Tim Bright is a man who knows what cultural differences in the work context can generate. Originally from UK today he is partner in OneWorld Consulting, a company based in Istanbul, Turkey that provides tailored solutions to organisations as they work with executives at all stages of the talent lifecycle. In April Tim presented at the EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council) 25th Annual International Mentoring, Coaching and Supervision Conference in Dublin, Ireland talking about "Coaching with Cultural Differences". A talk based on his observations and experience having lived and worked in different countries and having spent most of his life away from his hometown. What do we mean when we talk about cultural differences? We had the pleasure of posing this question to him in order to get more insight into this and related themes. 

You gave a very interesting presentation about cultural differences, here, at the conference. You lived in many countries. Can you tell us which ones? Yes, I’ve lived in the UK, in Germany, in Turkey, in Hong Kong, in China and in the U.S. I worked a lot in Israel and I’ve worked on the ground in twenty different countries. How does it feel to move from one country to another and to work in different realities?  It’s hard to make generalizations and any generalization I could give wouldn’t be true. So I focus more on “Why am I moving?, Which country am I going to?” and generally I’m positive about meeting new cultures. Interestingly, I experienced the toughest cultural challenges when I moved to New York. As a British person, everything there was familiar: I recognized every single place, as I’ve seen them, for example, on TV or in the movies. Curiously what happened to me in US was for example that in a meeting with my team we agreed on what to work on but a couple of weeks later I actually realized that we were on completely different tracks. That’s because, seeing the US as similar to the UK, I was too comfortable and I wasn’t thinking about cultural differences. When I worked in China, things looked different and I was more aware and careful, so I was double-checking, communicating more carefully. That’s why working in the US was for me more challenging.
How do you think we should talk about cultural differences? I think it’s challenging, because there are two risks. We should talk about individuals, because every one of us is different, but that’s not really helpful. The other risk is the big generalization: the Italians are like this, the Finnish are like that, and so on… This last approach is more useful, but at the same time it is not true. So we need to be careful. What I think is interesting is to differentiate the differences. We need to make generalizations, based on real, quality data, but at the same time we have to remember that these are just tendencies. I think, talking about Coaching and Consultancy, that there are a couple of things we should do: one is to raise people’s awareness that there are very good ways to talk about culture. Power, uncertainty…it’s important that people know these dimensions. Secondly, make people aware of their own culture. Rather than studying other cultures, it’s important to study our own. Because it’s in the awareness of knowing our own culture that we can interact with others more effectively. And giving people a language in which to think and to have dialogue is the most important thing. I can’t teach people much about a specific culture but I can help them to develop a language in which to think and reflect more on what culture is and what kind of behaviors it generates. If we can improve the vocabulary or make the cultural conversation more sophisticated, then I think that people are able to manage cultural challenges and opportunities effectively themselves.

In which ways do cultural differences affect the individuals in terms of team results?  Particularly in higher positions? 

Research shows that diversity very rarely works at an average level. It performs at a low level or a high level. The key is making people aware of diversity: is it a problem to be solved or a benefit? If you push the team to see diversity as a benefit, it will focus on that.   According to research in the Harvard Business Review, diverse teams are more successful and that’s because there are challenges. It’s more difficult and those challenges make people more aware, they push people to think more and so to reach better results. There are lots of cultural dimensions, not just the national one. It could be age, it could be ethnicity or gender. There is even cognitive diversity. 

Can you tell us more about the topic of power-distance you mentioned in your presentation? 

It’s about hierarchy, but it’s not about cultural hierarchy, it’s about acceptance. In Scandinavian countries there’s still hierarchy but there’s a different approach from, for example, the Arabian countries. In Saudi Arabia it’s accepted that power is distributed with lots of distance from one level to another one, whereas this is not accepted in Scandinavian countries. In that context, minimizing the gap is necessary. Uncertainty avoidance is a challenge: it’s about “does uncertainty make us anxious?”. If we feel anxious, we work in order to reduce uncertainty, through rules. In Turkey, there’s a high level of uncertainty avoidance and the Turkish are really good at dealing with crisis. That’s because uncertainty creates anxiety, pushing them to make quick decisions. British managers don’t act so quickly and tend to leave things as they are, hoping to do better next time, and so may not be so effective in a crisis.

How do you approach your clients in Coaching?

Coaching’s about awareness. It’s important to push the clients to create their own culture of thinking. For the first half, I talk to them about their own culture, which gets them frustrated because if they need to move for work, they want to know the most they can about the culture of the country they’re moving to. And I always say: “Firstly, it’s important to know your own culture and see it as a way of thinking, and even making it strange or funny.” If you understand your own background more, you’ll work better with others. And when it’s the time to move to the other culture, focusing on how they deal with uncertainty, or with power or with diversity will come more automatically.  The next step of focusing on the business framework and goals, comes naturally.

What kind of change have you seen through the years in the different countries you have lived in or visited? 

On the surface, things look completely different. Now everyone is using a computer, is working somewhat internationally, so this is a change. Also, in the theme of networking with companies I think we all work internationally now and there’s a greater tendency to move from one country to another.

But cultures are not becoming more similar: cultural differences are still the same. Italians use facebook and Germans use it too, but they use it in very different ways. It takes a generation to make just a little difference in a culture.
Here’s an example: everybody’s watching “Game of Thrones” all around the world, on Netflix. But in every country the most popular medias are still the ones produced locally. So, we know each other better, but we’re still not the same.
I think that intercultural competence is very similar to Coaching competence and it really is a skill that is becoming more and more important. 

(Please find Tim Brights conference paper and presentation here.)

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