GET THE EDGE
Coaching Across Cultures
by Francia Baez
The US workforce is recognized as a 'melting pot' of the foreign-born. For example, 38 million Latinos, with a projected buying power of $1 trillion by 2007, are expected to represent 25% of the US population by 2050. The term 'global citizen' alludes to similar cultural experiences in other countries.
With such a cultural mix, work-related coaching becomes complex. Whether coaching internally as a manager, or externally as a professional business coach, cultural awareness is critical. Without stereotyping (since factors such as background, level of education and experiences affect coaching outcomes), cultural similarities and differences must be kept in mind. Coaching is more effective when adjusting to the cultural background of the coachee. This article will address cultural issues to be considered when coaching Latinos.
Cultural Differences in Coaching a Latino
1. Collectivism and Relationships
Some cultures seek successful work relationships, without engaging beyond the professional level. Latinos, in contrast, establish close and harmonious relationships with workmates and expect managers/coaches to create an environment that encourages openness and approachability.
Latinos are generally taught to hold age, hierarchy and knowledge in high regard, and they adopt a somewhat submissive role and seek a directive relationship. This 'power distance' can make it difficult for Latinos to confront or push back for fear of jeopardizing the relationship. The coach should be aware of this cultural value and help their clients to find ways to resolve situations without affecting the relationshipsubtly empowering the Latino to act strongly and independently.
Most cultures separate work from family. In contrast, a Latino places family at the center of their professional lives, and a person with a family is deemed a respectful person. Thus, a Latino may appreciate conversation about their own and the manager's/coach's family in the professional context. A Latino may need to discuss potential work decisions with the family. Likewise, Latinos exhibit a strong sense of accountability for work relationships, treating them as extended familial relationships.
In many cultures, religion is excluded from the workplace. However, Latinos' work behaviors are guided by religious principles. Those principles are carried into professional conversations and decision-making. For example, Latinos may refer to God's judgment of their integrity, kindness, ethics, and respect for others. Since they see all of their roles interrelated, they may welcome a holistic coaching/management approach.
4. Time Orientation
The business world is conscious of time as a limited and valuable asset, so most actions are targeted towards dynamism, focus and effectiveness. Latinos tend to have a relaxed view of time and ascribe importance to small talk. It may be difficult to get right to the professional coaching conversation without 'warming up,' and thus the 'clearing stage' of coaching becomes critical. Once they open up, however, they can disclose too much, or lose track of schedules. It is important for the coach to indicate at the start of the session the time allotted, so that the client's sense of respect and power distance takes priority in honoring the schedule. The manager/coach must always remain in control of the session.
Professional conversations are basically factual, short and to the point. However, feelings play a major role in Latino communication. The coach should be sensitive when a directive style is required, so the client does not feel diminished. Latinos may describe a situation from the perspective of an observer in order to avoid confrontation and preserve relationships, and they may need to display empathy before disclosing information that the listener may find disagreeable.
While demonstrating respect by agreeing with a suggestion from the coach/manager, they may have no intention of following it. Probe to identify this type of complicity, and follow up to ensure that the client acts in accordance with the agreement. Once the coaching relationship is established, there may be more self-disclosure than mainstream US culture is accustomed to, since Latinos are less sensitive to privacy issues.
6. Body Language and Distance
Since the level of comfort with physical distance is culturally driven, a Latino may inadvertently decrease interpersonal space to the point of causing discomfort in someone of a different cultural background. Latino culture is a contact culture. As a sign of sincerity, touching, eye contact and facial expressions may be relatively intense and prolonged. Managers/coaches must be alert and responsive to these signs, and take them into account in maintaining control and managing the session.
7. Gender Issues
Few professional roles in the US are gender-driven. However, familially and socially, Latino men are typically raised to be dominant, paternalistic providers and protectors, while Latinas are taught to exhibit 'Marianismo'a culturally-learned nurturing behavior expressed by playing a supporting role. These gender-based roles affect the professional persona. The manager/coach can address the difficulties female professionals experience when their social and work behaviors intertwine. Such social behaviors (e.g., excessive support of an employee, lax supervision, indefinite or non-directive language) result from the gender roles Latinas were 'taught' to play.
8. Problem Solving
Life is a problem-solving challenge, which requires dealing with conflict. Latinos often avoid confrontation, and move through necessary disagreements with a sense of guilt. They may have problems expressing a conflicting opinion. They may try to protect relationships by being indirect. Although some may demonstrate authority by adopting an aggressive style, this approach is viewed negatively. Latinos tend to have a high sense of responsibility, and are collaborative in problem solving, but they are conservative in terms of risk taking and are uncomfortable with transactional fact-based approaches. These behaviors may be misinterpreted in the business world, and this is an area that coaching can address.
Managers and professional business coaches are responsible for helping individuals to clarify their thoughts, understand issues, see how others view them, and find their own best solutions. While the coach or manager holds the flashlight, the walk through the dark tunnel must be completed by the coachee.
The coaching journey must be conducted with the cultural background of the coachee in mind. Managers and coaches should be open, curious, and respectful, acknowledging and valuing diversity, and developing the communications skills necessary to render their work relevant and effective.
Francia Baez, Vice President of Human Resources for a multinational organization in Latin America, has more than 20 years of experience in the corporate arena. Francia is a Certified Business Coach and a Registered Corporate Coach. She and Dr. Nilda Chong are the co-authors of Latino Culture: A Dynamic Force in the Changing American Workplace (Intercultural Press, 2005). Francia can be reached by email at email@example.com.