In the field of intercultural training, coaching has been an established approach to helping international transplants with their new host culture(s). I say “cultures,” because each individual belongs to a multicultural world, not strictly in the ethno-national sense, but more in terms of various communities one identifies with: local, state/country, ethnicity, gender, industry/field, profession, and education, among others. The implications of such a multiplicity of identities is that successful coaching requires a more holistic approach that takes all of these into account.
In the business world, sometimes the focus of training is on learning a particular skill or skill set. By contrast, coaching concentrates on helping the client set and meet goals in their work environment. Instead of gaining specific knowledge, the client is given tools to help him or her with decision-making and thinking through situations in a critical – as opposed to reactive – manner. So how does this apply to intercultural competence?
Many people associate intercultural training with learning how to assimilate into the culture of the country a person moves to, which includes learning general ideas or stereotypes about the host culture (e.g. Americans are loud and always eat fast food), overarching trends or behaviors (e.g. Americans often work long hours and expect things to be always available on demand, weekend warrior mentality), or social practices (e.g. laws regarding alcohol, many don’t interact with neighbors beyond surface level, personal space, etc.). Or, they view workplace culture as the main focus: how to address colleagues and bosses, how to communicate internally (coworkers, other departments, etc.) or externally (vendors/suppliers, customers), corporate values, appropriate behavior in social situations outside of the office, etc.
What about an engineer from China, who holds a masters degree in mechanical engineering, works in the logistics/supply chain industry, has never been outside of China before, and has only learned English from movies, television and the Internet? How and what would you teach a person like this about life in the U.S. working in an American distribution center or warehouse?
This person comes from a place where instructors/teachers/trainers are supposed to be listened to and followed, and not questioned or given critical feedback. They may not be used to offering up opinions in team or department meetings, and might be wary of discussing personal issues that are affecting their work. This person might possess a wealth of knowledge, but not feel comfortable articulating their own professional goals independent of team or department goals. Ideally, such a person would be taught intercultural competence through a coaching approach, albeit one that is meta-reflexive about the perception of coaching from the perspective of a Chinese national.
In this case, the training approach would help for job-specific skills not already learned prior to moving to the U.S.; however, the main impediments to a successful international assignment would not be addressed, and, ultimately, might lead to a less than desirable outcome. At CORE Languages, we stress the importance not only of utilizing a coaching style for intercultural competence “training,” but also understanding and incorporating difficulties in translating this approach across cultural lines, so that the client and their company achieve a successful outcome.