Skills of a multicultural mentor

Studies by two professors at French business schools[1] identify seven characteristics of a multicultural manager:

  1. Sensitivity to one’s own and other cultures
  2. Cultural awareness and curiosity
  3. Cultural empathy
  4. Multilingual skills
  5. Contextual understanding and sensitivity
  6. Semantic awareness
  7. Ability to switch among cultural frames of reference and communication modes

Their observations and analysis provide a valuable foundation for selecting and developing mentors for cross-cultural learning alliances. In selection, it is logical that relationships are likely to have higher rapport and greater intensity of learning, if mentors are able to recognise and value the cultural perspectives that mentees bring to the mentoring conversation, to empathise with different ways of interpreting events and to recognise when linguistic differences may lead to divergent interpretations of meaning.

The qualities identified in the French study can be described as multicultural intelligence. This is valuable in any organisation that encompasses a variety of cultures. Even where the language is the same – for example, US and UK English – lack of cross-cultural awareness can be a barrier to effective operations. I have been involved in a number of instances of communication failure, where US and UK nationals have taken radically different and, in some cases, opposite meanings from the same words or phrases. (For example, “put an issue on the table”, which may mean deal with an issue now or park it, according to your cultural upbringing!)

The problem is that only a small proportion of coaches and mentors within companies typically have high levels of multicultural intelligence. Even amongst people, who have spent considerable periods as expatriates, multicultural intelligence can be relatively low – especially in multinationals, where expatriates live in relative isolation from their host cultures.

Some of the general steps, which organisations can take to support coaches and mentors in developing multicultural intelligence, include:

  • Basic cultural awareness training – certainly not a complete solution, but a useful starting point! At the minimum, this should include an understanding of cultural dimensions, differences in body language and cultural values. (The work of Philippe Rosinski on coaching across cultures is a valuable resource for coaches and mentors.)
  • Using managers, who have high multicultural intelligence to coach and mentor peers
  • Reading anthropological literature about specific cultures and one’s own culture – for example, the book Watching the English, by Kate Fox, raises awareness how perspectives and behaviours that are considered normally by English natives, can be confusing to people from other cultures
  • Encouraging coaches and mentors to develop at least conversational competence in languages, other than their own. Bilingual and trilingual people frequently think differently in each language, because each evokes different patterns of association.

Within the coaching or mentoring relationship, coaches and mentors can be proactive in developing their own multicultural intelligence. Based on the seven characteristics from the French study, they can, for example:

  • Take opportunities to explore and appreciate the culture of the coachee/ mentee and how it differs from their own. For example, they can explore issues such as:
    • What is a typical day in their traditional environment?
    • What values do they hold most dearly and why?
    • What are the most vivid stories they tell to their children? (Myths and parables are invaluable for understanding concepts of relationships, social exchange, duty and so on.)
    • What does the coachee/ mentee find strange about the culture of the coach/mentor?
  • Cultivate cultural curiosity. If one looks for them, there are multiple opportunities to learn about other cultures at work and in other environments, such as on holiday. At work, people tend to sit for lunch with people from their own culture – that’s a habit that can easily be broken with forethought. On holiday, we tend to have very shallow interactions with locals, but taking an interest in their culture is almost always rewarded with a warm response. Ask the coachee/ mentee to recommend a few books, which have been translated from their language into yours and read them with an eye to what you can learn about that culture.
  • Practice cultural empathy. This requires moving beyond intellectual curiosity to engaging with and appreciating the richness of the other culture. Asking oneself the question: “If I had grown up in that culture, how would I be looking at this issue?”
  • Use the coaching mentoring conversations as an opportunity to learn some basics of the other person’s language. This is not just about being able to say please and thank you, when visiting their part of the world. Conducting the session entirely in the coach’s or mentor’s language is a subtle indicator of power in the relationship. Learning some of the other person’s language helps to counterbalance this and emphasises the two-way learning nature of the relationship.
  • Create opportunities to view issues through the lens of the coachee’s or mentee’s culture. Whenever they seem to be making less progress than they should, the coach/mentor should consider the possibility that there is a culturally-based barrier. This is a time to dig deeply into how they make sense of the situation, what real or imagined constraints they perceive, and what values they perceive to be strengthened or undermined by the options available to them.
  • Seize opportunities to discuss the subtleties of language – how the meaning of words or phrases changes slightly in translation. For example, there may be one word for something in English, but two or three, with subtly different meanings, in the other language – and vice versa. These discussions can provide some of the most valuable opportunities to identify different patterns of thinking. Similarly, it is helpful to develop sensitivity to the meaning of metaphors in different languages and cultures. For example, in much of Europe, the owl is the symbol of wisdom and intelligence, being closely associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. In Hindu mythology, the owl is associated with (among other things) transition, because it accompanies the soul of the departed into the next world. In North American Indian mythology, it is a malevolent harbinger of doom.
  • Develop the habit of thinking about how people from a different culture would approach issues. Use your coachee/ mentee to help you develop this ability. Ask them: “How would people in your culture typically go about this?” Experiment with different speeds of talking. Identify the limitations of typical styles of thinking in your own culture and practice applying alternative modes from other cultures. For example, a manager from a Western culture, used to applying linear, cause and effect logic, might consider an issue instead from a ying and yang perspective, in which opposites can co-exist.

While it is ideal for coaches and mentors to have developed these skills before they enter into a cross-cultural learning alliance, for most the relationship is their opportunity to acquire multicultural intelligence in a relative safe environment, where experimentation is both accepted and a reinforcement for the rapport between them and their coachee/ mentee. The coach/ mentor is therefore strongly recommended to create and share with the coachee/ mentee a personal development plan built around their increasing multicultural intelligence.

[1] Hae-Jung Hong, Rouen and Yves Doz, INSEAD (2013) L’Oreal Masters Multiculturalism, Harvard Business Review, June, pp 114-119

© David Clutterbuck, 2013

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