Cross-cultural action learning
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)
1/10/2021 09:32:27 am
As ever, an interesting blog Nick and I very much appreciate your sensitivity to cultural norms. So many problems in our globalised world can be traced to ignorance and hubris by those who possess the power to impose their will on others. Does Action Learning itself fall into this trap, no matter how open and sensitive its proponents might be to the norms and values of other cultures? Could another culture's way of sharing knowledge and wisdom be more effective?
1/10/2021 10:15:57 am
Hi Richard - and thank you for your encouraging feedback. I guess similar questions to those you pose apply to related fields like coaching and counselling too (see, for instance: https://www.nick-wright.com/blog/spotlight - which opened up an interesting online conversation).
1/10/2021 11:27:04 am
Indeed Nick. And it plays to my point about who has the power in the room. Co-production across cultures has to be about compromise and willingness to try new things - on all sides. In your example, the tutor's lack of cultural curiosity was indeed unhelpful and says more about their unwillingness to share power, I think. And of course, time is a constraint that means we often don't have the luxury or leisure to explore before we have to dive in.
4/10/2021 12:23:16 pm
Hi Richard. Yes, the power issue is very important - and very complex..!
9/10/2021 12:52:58 pm
This is really interesting, so thank you for initiating this conversation. I started pressing for action learning through coaching techniques when moving from Japanese classrooms to Arabic ones twenty five years ago - what a sea-change of experience that was!
11/10/2021 09:22:20 am
Thank you, Laurence. Would you be willing to share something more of your experiences of moving from "Japanese classrooms to Arabic ones" - including what you did the same or differently to make the transition? I'd love to hear more - not least to minimise the risk replicating the mistakes of those "western educators who role roughshod over local cultures and sweet minded, non-judgemental young students"!
4/10/2021 06:00:51 pm
5/10/2021 11:17:09 am
Thank you, Alex. I liked your summary of the purpose of these kinds of conversations - it has an appreciative inquiry quality to it. I will be very interested to look further into Narrative Practice. It sounds intriguing, especially in cultures and communities where sharing of stories is an important and valuable part of learning together. I'll have a look at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide - and thank you for providing that reference and link!
5/10/2021 11:18:33 am
As someone who has facilitated action learning sets cross-culturally within leadership development programs during my time with Oxfam, and most recently in groups with several levels of hierarchy in a feminist leadership program in Nepal, many of these insights really resonated for me. Is there a fuller write-up of this initiative Nick? Great work!
5/10/2021 11:24:36 am
Thank you, John - and wow - I would love to hear more about your experiences with Oxfam and in Nepal! Have you written up anything anywhere? In relation to the piece of work I was reflecting on here, you may find this short piece interesting? https://www.nick-wright.com/learning-in-action.html
5/10/2021 11:25:40 am
This sounds like a fascinating + rich project - love this focus on relationship building and connection even across cultures and timezones. like the experimenting with writing down the questions and how did you do this over zoom - chat box? I can imagine the group mix and setting and revisiting ground rules would be essential pieces too.
5/10/2021 11:31:53 am
Thanks Katy. Yes, it was an amazing and inspiring learning experience. Yes, we sometimes used the chat box on Zoom to pose questions, where this felt more appropriate than in spoken form in open forum. I agree: in cross-cultural groups the issue of clear and explicit contracting is absolutely critical - yet can also be challenging to navigate if time is very limited and participants carry different underlying cultural assumptions, e.g. use similar language but mean different things by it. That makes an on-going spirit of curiosity and inquiry incredibly valuable, and the humility to revisit and revise on route if needed!
Dr. Janice Tan
6/10/2021 11:51:59 am
So true Nick..about having the need to have 'preamble' in collectivist cultures.
6/10/2021 11:57:41 am
Thank you, Janice. I am still learning too..! I remember a linguistics tutor once commenting on how, in the UK, we use preamble as part of a cultural ritual, e.g. on meeting someone, 'How are you?' 'Fine thanks.' It's often more about establishing rapport than a literal query or response to the state of a person's wellbeing. There are some similarities in this short reflective piece that I wrote with a Chinese colleague: https://www.nick-wright.com/point.html. I'd be interested to hear how far it resonates with some of your cross-cultural experiences too?
Dr. Janice Tan
11/10/2021 09:16:55 am
Your article reminds me of one of my experiences. In the 90s, I was working for global western orgs., and this was a familiar scene as there were hardly any cross cultural awareness. With globalization in the 21st century, global orgs are very much aware of cultural diffrences and have conducted cross cultural trainings for their exceutives on global assignments. Thus birthing the need for 'local' cross-cultural coaches to support expatriates from different cultures send to this part of the world.
11/10/2021 09:26:16 am
Thank you, Janice. Yes, over time I have noticed some books appearing on cross-cultural coaching in the UK...although still sometimes based on fundamental Western cultural assumptions vis a vis e.g. individual autonomy in goal-setting, decision-making etc. If you can recommend any resources you have found useful in this area, I'd be very grateful!
17/10/2021 09:42:30 am
1/11/2021 09:50:10 am
Hi Nick. I do agree with all you say. As you know culture is even more complex, an Action Learning group could have different cultures from the same country being represented on them. And I guess you can add to this the fact that there will be the different personalities, experiences and backgrounds of group members.
1/11/2021 09:54:22 am
Thank you, Steve - and yes indeed. There is a risk that we may cluster everyone together from the same country, without necessarily acknowledging or exploring profound cultural differences within the same country. Added to that, any group is dynamically-complex, in that things can shift markedly depending on how participants are on the day, how they are feeling, what is happening in their lives and work outside of the group etc. This calls for great openness, awareness and sensitivity from the facilitator, as well as wider participants within the group.
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