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Coaching across the East-West bridge with Cultural EQ

One of the most common themes that I’ve encountered for over a decade when partnering with clients here in East Asia is what I have now come to identify as a vertical learning mindset. As intangible as it is, it has very real results in communication and is essential for both coaches and leaders coming from other cultures to recognize and work with this intercultural perspective.

What is a vertical mindset and where does it come from?

For over a thousand years, the 科举 (kē-jǔ) or imperial examination system assessed scholars on their knowledge of Confucian classics and was regarded as a major method of selecting and promoting the talented and virtuous to be officials.

Many East Asian societies - including Taiwan, where I live - are influenced by the Confucian tradition, which has a value system emphasizing social roles, effort-making, self-cultivation, and academic achievements.

Within this system, if one improves or cultivates one’s own self through continuous learning and practice, one will be regarded as a virtuous person.

These cultural values influence people’s attitudes and behaviors associated with learning, indicating that the conception of “learning” (xué-xí) in Chinese is virtue-oriented. A “good” student is one who has the qualities of diligence, earnestness, sincerity, perseverance, steadfastness, and endurance of hardship in learning.

These characteristics are all synonymous with “effort” and can be referred to as “learning virtues.” Students place emphasis on vertical learning goals - to study hard and to excel in academic performance.

What impact does this have on intercultural communication?

The international language of business is currently English. As it’s an academic subject, the same mindset is applied - that studying and being good at English is therefore fulfilling one’s role obligations based on high social expectations. Because it is so important to achieve vertical goals, one cannot afford to allow uncontrollable factors—such as innate ability, luck, or task difficulty—to be the determining ones. People in East Asia are therefore likely to emphasize effort as the key.

However, as it’s a vertical learning goal, this effort is heavily influenced by this fear of failure and perceived high social expectations.

This, in turn, is often an underlying cause for wanting to communicate like a native speaker and therefore often feeling shy or having a lack of confidence because one doesn’t (as this indicates a lack of effort, which means you’re not a good student).

How does this play out in multinational teams?

When multinational teams bring together people from East Asian societies with those who were raised in a Western education system, this embedded difference in identity and communication plays out in a myriad of ways.

For those that grew up in more individualistic cultures, using language as a way to express oneself is a common way to highlight one’s individuality whereas,

in East Asian cultures, it is to express harmony, sincerity, and diligence through a vertical learning mindset.

This will often play out in meetings and discussions with the teammates from East Asia doing much more listening and generally finding it challenging to actively participate in an unscripted, spontaneous way.

Redefining success

If you are the leader of such a team, how can you help your team members to communicate across this invisible bridge? First, be very aware of the communication challenges. Then, clearly set out standards for what effort, success, and even contribution means to you and the team.

Due to the fact that even the meaning of communicating in English is so vastly different across cultures, if you can explicitly indicate, for example, that contributing in a meeting is more important than delivering a perfect message, you’ll go a long way in helping your teammates from East Asia to redefine culturally ingrained notions of success and failure and look at what effort means in a new light. Simultaneously, you’ll want to encourage the rest of the team to slow down, give more time for reflection and make sure to include everyone in the discussion.

On coaching from West-East

Many leaders today also take on the role of coaches within their organizations. Regardless of whether you’re a professional coach or take on coaching within your leadership role, do bear in mind that this deeply engrained notion of fulfilling one’s role obligations based on highly social expectations through effort and achievement will affect your client or team member’s communication style as well as self-perception.

What’s your Cultural EQ?

There is a lot to be learned from these values (I myself have benefited greatly on a personal level from incorporating them to a certain degree) and the key point here is not to judge or compare, but rather to increase awareness and flexibility, thereby allowing greater space for the development of Cultural EQ - the intersection of Cultural & Emotional Intelligence - on both individual and group levels.

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