High Power Distance in Coaching Relationships – Six Ways to Establish your Authority

When you are an intercultural coach you have certainly come across an issue with having clients from cultures where high power distance is the cultural norm. Assuming you are coming from a culture with lower power distance such as Switzerland and your client used to live in the Middle East most of her life, it could be that expectations and understanding of coaching are entirely opposite.

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Since the Swiss tend to value modesty and often understate their credentials you could be perceived as either lacking depth, experience or academic stringency. Your client might also expect you as the expert to be rather directive and with the cultural assumptions behind how to get a job in the Middle East expect you to establish the necessary connections and introductions for them. The client might expect you to serve them their new career step, international assignment or local job on a silver plate.
As we know in the current market situation in Switzerland and with the immigration restrictions imposed by the popular initiative of 2014 it has become rather difficult for foreign professionals to find a highly qualified job in Switzerland – unless they speak German in German-speaking Switzerland, French in the French-speaking part or Italian in the Italian part. Southern Europeans from Spain and Italy even struggle. So let alone a professional from the Middle East.
The clients I usually work with all have at least studied to Master level, often have a PhD and most of them have a resume with five to 10 years of relevant work experiences working in Pharma, Consulting or Banking. When their partners are hired into Switzerland by large pharmaceutical companies they are often led to believe that it will be a wonderful life in Switzerland and yes, most of it is true. We frequently seem to make false promises though when it comes to spouse employment. We mention that unemployment in Switzerland is below 4% and has been this low for years. What we often fail to mention though is that expat spouses, local hires and other skilled migrants are not accounted for in these statistics. We fail to manage spouse expectations in the hiring process of the partner and then you as the intercultural coach have to deal with it.
I would argue that my colleagues and I have become better at dealing with this frustration in our coaching sessions but our work is often a fight against windmills. What I have taken away from the last three years as an intercultural career advisor is that I do not connect my client’s success with my own success. In coaching we believe that the client has all the resources to tackle her or his goals. Our success is connected to them being successful and reaching their targets but we cannot make us dependent on the job market.

1) Set the right goals for your success

If I made my success dependent on the client reaching his or her coaching goals I would most certainly be depressed by now. I set five goals for each programs:
a) To give the client the best service in helping him or her achieve goals,
b) To help the client develop realistic expectations of how to find a job in Switzerland,
c) To help the client feel ready for the job market in Switzerland,
d) To make the client feel more settled from a cultural perspective.
e) To activate the client if they get stuck in culture shock or frustration.
With these goals, I am often happy to see that the clients leave each session with a feeling of strength and being in control of their fate.

2) Be aware of how you build trust

In coaching we believe in a trustworthy and eye-to-eye relationship. It could happen that you build trust in a different way than your client from another culture and again it could be that you underestimate the power distance. When you are pushing the client along you might face resistance. When you let the client decide when the right time is to get into action they might procrastinate for too long. I think you need to balance it out. You also need to be very clear about when you are advising and when you are coaching. Still, I often leave my clients a choice if they want to implement my advice. Often for example clients do not feel like networking. It seems too hard and too much time for them to find a job. In my experience, it has been the most effective way to find a job or consulting work here. So, when my client does not want to start with a good networking strategy I let them decide. I will come back to the topic later but I will not push too hard. This could weaken your effect in a relationship with high power distance expectation.

3) Find good rituals to begin and end the coaching cycle

Getting a good coaching agreement in the beginning and having a debriefing session with room for feedback are critical to the success of the program in my experience. In the first session, you can position yourself as an expert while focussing on the client’s needs. You can also tell the story of other clients who went through the program and how they benefitted from it.Explain how in your culture a job is found and what is considered good and bad etiquette in the job search process. In the final session you need to debrief the program and also show where expectations might have cultural roots.

4) Maintain your structure but accommodate your client’s needs

For productivity reasons I try to keep a strict weekly or biweekly meeting structure. While this sometimes is even hard for myself, I see that it helps when you work with more than ten coaching clients per week and run other projects and volunteer work on the side. Often clients not only underestimate the challenge of finding a job here but also the challenge of finding reliable childcare, cleaning staff and learning German. There are good reasons why I accommodate their needs as well. I treat my clients like I expected to be treated from service providers when I moved here. I was often disappointed as they do not seem to understand the idea of going an extra mile for the client. To speak with Will Smith “I go 90, you go 10.” Most of the time when I have started a coaching relationship with being nice, accommodating and giving more for free, I earned trust. When I am strict and business-like clients start to negotiate.

5) Start the relationship with the most respectful form of addressing the client

The hardest clients for me are Germans. That is because I am German and because in Germany we would never start a business relationship on a first name basis. Germany has changed since I left seven years ago and Social Media has accepted “Du” as a normal way of addressing each other. I still find “Du” wrong when I speak to persons of authority such as professors who are 20 years older than me. So I stick to the “Sie” for the start. With Americans it is also interesting. I had a French client who had been to the US for around 10 years and kept calling me by my last name even though I had used his first name in English. I admit I underestimated the US-style having lived in the UK and Australia were I felt it was usually ok amongst adults to use first names. It get’s more confusing when my clients are from Pakistan or India where I would call them by their last name such as Ali or Rajat assuming that it is their first name. And then hardly any country is so obsessed with calling people by their names as Switzerland where you are only true friends once you call each other by a nickname.

 

6) Invite the partner and kids along to meet and greet

Sometimes I do invite the whole family to say hello. It helps me to get a better understanding of the framework and especially in male-dominated cultures it might be helpful to meet the husband when I coach the wife. At the same time, I tell the client politely that they need to ask their partner to stay out of the coaching relationship and back off while the partner is looking for work here. The main reason is that the partner usually got a job here without looking for it. They did not have to go through the hassle of cover letters, testimonials, interviews and networking. They were made an offer based on their previous performance. So their situation is not comparable. Also, they are often in an environment that they already know. Even if they worked for a competitor earlier their job adjustment is happening faster.
These are six ways to deal with high power distance in intercultural career coaching relationships. Let me know how your experience is.
PS: If you are struggling to understand the concept of “High Power Distance” you can review the work of Geert Hofstede or review the seven intercultural dimensions by Fons Trompenaars.


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