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Herb Stevenson
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The Impact of Culture on Coaching

Herb Stevenson, CEO

As I expanded my executive development practice into cross-cultural and global arenas, I found that unless the larger organization, in particular, the organization’s culture(s) are incorporated into the coaching process, the chances of long term success are diminished. More specifically, my experience is that a clear awareness of cross-cultural dynamics are critical in highly diversified organizations. U.S. organizations, typically, consider cross-cultural as race and gender with a growing awareness of sexual orientation. However, the average organization within U.S. borders is likely to have key employees with mixed cultural underpinnings. In other words, they might be born in the U.S., but they were raised in a blended home of African, Americas (beyond the U.S.), Arab, Asian, Australian, European, or Islands throughout the world. The impact of these cultural underpinnings are critical.


The definition of culture has many veins spread throughout the world. It could be group/family norms, espoused values, rules of the game, shared meanings, formal rituals and celebrations. Regardless of how you describe it, culture is embedded in the thinking and therefore meaning making of the individual and the organization. Interestingly, this thinking and meaning making has an implicit belief that how “I” think or make meaning is the correct way to do so. Moreover, “I” rarely will explicitly reveal the assumptions implicit to my cultural underpinnings. Hence, the individuals can clash without understanding why.

An Example

One of my clients involved massive frustration in the system. The individual in question was viewed as short-tempered and inappropriate in how he responded to supervisors, peers, and direct reports. A 360 was provided as proof.

If I had taken the 360 as gospel or proof of incompetence, it would not have taken long to turn down the contract. Instead, I asked to meet with all of those that had provided feedback in the 360. My intent was to unravel the ratings and more important to understand the inconsistencies in the direct feedback provided at the end of the report. Looking for what was not revealed in the 360 report, I observed the following:

Senior Supervisor: White male, proud to be Southern Baptist, Post Graduate Education
Immediate Supervisor: Upper Class Puerto Rican, Post Graduate Education
Client: Working Class Puerto Rican, Rose through the ranks
Direct Reports: White male, Working Class American,
Post Graduate Education

Black Female, Working class American,
Post Graduate Education

Black Female, Working class American,
Post Graduate Education

As I interviewed each of the team, individually and in groups, it became clear that a series of cultural underpinnings were clashing within the group. In brief, the following was determined:

The Client was raised with the core concept that emotional expressiveness is simply good communications. Being passionate in all of its forms indicates engagement with the other person.

The Senior and Immediate Supervisor as well as the White Male direct report viewed emotional expressiveness as out of control and an act of bad behavior. The immediate supervisor had coached the client to leave the room whenever he was becoming emotional within the conversation. The White Male direct report felt that when the emotions were flaring, it was a dangerous situation.

The two black females felt disrespected. Just when the conversations were getting to the real issues with emotions flaring on all sides, the client would leave the room and return calmed and stoic.

The client felt he was being torn apart as no matter what he did, it was deemed wrong or inappropriate.

The Intervention

The coaching intervention became how to bring these cultural assumptions to the forefront to at least create awareness of them and possibly to create a new dynamic between everyone. The first meeting was with the client and the two supervisors to reveal the core cultural assumptions each of them had. The second meeting was with the direct reports and the client. The third meeting was with the entire team.

The initial reaction by the supervisors was expected. Cultural issues are often viewed as irrelevant or nonexistent. It is literally like a fish does not understand water until taken from it. In this situation, I asked for a suspension of moral judgement and simply asked if there were ever any times that passionate conversations might be useful in the organization. I did not wait for an answer and noted I wanted them to ponder the question.

The meeting with the direct reports was revealing. When the two black females noted that they preferred to go “toe-to-toe” with their supervisor, the while male was visibly surprised. This opened the conversation to a new understanding of how external cultural influences were not revealed and yet were playing havoc on the system. The two black females wanted passionate engagement and to iron out all emotions. The white male was uncomfortable with passionate emotions and preferred the client to “tone-down” the conversations. In a matter of five minutes, the system created a new understanding and an agreed upon system of communicating that satisfied everyone. Moreover, the client was relieved.

The next step was to bring the entire system into play. As the direct reports explained their feedback on the 360 and what had been discovered in their meeting, the supervisors were stunned and curious. I reminded them of the question I had left with them: are there any times or situations where passionate emotions would be acceptable in this organization?

Both supervisors noted that it had not occurred to them that anger or other aggressive emotional expressions would be deemed appropriate in any situation. However, having heard from the direct reports, it was clear that different levels in the organization might have different cultural norms for engaging.

Seven years later, the senior supervisors have retired, the client is well entrenched in the organization as an ambidextrous leader that can culturally shape shift throughout the organization, having learned to negotiate how the supervisor, peers, and direct reports prefer to engage him. He is comfortable in who he is and yet understands that engagement means more than face-to-face communications. It means understanding the underlying cultural influences that might undermine effective leadership, follower-ship, and communications.

A Look Deeper into the Organization.

