Cultural Bridges

Cultural Bridges: Effective coaching programmes for East Asian Leaders

By Jane Darvill-Evans & Lesley Hayman

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Increasing numbers of East Asian leaders are benefiting from coaching with rapid growth of the coaching industry in countries across the region. Our recent research shows that coaching models developed in the West can be effective for East Asian leaders, often leading to transformational learning insights. However, cultural factors and limited familiarity with coaching can sometimes make it difficult for East Asian leaders to engage quickly with their coach, or act as a barrier to them benefiting fully. Coaches, HR leaders, and line managers can help remove these barriers through adapting the way they structure and deliver coaching programmes.

In 2021 we interviewed five East Asian and two Western coaches and reflected on our own experience of coaching East Asian leaders to explore how we were working differently with East Asian leaders compared with Western leaders. We found that we were creating bridges that help East Asian leaders relate to and understand coaching approaches which were developed in the West. In addition, we found that coaching was providing an opportunity for development that is often missing in the workplace and can therefore be even more highly valued by coachees.

We realised that these findings could be of interest to HR Managers when thinking about introducing coaching programmes in East Asia, as well as in structuring coaching programmes to realise potential benefits.

We identified the following areas for consideration.

1: Prepare leaders for the coaching experience

Coaching is often a new experience for East Asian coachees, and they may not be familiar with the assumptions that underpin coaching. Our findings showed that East Asian coachees are often unsure how to answer coaches’ questions. Coaches explained that many coachees were not familiar with coaching and were not sure what to expect, asking, “Am I saying the right thing? “Is this the right answer?” They can find it difficult to answer open questions. Others feared they had been sent to coaching because they had done something wrong. Three specific areas emerged as challenging for coachees.

  • Experimenting with new behaviours. East Asian coachees are often reluctant to experiment in the workplace. Reasons include fear of failure, reluctance to show vulnerability and emotions, and a concern about disturbing established relationships. There is also a tendency towards perfectionism.

  • Working at the emotional level. East Asian coachees were less willing to express their emotions and can find it difficult to respond to the question, “how do you feel about that?” However, the coaching process provided a safe, and often a unique, space for coachees to open up.

  • Receiving feedback. Giving and receiving regular feedback to employees is not as common as within Western cultures. There is a risk that the coachee may not respond well to receiving feedback from their coach if they are not expecting it, and the relationship with their coach is not yet strong.

Considerations for HR Leaders

Coaches felt it was helpful for HR to communicate with coachees before the programme starts so that they have a better understanding of what coaching is, why they have been selected and how to prepare.

  • Allow more time for coaches to contract with East Asian leaders and explain how coaching works. It may also be helpful to let coachees know in advance that they will be asked open questions and that there is no right answer, perhaps providing some examples so that they are prepared for these open questions before the coaching starts. Mayumi Nomura, a Japanese coach, provides prompts to East Asian coachees when asking open questions, for example, “What kind of leader do you want to be? For example, do you want to be the kind of leader who inspires their staff?”

  • Prepare leaders for the need to experiment and the concept of growth mindset, and how this is linked to the expectations of the organisation for their development. Asking line mangers to reinforce this expectation and building it into the coaching contract can also help to motivate coachees to experiment. Ask coaches how they intend to encourage and support leaders with the idea of experimenting in the workplace and make them feel safe to do so. For example, Sally Dellow, a British coach working in Hong Kong, works with leaders on how to signpost to colleagues that they are going to try to do something different, and that they may not get it right.

  • Let leaders know that they may be invited to share their emotions or to receive feedback in the coaching conversation and reassure them that coaching is a confidential space. It may also be helpful to ask coaches how they create an open trusting coaching alliance where coachees feel safe to talk about their emotions. Mayumi talked about slowing the pace of coaching when working with Japanese coachees, speaking less, and leaving longer pauses, to encourage East Asian coachees to talk about their emotions.

  • Accept that the rate of progress may not be as rapid as with Western clients. Sabrina Park, a Korean coach, talked about setting realistic expectations with her coachees. If they set an ambitious target, she challenges them, saying, “Start with 1,000 steps, not 10,000.” Even if the coachee has taken only one action she says, “I really value this one try.” HR can reinforce these expectations to lessen coachees’ anxiety.

2: Match leaders with coaches who can establish an equal partnership

East Asian cultures tend to be more hierarchical than Western cultures. As a consequence, coachees can view coaches as superior to them – a teacher to learn from – and frequently ask their coaches for advice. This can limit the coachee’s ability to take responsibility for their learning and coaches might need to emphasise the value of an equal partnership, a cornerstone of good coaching practice.

Considerations for HR Leaders

When selecting a coach, enquire into how they build equal relationships with their coachees. Our findings show that coaches who overly flex their style to meet what they perceive to be the cultural norm of the country to act as a teacher rather than a coach will be less effective. Coaches we spoke with resisted giving advice in general, and when they did, asked permission from their coachees. Sabrina Park responds to requests for advice by saying, “Why do you want your coach’s advice? If you have my advice what would be different?” Humour can also be useful as a levelling technique. Sally Dellow responds to requests for advice with humour, for example saying, “You’re asking me for advice on that? Me, who has no corporate experience?”

In addition, it is usually important to select a coach is as old or older than the coachee and has the experience and qualifications to command respect from their coachee.

Some of the East Asian coaches and coachees we spoke with told us that using English for coaching can sometimes help establish a more equal relationship between coach and coachee. This is because English is often used less hierarchically and formally than East Asian languages and the coachee can feel freer to express their views and their emotions. Therefore, if the coachee is comfortable speaking English, consider matching them with a coach who can also speak English.

3: Allow time and space for relationship building between coach and coachee

In high context cultures within East Asia shared reference points are assumed and much is implied. The most important skill in coaching East Asian leaders appears to be picking up subtle verbal and non-verbal signals.

All the coaches we spoke with identified relationship building as even more important than with Western leaders. Some reported that the shift to online coaching sessions following the Pandemic has made it more difficult to build relationships, making it vital to structure coaching programmes in a way that helps build the relationship.

Considerations for HR Leaders

East Asian leaders may benefit from more frequent sessions at the beginning of the coaching programme, for example, every two weeks rather than monthly. It can also be helpful to build in informal email contact between coach and coachee between sessions to help accelerate the relationship building process. Where possible consider face-to-face meetings, one or two at the beginning of the contract would have most impact. Setting ambitious development expectations for what coaching can achieve can be unhelpful as it can create pressure on the coachee which is not conducive to learning.

In summary:

The coaching experience for East Asian leaders is often vastly different from their experience in their professional and family lives where personal expression, feedback and reflection time can be limited. Coaching provides a fresh and challenging environment for East Asian leaders, conducive to transformational learning. Coaches we spoke with felt it was powerful to encourage their East Asian coachees to experiment, talk about their emotions, and give and receive feedback – all areas which were not common within their respective cultures, and which gave coachees the opportunity to understand aspects of themselves they had not thought about before.

The developmental value of coaching for East Asian leaders can be huge. HR leaders and others involved in commissioning coaching can realise this value through preparing both coachees and coaches to build an effective coaching alliance.

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