Research Paper By Marouschka Buyten
(Organisational Development Coach, RWANDA)
How does the national culture of a coachee influence coachability?
A nation’s culture is in the hearts and the souls of its people. Mahatma Ghandi
Coaching is a process in which a coach and a coachee (or a group of coachees) are involved. Many aspects can and will influence the success of the relationship and the results. One of those aspects is the culture the coachee comes from.
Coaching is defined by the ICF as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.1 This definition indicates several aspects that are crucial for the coaching relationship to be successful. The first is that there has to be a partnership between the coach and the coachee. The second is that the coaching process has to be thought-provoking and creative. And the third is that the coaching is aimed at maximizing the coach’s potential. It’s not just the coach who is responsible for the success of this, the coachee has a responsibility as well.
For a successful coaching relationship, the coachee needs to be coachable. To be coachable means:
- Intentional in and outside of coaching sessions
- Aware of the need to develop and strengthen new competencies
- Willing to step out of his/her comfort zone and try something different
- Willing to be vulnerable and transparent
How coachable a coachee is, obviously depends on their personality and the point they are at in their life. It might also depend on the culture of the society they come from, as not all societies deal with coaching in the same way and the way people behave and even think, depends a lot on the culture they come from: “Every single human being within the world is a product of numerous cultural influences. Culture has significantly impacted the many different ways we think, feel, and behave. We are who we are today because of our cultures, and it is impossible to exist outside of them.”3
Aspects of cultures
In his research on the influence of cultures on organizational functioning and management, Geert Hofstede defines culture as
the collective mental programming of the human mind which distinguishes one group of people from another. This programming influences patterns of thinking which are reflected in the meaning people attach to various aspects of life and which become crystallised in the institutions of a society.
He started around 1970 with 4 dimensions that can differentiate different cultures. Through ongoing research, that has now been extended to six dimensions, which are measured over 78 countries. These dimensions can have relevance for coaching. The six dimensions are:
- Power distance index
- Individualism versus collectivism
- Masculinity versus femininity
- Uncertainty avoidance index
- Long term orientation versus short term orientation
- Indulgence versus restraint
1. Power Distance Index (PDI)
The power distance index does not measure the amount of inequality in a society (like for instance the GINI-inxdex6 does), but measures how people perceive and handle the existing inequality. “This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.”
The power distance index thus influences how a coachee perceives the coaching relationship. If the coachee comes from a society in which the power distance in large, they will be less inclined to change or challenge the distribution of power in their relationships. A coaching relationship is based on partnership and equality, so this needs to be established very carefully before the start of the coaching. Especially when a coach is selected because of perceived knowledge and previous experience, there is a risk that the coach at the onset will be seen as the person with power, the one to decide, to say how things should go, instead of the coachee. While this is a risk at the start of any coaching relationship, the long-term consequences are less in a society where the power distance is lower, as it will be easier to challenge the perception of power and to develop the relationship towards more equality in the process.
2. Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV)
The aspect of individualism versus collectivism tells something about the relationships and responsibilities of people in a society. In an individualistic society, people have a preference for loose relationships with many people and have a responsibility for themselves and their immediate family only. Collectivist societies prefer close and long-lasting relationships, where people are expected to take care of large families or groups and can expect that to be returned. “A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of ‘I’ or ‘we’.”
Coaching is, by definition, individualistic, aimed at the self- development of the person, maximizing the individual’s potential. However, that does not mean that coaching can’t work in a collectivist society. If the aim of the coaching is defined in a way that is in the interest of the collective, the society, it might support the coaching. A real problem may arise for the coachee when there is a conflict between the individual and collective interests. A coach will need to be sensitive to the culture to ensure (s)he asks the right questions to help the coachee deal with this kind of conflict.
3. Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS)
Masculinity and femininity are not the same as male and female, but they are related to the way societies traditionally expect men and women to behave. However, how societies expect people to behave, varies from culture to culture. A masculine society values achievement, assertiveness, earning lots of money, and ‘being tough’. These will be the measures for success, both for men and for women. A feminine society values caring for each other, modesty, quality of life, cooperation, and consensus, traits that are traditionally associated with women.
This aspect has a great influence on the coachability aspect of the willingness to be vulnerable and transparent. To be vulnerable is much more difficult in a culture of toughness, where it’s difficult to admit failure because you have to achieve.
4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
“The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.”10 This dimension is about how a society deals with the fundamental fact that we don’t know what the future will bring. Will people do everything they can to control the future? That means they will not be open to trying new ideas, but instead reinforce existing beliefs, they will have strict rules about acceptable behavior. Societies that are more tolerant of uncertainty will be more open to the new, trying things, will want to find practical solutions to problems even if that means breaking the rules.
To be coachable means that a coachee needs to have a willingness to try new things and to step out of the comfort zone, as coaching will lead to change and possibly a lot of uncertainty. When a coachee comes from a culture with a high uncertainty avoidance index, it will be more difficult for them to accept changes and the uncertainty that comes with coaching, so it might take them a long time to implement changes or accept the fact they want or need to change.
5. Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation (LTO)
This dimension is about the relationship a society maintains with the past and the future. There is a short term normative orientation when there is a preference for stability, to maintain existing traditions. A long term orientation means that societies are willing to change to prepare for the future or even encourage it through their education systems.
Coaching is future-centered, and only looks back in the past when it’s needed to go forward. Existing norms and traditions are valued as part of the background of the coachee but will be challenged where needed. In its preference for development and preparing for the future, coaching relates to a long term orientation in which change is essential.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint (IND)
“Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it using strict social norms.”
When a person comes from a society that values indulgence, the easy gratification of needs and wishes, being intentional inside and outside of the coaching sessions, working hard to get to the change they want/need, will be much harder. This influences the coachability and the results of the coaching.
The coachability of any coachee is influenced by the culture (s)he comes from, and a coach who is aware of the dimensions of the specific culture can help the coachee to decide how to deal with the positive and negative aspects of that culture. However, it is important to remember that every single person is unique and has unique possibilities. Differences between people in one society might well be much bigger than the differences between societies. Coaching always has to start and end with the individual, but knowing cultural influences will make the path in between much easier.
2 Adapted from:https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/04/26/are-youcoachable/#25c9480c7a03
9 I experienced this in Rwanda, where everything people did was framed as “I want to contribute to the development of my country”, whether they wanted to get a good education, to earn money, or perform art or anything else.