The above example is more common than most organizations like to acknowledge. As coaches, it is imperative to apply a cross-cultural lens to any situation. This urgency is more apparent now than ever. Cultural influences, in the form of regressive behavior, surfaces most frequently when there is high degrees of stress in the system. The many metaphors comparing the present business environment to “permanent white waters” and “chaos is the new norm” suggests that little time is being applied to coaching being anything more than a behavioral adjustment. As coaches, I encourage looking beyond the obvious to what is implicit or embedded in the system in the form of unspoken cultural differences.

Global Considerations

Another example of the cultural impact on coaching comes from global clients. Herein, the issue can become a little more difficult as the organization will have people spread all over the world. For example, I was at a workshop where several U.S. Citizens were working in Brazil for a Japanese organization. In another case, I was working for a global U. S. Corporation where the employees were American, British, Indian, Irish, Pakistani, Filipino, German and more. Understanding all of the cultural differences would have been more a quagmire than the client was willing to wade into. Instead, we focused on the core issue of conflict resolution.

As a coach, the point of contact for coaching is to find the issue that can make the most (and hopefully) permanent change. In this case, conflict was a common interest for everyone.

Intercultural Conflict Style1

The Intercultural Conflict Style (ICS) Inventory is an assessment and training tool for identifying core approaches for resolving conflict across cultural and ethnic differences. The ICS assesses conflict in accordance with cross cultural styles by measuring the degree of direct versus indirect approach and emotional restraint versus emotional expressiveness during times of conflict.

The benefit of the assessment tool was that it refocused the teams energy from blame and shame for inappropriate behavior surrounding conflict to what are the different styles within each culture. Suddenly, the team had a model to realize that everyone was behaving in accordance with their homeland culture. More importantly, they began to realize that no one was attempting to disrespect anyone. At issue was not having an adequate foundation for cultural differences in handling conflictual situations. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Intercultural Conflict Style Parameters

Contact Style

Emotional Expressiveness

Direct Conflict Style Patterns
  • Meaning “inside” the verbal message
  • Precise, explicit language use
  • Reliance on face-to-face resolution of disagreements
  • Speaking your mind
  • Verbally assert difference of opinion
  • Persuasion through reasoned argument
  • Substantive disagreement focus
Emotional Expressiveness
  • Overt display of emotions
  • Control emotions by “externalizing”
  • Visible display of feelings through nonverbal behavior
  • Expansive vocalization
  • Sensitive to constraints on expressing own feelings
  • Relational trust through emotional commitment
  • Emotional information necessary for credibility
Indirect Conflict Style Patterns
  • Meaning “outside” the verbal message
  • Ambiguity and vagueness in language use
  • Reliance on third parties for resolution of disagreements
  • Discretion in voicing goals
  • “Talk around” disagreements
  • Persuasion through face work
  • Relationship repair focus
Emotional Restraint
  • Disguises display of emotions
  • Control emotions by “internalizing”
  • Minimal display of feelings through nonverbal behavior
  • Constrained vocalizations
  • Sensitive to hurting feelings of other party
  • Relational trust through emotional maturity
  • Emotional suppression necessary for credibility

Once the team looked at the descriptions, each was to think about a recent conflict with someone from another nationality and review how that country tends to handle conflict. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. Geographical Application of ICS

Direct & Emotional Restraint =
Discussion---Talk at
Indirect & Emotional Restraint =
Accommodation---Talk About
  • USA & Canada
  • Eurocentric: Great Britain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany
  • Asia Pacific: Australia & New Zealand
  • Native American
  • Latin America: Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru
  • Asia: China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, & Malaysia
Direct & Emotional Expressive =
Engagement---Talk with
Indirect & Emotional Expressive =
Dynamic---Talk Around
  • African American
  • Euro: France, Greece, Italy, Spain
  • Central/Latin America: Cuba, Puerto Rico
  • Asia: Russia
  • Middle East: Israel
  • Arab, Mid East: Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon
  • Asia: Pakistan

The impact was an immediate release of tension between the team members. What had been considered bad behavior and disrespect, was named framed as differences in nationality. From this point the coaching focused on individual and team use of the information in very specific situations.


Culture permeates every organization especially in a world where each organization is a bounty of nationalities. It is no longer possible to hire Americans without getting the entire cultural heritage of the individuals. If embraced, we build a global organization maximizing it human capital. If not, we find ourselves as coaches feeling like we are in an Abbott & Costello comedy of “who’s on first”.

Next Issue

In the next issue, we will delve deeper into the impact of the organization’s culture on coaching. We will utilize Edgar Schein’s model that indicates that all organizations have three cultures: (1) the Engineering culture, (2) the CEO/Executive culture, and (3) the Operator’s culture. These organizational cultures create more misses than successes when the underlying assumptions held as gospel within each culture is not acknowledged and correlated to find true alignment.


1Hammer Consulting, LLC | P.O. Box 1388 | Ocean Pines, MD 21811, 443-664-5352 | US Fax 866-708-8831 | International Fax 443-926-0146,

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