How far can action learning (a form of small-group peer coaching) be useful in fast-paced and complex humanitarian contexts, in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, DRC, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Somalia and Syria? What would it take to make coaching and action learning effective in these different cultural environments? These were questions I was invited to explore and test with ALNAP and ALA’s Ruth Cook during the past 18 months.
The idea was to train field-based practitioners in action learning techniques, then to mentor them as they adapted and applied them in disaster zones. Our goal was to learn from this experience too. Travel restrictions meant that workshops were all conducted online, which created its own challenges vis a vis patchy internet connectivity and access to training resources via cell phones, yet we-they persevered and the experience proved fruitful.
I was particularly interested in cross-cultural dimensions and dynamics in these training groups.
Workers in humanitarian crises face intense time pressures and it could have been tempting to short-cut personal introductions and press ahead with the task. In some cultures, investing in relationship and trust-building is integral to the task and, therefore, inseparable from it. We chose, therefore, to create opportunities, where possible, for participants to get to know and understand us and each other from the outset.
In Western models of action learning, emphasis is often placed on posing coaching-type questions that are short, sharp and direct. If, however, we don't pay attention to relevant cultural norms including relational preamble (e.g. ‘I am pleased to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to ask this question…’) such questions can be experienced as blunt, harsh or rude. It's important, therefore, to allow for different cultural framings and expressions.
We were aware that, in contexts such as the UK and USA, action learning tends to assume an egalitarian culture within a group, within which participants are and feel free to invite and pose challenging questions to one-another. In some cultures, however, where perceived authority and social status are based on e.g. age, gender or tribe as much as on formal hierarchy, careful composition of and contracting in groups are critical success factors.
In some cultures, to pose a question directly to an authority figure could be perceived as insubordinate, disrespectful or even insolent. Authority figures may be expected by others always to have the ‘right’ answers and to pose a question in a group risks shaming that person, a loss of face, if they are unable to answer it. One way to avoid this issue is to invite participants to write down questions and hand them to the person first, who can then chose which to respond to.
In some cultures, it would feel inappropriate for a participant to decide unilaterally on an action at the end of an action learning cycle without having first run the idea past their line-manager for approval. This may partly be indicative of where decision-making authority is held in that hierarchy. It can also signal deference to or respect for an authority figure. One way to address this would be for a participant to report back on agreed actions at a subsequent meeting.
When using a peer-consultancy version of action learning, in which participants are invited to offer suggestions for consideration as well as questions, particular challenges can arise. In some cultures, participants may feel compelled to accept the first suggestion that is offered, or to agree to whatever is suggested by a perceived authority figure. Again, writing down questions to offer a presenter can help to address this.
When using an appreciative version of action learning, in which participants help a person to identify what personal and contextual factors contributed to the success of an initiative, there can be challenges too. In some cultures, it can turn into a praise-party, with participants wanting to affirm the presenter rather than to tease out success factors. One way to address this is to allow space for praise first, then to move onto the more structured process.
In other cultures, a presenter may feel uncomfortable to comment on what they did well personally in case it sounds immodest. Two possible ways to address this are to invite the presenter to comment on what other people may have noticed about his or her contribution, thereby attributing the qualities to a third-party perspective rather than their own, or to depersonalise it as ‘This happened’ rather than ‘I did this.’
I am deeply indebted to all of the participants in this initiative who contributed so richly to our learning and ideas. What have been your experiences of coaching, training or action learning in different cultural environments? What have you learned - and what would you recommend to others?
'The good news is you have 200 people working for you. The bad news is they don't see it that way.' (Euan Semple)
I love how humour can transform, creating fresh perspective by shedding novel light on people, issues and situations in ways that plain comment or description just can’t. It can be a great technique for reframing, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa too. I worked with a colleague, Benjamin, who enjoyed using phases playfully. If something went wrong or didn’t work out as we had hoped, or if someone was sounding unduly pessimistic, he would simply grin disarmingly and say something like, ‘Ah well, every silver lining has a cloud.’ Humour can inject energy, diffuse tension, bring people together, make life and work more fun. Smiles and laughter are good for health and well-being too.
