‘Our reality is narrow, confined, and fleeting. Whatever we think is important right now, in our mundane lives, will no longer be important against a grander sense of time and place.’ (Liu Cixin)
I think you could say we’re a family with an international outlook. My parents travelled extensively around the world and have touched most continents. My older brother lived in Brunei, married a Malaysian woman and has visited almost every country in Asia. My sister lived in Germany, mixes with friends from different countries and travels frequently to Spain to do salsa dancing. My younger brother ran a charity for and in Romania, did a medical mission in remote areas of the Amazon jungle and works in Dubai. I’ve been interested in different languages and cultures from childhood, have worked in 15 countries and have visited, have friends in and have worked with people from a lot more.
I watch almost exclusively international news, pay special attention to South-East Asia and my home is adorned with globes and colourful maps. Much of my life has been preoccupied with the Nazis and how to use my own life to help avoid anything like such horrific atrocities ever happening again. Against this backdrop, my own coach, Sue, posed two interesting challenges recently: ‘What’s it like to spend so much of your life – mentally, emotionally and spiritually – overseas with the poor and vulnerable in far-flung places yet to be, physically, here in the UK?’ and, ‘What’s it like to spend so much of your life – mentally, emotionally and spiritually – in World War 2 yet to be, physically, here and now?’
What great questions. They resonate profoundly, for me, with what it is to be a follower of Jesus – a deep dissonance that arises from being in this world, yet in some mysterious way being not of this world. Existentially, it’s a kind of dislocation that, a bit like for Third Culture Kids (TCK), creates a sense of being a child of everywhere yet, somehow, not a child of anywhere – at least in this lifetime. I often feel more at home when I’m away from home, a paradoxical dynamic that both draws and propels me into different times and places and to seek out God, diversity and change. It means being a traveller, not a settler, and has influenced every facet of my entire life, work and relationships.
‘Diversity doesn’t look like anyone. It looks like everyone.’ (Karen Draper)
An English guy from the UK in Germany… working alongside Mexican and Romanian English teachers to teach English to German students… whilst supporting a Liberian student to learn German… and alongside a German Mathematics teacher to introduce German students to Philippines language and culture... whilst supporting Iranian refugees with coaching. It’s an incredible privilege to be here.
Every day brings new surprises. Today, I chatted with a German teacher… with an Arabic name... who sits quietly in the staff room yet spends her free time doing extreme caving and travelling to different countries around the world. I had another surprise when I shared some videos of Filipino jungle children, dancing, with two groups of German students. They spontaneously leapt up from their seats to join in.
When I asked these students if any could speak another language, I was amazed by the range of their responses: Czech, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian. It reminded me of the power and potential of diversity, where young people see beyond national boundaries, see each other as individuals that transcend different languages and cultures, and are truly open to something, someone, new.
‘One fish asks another fish ‘How is the water?’ The two swim on for a bit and eventually the other fish replies, ‘What is water?’’ (David Foster Wallace)
The more I know, the less I understand. That’s the conclusion I came to after spending 5 years in a Christian faith community in London with 70% Nigerian people, 20% Ghanaian, 8% Mauritian and 2% from the UK. It’s a belief that’s been reinforced by 7 years closely alongside people from the Philippines and other countries in East and South East Asia.
Beyond surface-level cultural traits such as distinctive clothing and food, culture runs very deep, mostly well below the radar of conscious awareness. Like the values and beliefs that underpin it, culture often only becomes known, including to ourselves, when we encounter a person or situation that contradicts or clashes with it. It can take us by surprise.
I’ve made various cross-cultural blunders on route, ranging from an innocent hug in one context to posing questions in a group in another. On reflection, I’ve sometimes been astounded by my own naivety. Yet few opportunities for learning compare with a cross-cultural experience. It may feel like a bumpy ride on route yet the results can be transformational.
[See also: Cross-cultural coaching; Crossing cultures; Cross-cultural action learning]
Diversity: a problem to be solved...or an opportunity to be grasped? What do you think?
'Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.' (Martin Luther King)
DEI, EDI, DIE..acronyms, used interchangeably with a similar meaning. It’s the stuff of diversity, equality/equity and inclusion. If the very sight of those words makes you yawn with boredom or roll your eyes with frustration, DEI experts and advocates need to ask why. To see a glowing example of passion, creativity and inspiration in this arena, have a glance at Shine!
The challenges that EDI sets out to tackle are important, complex and human. They affect very real, vulnerable and disenfranchised people in organisations and the wider world. Most DEI policies and plans I see represent implicitly: (a) a legal rights-based approach; that is, to offer protection against illegal discrimination, and ensure equality of access to opportunities and resources; and (b) a humanistic values-based approach; that is, to treat everyone respectfully as human beings, and appreciate the differences between people. Both offer a critical baseline for healthy conduct and behaviour in liberal-democratic societies.
We could think of these approaches as, essentially, ideologically-based. They flow from a vision of organisations and societies in which, in particular, people and groups that are non-dominant and less-privileged are offered special protection and support so that they, alongside others, can enjoy free and fulfilling lives. They recognise a genuine risk in any group or society that less-powerful people will be and become marginalised by the cultural interests and priorities of the privileged majority. Against this backdrop, EDI initiatives often prioritise, first and foremost, legal and policy requirements as core foundations.
