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As a Guest Contributor this week on the AIIR Executive Coaching Blog, Doctoral Candidate Ruth Chau discusses the unique cultural dimensions relevant to executive coaching in China today.

As a Doctoral Candidate with an international background, I often get asked about my interest in coaching in China. This interest is usually met with understanding at first, followed by doubt. In fact, the favorite follow-up question tends to be: “Is executive coaching in China effective?” Individual coaches and consulting firms alike are aware of the amazing opportunities that China’s expanding market presents. At the same time, however, they remain skeptical regarding China’s reception of what has primarily been a Western practice.

In the face of such skepticism, I typically turn to a quick review of China’s recent history to make my point. Under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, China opened its door to the rest of the world around the 1980’s. Since then, China has demonstrated its interest in Western, more capitalistic influences. Special Economic Regions were set up, the tax system was reformed, and ongoing communication began to occur at the cabinet level between the US and China. In September 2010, the first Asia Pacific Coaching Conference took place in Singapore. Twenty percent of the attendees were from China and Hong Kong; and the majority of the demand for coaching in China came from international firms operating in the Chinese market, demonstrating the fact that coaching as a practice is beginning to take root in China.

This is not to say that we should expect China to welcome coaching as the Western world knows it with open arms. As Frank Bresser points out in Coaching Across the Globe, coaching in China cannot be “fully copied from the West, as Chinese Culture is very rich, abundant and already with some ideas of coaching embedded” (Bresser, 2013). While proposing a unique coaching theory is beyond the scope of this post, for those interested in exploring coaching in China, Geert Hofstede provides one of the most comprehensive and well-researched cultural frameworks. In particular, Hofstede’s six national culture dimensions provides an easy way to look at the difference between China and the US (Hofstede, 2015).

Comparison between China and the US Along Hofstede’s National Culture Dimensions

Comparsion btn China and the US

* The score reflects the extent to which the culture prizes a particular value.

Based on the chart above, the following three dimensions show the greatest discrepancy between the US and China: Power Distance, Individualism, and Long-Term Orientation.

Power Distance is “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally” (Hofstede, 2015).

What it means for coaching:

    • The Western expectation of the coach and coachee is for them to be equally active participants. To a Chinese coachee though, this kind of equality can be seen as challenging the authority of the coach. Therefore, a thorough and detailed explanation should be provided to help the coachee understand why he or she may be asked to step beyond the typical subservient role.

Individualism is “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members” (Hofstede, 2015).

What it means for coaching:

    • Hostility against out-groups is possible. As a result, a foreign coach or company should enter the Chinese coaching arena with an eye on establishing a common identity and to make sure this common identity is as visible as possible. Alliance with local firms is preferable.
    • Relationship is one of the most powerful currencies in China. If a company or a client is ambivalent to the idea of coaching, leverage extant relationships to do the convincing for you.

Long Term Orientation refers to “how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future” (Hofstede, 2015).

What it means for coaching:

    • China’s high “Long Term Orientation” score indicates a pragmatic approach in which changes and shifts are encouraged toward the end of preparing for the future. This can be a very good thing for those who wish to expand the practice of coaching in China. You can build a strong case in front of a Chinese client by presenting solid data detailing the ROI coaching can offer the individual coachee and the company.

Within this context, executive coaching in China can be very challenging. However, it can also be very rewarding for those with the right tools and perspective. Understanding the vastly different cultural landscape can guide you in finding and engaging coaching clients in China, as well as help you navigate around the obstacles you may face.

Ruth Chau is an expert on intercultural coaching. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at Widener University. To learn more about Hofstede’s six dimensions of national culture, visit The Hofstede Centre website here.