Coaching cross-cultural teams

Different national and ethnic cultures may even define happiness and success differently


It is becoming more prevalent, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have been unable to travel for business for members of teams to be located around the globe. With remote and hybrid teams representing the future of corporate work, there is an increasing demand for leaders and individual contributors to navigate this new and evolving world of work.

Professionals used to travel internationally to establish rapport and solve problems with their global counterparts. These activities and numerous meetings are now conducted virtually or via email, introducing a significant potential for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and even missed business deals. The opportunity for coaches to make a difference in the success of such teams is ripe.

What is different about cross-cultural coaching?

Cross-cultural teams are work teams made up of employees located in or originally from different countries; thus, their national cultures may be different by varying degrees. It’s one thing to coach team members who speak the same language and are from the same country. It’s another thing to coach team members who speak different native languages, have different cultural references and experiences, and who grew up and live in different countries. In addition to a diversity of values, family structure, decision-making processes, educational systems, and sense of time, these aspects all have an impact on team effectiveness and efficiency. Different national and ethnic cultures may even define happiness and success differently.

Cross-cultural coaching takes all these factors into account with a deliberate intention to understand issues with which teams may be struggling. This conscious intent is also true when coaching teams from one’s cultural background, but it is incredibly complex when a team includes various and sometimes conflicting cultural dimensions and communication styles. Conflict occurs in most teams, but multicultural teams may be more prone to conflict. While leaders may have some tools to address conflict within their teams, cross-cultural coaches can bridge the parties by listening to and understanding multiple cultural perspectives.

In addition to national culture, cross-cultural coaching can encompass regional, corporate, and industry cultures. Even teams within companies can have their own culture.

To what do cross-cultural coaches need to pay attention?

While curiosity and emotional intelligence are essential in all coaching niches, cultural competence is also crucial when coaching cross-cultural teams. Coaches with a keen sense of curiosity about and interest in other cultures will notice nuances and cues that might easily be overlooked. They also have awareness about their own culture and knowledge about different cultures represented in the team they are coaching. They explore social and cultural identity with their coaching clients.

Coaches may need to assess whether a particular coaching model is appropriate and effective with people from cultural backgrounds different from their own. For example, direct questioning may not empower or encourage open responses from team members in countries where the communication style is indirect. Trust is often built at different paces in different national cultures, let alone across different cultures. Coaches must consider this when working with cross-cultural teams.

Coaches should avoid cultural-specific references and idioms that some team members may not know or misunderstand. Word choice must be thoughtful and precise. Active listening is also a crucial part of communication, and coaches can paraphrase to check that they have correctly understood non-native English speakers.

Why is cross-cultural coaching so important now?

The need for coaching and its benefits have been highlighted during the pandemic, and new coaching niches are emerging to address new challenges. Coaching global teams in communicating effectively with members from other countries, resolving potential issues, developing rapport, and working effectively together will become more critical with increased remote and hybrid work.

Communicating across cultures can be fraught with misunderstanding and frustration; it can also be an enriching learning experience from which the employees and companies benefit.

Communication coaching is part of coaching across cultures, especially when many nonverbal cues, which make up at least 70 per cent of communication, are absent in virtual interactions.

Cross-cultural coaching is becoming an essential niche as companies strive to establish cultures of inclusion and belonging in their remote and hybrid work models. Perhaps coaches and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) experts can work together to foster greater awareness and appreciation of the diversity in cross-cultural remote teams. Together they can help leaders create a work culture of inclusion and belonging for teams no matter the countries the employees live in, what languages they speak, and what beliefs they hold. An inclusive culture is especially crucial in remote global teams and will lead to greater job satisfaction, higher retention rates, and better productivity.

Strengthen your team with cross-cultural coaching, ask an ICF credentialed coach to help achieve your goals

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisation leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 50,000-plus members located in more than 145 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organisations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organisations, communities and the world through coaching.

In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi NCR, ICF Hyderabad, ICF Mumbai, and ICF Pune.

A Founder and CEO of Karen Natasha Coaching, Karen brings over 20 years of corporate experience, intuitive insights and cutting-edge business strategies. Karen is an iPEC-trained Professional Coach certified through the International Coaching Federation and is a member of Womenmind an organisation dedicated to driving change for women’s mental health. She also serves on the Board of Directors for TAIBU Community Health Centre, a non-profit that provides health promotion programs for the Black community of the Greater Toronto Area.

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