Coaching Corner - Coaching across cultures

Coaching takes another leap forward as it steps up to the multicultural challenge

The evolution of coaching as an acknowledged and respected leadership tool has not been without its hurdles.

Cynics and sceptics have questioned its effectiveness, and even many of those who accepted its veracity were initially unconvinced about its relevance at the highest level. It has therefore taken decades for it to become established as an essential element in the development of high-performing leaders and entrepreneurs.

Despite the opposition, the dedicated pioneers and followers of coaching have refined its practices and applications and, today, no top-rated sportsperson, politician or business leader would be without their coaches.

Expansion of coaching programmes brings new challenges

Nevertheless, the acceptance of coaching is still far from universal, especially in environments where the cultural norms are seemingly at odds with the fundamental principles of coaching. So the team at the Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change, led by its Director, Dr Patricia Bossons, has been addressing the issue head-on.

‘We’ve been running successful coaching programmes in lots of different countries and regions, including South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Scandinavia, Europe and the Middle East, and there are always cultural differences that mean we have to adapt the programmes. We recently ran a programme in South Africa with delegates from the white, Indian, Zulu, Afrikaner and Tutsi communities, each with their own characteristics and customs.

‘But the main challenges we face stem from two principal differences: hierarchical structures and the religious beliefs that underpin the local social structure. And we are always very respectful of, and sensitive to, the prevailing culture.

‘For example, in many cultures, age is equated with seniority, authority and wisdom, and this is revered. In others, gender roles are different. So the Western model of coaching, in which a young coach can work with an older coachee or a woman can coach a man, as equals, needs to be modified.

‘In Singapore, for example, there is a very strong heritage of problem solving, resulting from a strong educational emphasis on subjects such as engineering. Coaches in these areas sometimes struggle to move away from their consulting-type approach and adapt their mindsets to a different way of coaching. We see similar challenges in organisations where knowledge is highly valued, but where life skills and people-management capabilities are not as well developed,’ explains Patricia.

This final point is echoed by Henley’s Associate Professor of Coaching, Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh, ‘In some organisations, knowledge is seen as the absolute power, and the mentoring process by which that knowledge is passed on, only serves to reinforce the insularity. But if organisations see the benefits of creativity, motivation and independence, and want to encourage these, they have to adapt. Academic institutions could be an example of this. Wisdom and knowledge are highly valued, and in some cases, the holders of that knowledge do not believe that they require coaching.’

Christian is also keen to convey the importance of avoiding national or religious stereotypes, citing the cultural differences that can exist within organisations in the same country. With a co-author based in Kuwait, he is currently working on an innovative new book focusing on the use of coaching within Islamic cultures. The book will integrate the principles of coaching with the traditions and culture of Islam.

‘Underpinning the challenges faced by hierarchical structures is one fundamental barrier – that of fear. The fear of saying the wrong things, or of being unintentionally insulting or inappropriate, is a significant barrier to open conversation. If there is a culture of fear or blame within an organisation, coaching will rarely succeed. In these cases, it may be helpful to explore what cultural change is required before coaching is introduced.’

‘Coaching is based on free will, and the principle that you can determine your own destiny. This can be somewhat at odds with some organisational cultures and traditions, but it’s a challenge that we are determined to overcome, through dialogue and collaboration.’

As the Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change moves into its twelfth year, the team continues to work tirelessly to find new ways to move coaching forward and bring its proven benefits to all those who can embrace it, in whatever form.

Contact Image

Contact Us

If you have any questions, please contact our programme advisors, Hannah, Ruhi & Diana by email at or by phone on +44 (0)1491 418767.