I worked with Richard, an occupational psychologist and HR leader who had a passion for developing talent and enhancing people’s commitment, capacity and contribution. He could have presented his case for change using formal statistics, spreadsheets and information. Instead he would start with an open, provocative smile, ‘There are people who left this organisation years ago...but still turn up for work every day.’ It had a very different qualitative feel to sarcasm, cynicism or bland statement of fact. It was a powerful use of irony to highlight an issue, evoke curiosity, challenge the status quo and invite a response. I could almost hear every person in the room thinking, ‘I wonder if that could be me?’
For humour to work, it needs to have some resonance with what the audience already knows, perceives and experiences as real and true. I think back to the first time I read Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Principle (1996). I sat on my bed and literally cried laughing. It was for me, as for many others, a refreshingly new approach to shining a critical spotlight on the quirky, crazy and self-defeating politics of office life. This, however, signals that humour is culturally and contextually-relative. Have a glance, for instance, at satirical Despair.com. Are its posters funniest for those who have seen their earnest equivalents first? What have been your best experiences of humour at work? Who or what made them so effective?
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‘Britons’ top three favourite accents are Irish, Welsh and Geordie. The least favourite are Brummie, Scouse and Cockney. People with a Yorkshire and Welsh twang sound the happiest followed by Scouse. The Southeast sound the most intelligent and Glaswegians sound the angriest.’ (Howarth, Dec 2017)
Isn’t it interesting that accents carry such connotations and evoke such feelings? I arrived some years ago at London School of Theology in the South of England as a new student. It was a daunting experience: that first-day-at-school feeling. At the first evening meal, I heard another student speak with a Northern accent and instantly connected with him. We became great friends. It was as if our common accent gave us a deep point of contact – a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby) in an alien environment.
Accents, like other cultural distinctives, create and sustain a sense of unique identity and belonging. They distinguish 'us' from 'them', creating a socio-psychological boundary, an existential and emotional safety barrier, a metaphorical extended family, in the midst of a larger and potentially overwhelming complexity. I remember moving to a new area to engage in community development work. I had to learn the local accent convincingly in order to be accepted by local people. Accent influenced trust.
Accents can serve as a useful metaphor for cultural issues in organisations too. Here are some useful questions for leaders, OD practitioners and coaches: What functions as a secure base for people in this team/organisation? What brings hope and fulfilment here - or provokes anxiety or resistance if threatened? Where, when and how have helpful boundaries in this organisation become unhelpful barriers? Where may I need to learn a new ‘accent’ in order to build credibility and relationship?
Coaching has become increasingly well-defined over recent years, particularly owing to great efforts by e.g. the International Coach Federation and European Mentoring & Coaching Council to clarify, advocate and promote core professional standards and ethics. I believe that, on the whole, this has been a useful development. It adds credibility to the field and, in principle, focus, parameters and accountability for those who study, train and practice within it.
There are challenges too, not least the process and cost of credentialing to be recognised by the professional bodies. This can be prohibitive for practitioners who don’t have access to the time or financial resources to do this in spite of having, potentially, extensive knowledge, skill and experience in the coaching arena. The risk here is that increasing professionalism leads to increasing exclusivity, dictated more by economic circumstances than passion or expertise.
There are wider and deeper questions. Coaching is without doubt a powerful field of research and practice that can make a very significant impact. Its focus on reaching goals and solutions can enable people to live and work with greater focus, better ideas and higher levels of commitment. I have felt and witnessed it so many times that I am beyond need for convincing. Yet, as I read and speak with fellow coaches, it often feels like something important is missing.
How far are our coaching assumptions, models and approaches (e.g. vis a vis personal efficacy and choice) appropriate to non-Western cultures - yet applied uncritically? How well do we enable clients to grow in insight and resourcefulness as reflective practitioners – beyond reaching goals or solving issues? How willing are we to raise and challenge systemic implications of client choices – e.g. for families, teams, organisations and wider cultural groups?
Am I alone? What do you think?
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