An underlying challenge for these types of ideological approaches is how to gain and sustain traction if others, especially those in powerful positions, don’t share the same vision and values, or a desire to prioritise them. An unintended consequence of effective recent social-political lobbies such as LGBTQ+, BLM and Extinction Rebellion has been to create a silent-silenced group that, for reasons of expediency, presents a convincing, socially-presentable façade, yet with no real substance behind it or commitment to change. Climate activist Greta Thunberg calls this out as the cynical ‘Blah, blah, blah’ phenomenon.
For the DEI venture to exert greater transformational influence and impact, I believe those who promote it need to become better at evaluating and demonstrating the tangible benefits of diversity: especially to the pragmatist-sceptics. It’s not enough to create and enforce laws and policies, important as they are for protection, equality and inclusion. It’s not enough to appeal for kinder, fairer and more tolerant organisations – although, as a follower of Jesus – I see such qualities as having intrinsic value. EDI's core proposition that 'diversity is a good thing' will prove far more persuasive if it can show convincingly why.
I may have something useful to offer here. For many years, I have had the privilege of working internationally with leaders and professionals from diverse cultures and backgrounds. I often use a powerful, small-group, peer-coaching method called ‘Action Learning’. It enables people who face wicked problems to make better decisions, faster. Diversity in such a group is a critical success factor because it enables a person to unpack an issue, stress-test her or his assumptions and create innovative solutions – precisely because peers pose stretching questions from vastly different perspectives and experience-bases.
One organisation I worked with had a strong commitment to DEI. It employed people from a wide range of countries and backgrounds and worked hard to ensure that everyone was treated in the same way. Ironically, its efforts had inadvertently blinded it to the value of difference. It missed completely the significant potential that such diversity can offer when running projects, dealing with challenging issues etc. I invited the leaders to engage in a simple experiment – to create problem-solving and innovation teams based on radical diversity as the key team criterion, irrespective of formal role. The results were truly astonishing.
As EDI progresses, develops and learns, I believe that this kind of testing, evidencing and presenting of practical benefits, alongside issuing or enforcing an ethical call, will prove vital and fruitful. It will be an invaluable area for further research. I work with asylum-seekers and refugees who often feel depressed and frustrated by being characterised as helpless victims, rather than as resourceful contributors who want to show they can make a difference. Legal rights-based and humanitarian values-based approaches to DEI are a critical bedrock. A benefits-outcomes approach could ensure an additional life-giving dimension.
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 relate back to the group at a subsequent meeting on what actions have been agreed.
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?
(See also Nick's: Cross-Cultural Action Learning webinar, December 2021)
‘The mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled.’ (Plutarch)
Curiosity killed the cat. True? The allegations were never proved. As far as I’m concerned, curiosity is innocent and the accusations were fake news. My 5 year old daughter asks me, ‘Dad, why is it cold downstairs but hot upstairs?’ ‘Because warm air rises’ I reply, gesturing a floating-upwards movement with my hands. ‘But why does it rise?’ Now that’s curiosity. Posing a question beyond the question; being not-satisfied to accept things at face value.
Curiosity is a pre-requisite for learning, discovery and change. It’s a psychological state and a metaphysical stance. It means I am open; willing to engage actively in a spirit of invitation and inquiry. It means I am seeking; I want to know and, as such, I’m excited by fresh insights, ideas or challenges to what I think I already know and understand. As such, it’s a healthy and courageous antidote to the fight-flight-freeze response of defensive anxiety.
What does curiosity entail in practice? How can we do it? 1. Suspend our already-knowing; hold it lightly, as-if possibility. 2. Expose ourselves to new and diverse people, cultures and experiences. 3. Listen and hear, especially for useful dissonance with our own assumptions and beliefs. 4. Be courageous in seeking critique and in responding graciously, with humility. 5. Inspire colleagues and clients to practise it too.
Can I help you develop greater curiosity in your work? Get in touch!
‘Who or what features in your holiday photos?’ (Richard Marshall)
I find the question intriguing. Richard is a psychologist who has lived and worked in different parts of the world. He observed that some people notice, focus on and value that which is the same as their ‘normal’; others that which is different. I’m definitely a difference person. I like and get a buzz from diversity – not in its politically-correct sense – simply from different-ness. Since earliest childhood, I have felt drawn to people, things, places and ways of seeing and doing things that are radically different to the norm, my norm. It has shaped profoundly my life, career, relationships and choices.
At school, I looked out for kids who were from different countries and spoke different languages. Unsurprisingly my own best subjects at school were languages too. Later, as my friends settled down in life, I hitch-hiked around Europe, loved the different cultures, currencies – and lamented when the Euro brought boring…sameness. I dreamed of marrying an exotic girl. I spent much of my adult life working in international NGOs, fascinated by so many new environments, cultures and people. I have studied and worked in 4 different professional fields: community work, TEFL, coaching and OD.
So, here’s the thing: how often have you heard the maxim, ‘People don’t like change’ or, ‘People are resistant to change’? A large swathe of change management literature is devoted to the theme. Yet is it really true? People may well resist change that is and feels imposed on them – in which case the resistance may be a response to a lack of choice, a loss of control, rather than to a change per se. As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, how well do we notice and capitalise on the insight and energy of those who instinctively prefer creativity and innovation, difference and change? What do you do?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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