Positive Psychology Contributions to Culturally Competent Coaching | College of Executive Coaching
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Positive Psychology Contributions to Culturally Competent Coaching

June 16, 2021
By Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., MCC

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One of the most important qualities to possess in our rapidly changing and culturally diverse world is not our IQ, but our "cultural intelligence" — our ability to function effectively in a range of cultural contexts. This includes national, ethnic, generational, and organizational cultures. Research conducted in over thirty countries shows us that people who are high in cultural intelligence are better able to adapt and succeed in the complex life and work situations that characterize our globalized world.

Positive Psychology Contributions to Culturally Competent Coaching

Dr. Carmit Tadmor and colleagues conducted research highlighting how valuing cultural differences leads to enhanced success. They investigated the effects of biculturalism on enhanced creativity and professional success of individuals living abroad. The researchers hypothesized that bicultural individuals, those who identified with both their home and host culture, would have an increased capacity for combining multiple perspectives over those who identified only with their home culture. They completed three studies which showed that biculturalism contributed to professional success, specifically rate of promotion, and that bicultural professionals also assimilated better in the host country.

The pioneering theory of positive psychology is undoubtedly ground-breaking, however the constructs of the field benefit from deeper examination in order to be applied to non-Western cultures. It is important for positive psychology to embrace the different approaches and the diverse nature of cultures' experience of emotion and the general constructs they are built upon.

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Many of the elements studied in positive psychology such as individualism, happiness and positive emotions may not carry the same cultural significance around the world. Much of the framework of positive psychology is embedded in Western ideologies of “the good life”, which may not translate to all other culture's definition of happiness.

For example, he Western value of self-efficacy is one of the core positive psychology constructs. However, self-efficacy is not valued equally in all cultures. In collectivistic cultures, interdependence and a sense of duty are valued over independence. A Western view of obedience could be considered an obstacle preventing someone from reaching their full potential, while comparatively in many East Asian cultures, obedience to their elders exemplifies maturation and high quality moral fiber.

Researchers have asked, is happiness as central to other cultures as it is in the Western world? In collectivistic cultures, it is customary to adhere to social expectations and be dutiful to their elders rather than striving for individual happiness. In the same way that happiness may not be of utmost importance in all cultures, we also know there is not a unanimous interpretation of emotions or of esteemed individual qualities.

Several researchers have explored how Eastern and Western views of happiness are vastly different. Eastern cultures value accordance with social expectations over their individual happiness, whereas Western cultures place greater value in personal achievement and success when it comes to happiness.

While happiness may not be the most important goal for many coaching clients in certain cultures, the following research demonstrates that individuals regardless of their cultural background still benefit in terms of well-being by increasing happiness levels with positive psychology coaching interventions. In research performed by Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui, and Fredickson in 2006, the effect of happiness interventions on two Japanese samples showed increased well-being with the intervention group when compared to the control, after keeping track of kind acts they performed each day. More recently, a study with a Western sample for comparison was conducted that involved subjects performing acts of kindness rather than keeping track of them. Both the U.S. and Korean students reported being happier after completing the acts of kindness when they had the support of their peers.

How to Begin Becoming a More Culturally Competent Coach?

What does it mean to be a culturally competent coach and what specific guidelines are there for coaches who want to become more proficient in this area? Antonelle Dell Fave, MD, Professor of Psychology at the Medical School, Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy, shared ideas with me that led to these coaching questions:

  • How aware are you of your one's own cultural values and beliefs to keep them from intruding into your coaching work?
  • How committed are you when working in a multicultural context to be actively committed to acquire information about the other culture's related beliefs, values and social norms? Due to the broadness of this issue, cross-cultural supervision is highly recommended.
  • How much do you truly acknowledge and respect the cultural diversity of your clients as well as the identification of their related cultural strengths and the beneficial implications of those strengths for the coaching process and the coachee's goals?
  • How would you rate your cultural empathy?

Cultural empathy implies openness to understand the coachees' emotions, their expression pattern, and their relationship with culture-grounded values and beliefs. Coaches are in a unique position to trigger the exploration within their clients of how culturally aware, appreciative and flexible they are in multi-cultural and global situations. Coaches won't be able to do this unless they themselves have developed these cultural competence skills.

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