to facilitate development of each team member’s potential.
For the team coach, the ability to integrate the cultural dimension into their coaching style means that they will be able to help their clients unleash more human potential and achieve more meaningful objectives. As the client becomes more aware of cultural differences, the latter can be used constructively to provide for learning, growth and more effective interpersonal communications and relationships.
To be able to do this, coach practitioners need to question their own views of the world, and develop an acute awareness of the complex processes – social, cultural, economic and personal – that make up who and what they are.
Inclusion versus exclusion
The lexicon of this broad field appears to have changed in recent times, with the word “diversity” being replaced with the term “inclusion”. Organisations can no longer ignore the fact that diversity management has become a critical factor in maintaining marketplace competitiveness and managing talent. The concept of inclusion means removing barriers that prevent employees from using their full range of skills and competences at work. According to Roberson (2006: 213), inclusion is defined as “the extent to which individuals can access information and resources, are involved in work groups, and have the ability to influence decision-making processes”. For some organisations a focus on inclusion has resulted in the development of programmes and initiatives that include employee participation, communication strategies, and community relations (Roberson, 2006).
According to Coultas, Bedwell, Burke and Salas (2011), the two trends which have emerged to improve the performance of middle- and top-level leaders are executive coaching and the cultural diversification of the workplace. Two key questions arise: how do organisational cultural values affect the coaching of these executives and their teams, and what is the cultural adaptability of the coach to the individual coachee, to the team and to the organisation? The literature to date does not reflect these two questions.
Adapting to multicultural diversity
It is therefore a major challenge for organisations and institutions today to manage an increasingly diverse workforce. Individuals must learn to adapt to multicultural diversity, and hence to differences in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, education and language – in addition to a fast-paced, continually changing corporate environment. They must also confront power issues within the hierarchical nature of organisational systems, as well as major economic and life transitions in the workplace.
It has become critically important for business coaches to understand the impact of diversity on team performance, co-operation and conflict, particularly as organisations work in team-based, highly competitive environments. Today, many organisations are opting for team coaching as a more effective way to improve team capability and performance, while at the same time saving on costs. A key question is how diversity within groups can be developed as a “productive asset rather than becoming a source of conflict and prejudice” (Christian, Porter and Moffitt, 2006: 459).
One of the clear functions of the team coach is to understand the culture, values and relationship systems within the workplace, and to know what the accepted standards of diverse cultural influences are. In developing their own integrative approaches to team coaching, coaches should consider their own experience and training, and choose theoretical models that will suit a wide range of clients.
The importance of coaches understanding diversity and culture, especially for team coaching, cannot be overemphasised. The challenges and opportunities presented by diversity will only increase as the pace of social change and interaction speeds up. Above all, the coach needs to constantly work on their own assumptions and cultural understanding – a lifelong process of learning and empathy.
Christian, J., L.W. Porter, and Moffitt, G. (2006). Workplace diversity and group relations: An overview. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 9(4):459–466.
Coultas, C.W., Bedwell, W.L., Burke, C.S., and Salas, E. (2011). Values-sensitive coaching: The DELTA approach to coaching culturally diverse executives. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63:149–161.
Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., and Isaacs, M. (1989). Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care: Volume I. Washington, DC: CASSP Technical Assistance Center, Georgetown University.
Earley, P.C., and Mosakowski, E. (2004). Cultural intelligence. Harvard Business Review, 82(10):1–9.
Egan, M.L., and Bendick, M. (2008). Combining multicultural management and diversity into one course on cultural competence. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 7(3):387–393.
Kahn, M.S. (2014). Coaching on the Axis: Working with complexity in business and executive coaching. International Edition. London: Karnac.
Roberson, Q.M. (2006). Disentangling the meanings of diversity and inclusion in organisations. Group and Organisation Management, 31(2):212–236.
NB: This article is an abstract from the author’s new book: “Transformational Coaching to Lead Culturally Diverse Teams” (London: Routledge 2019).