The main proposition in this paper is that if people are to engage in dialogue in organizations that will result in shared meanings and opportunities for growth, there needs to be a high degree of trust. For trust to develop there has to be a degree of rich dialogue. In other words, the two are mutually dependent.
We know from our experience as coaches that even in relatively homogeneous and stable organizational cultures the levels of trust are often quite low. Toxic organizational politics can often undermine the best of intentions for harmonious relationships between managers, particularly in environments of scarce resources and strong competition. In corporate cultures that have just emerged from hostile or protracted mergers or acquisitions, the levels of trust can be even lower. (Take for example the bad blood evident in the recent takeover of the French multinational steel giant Arcelor by the steel giant Mittal, a company controlled by Indian family interests.)
Coaching across cultures requires that we evaluate (with our clients) the emotional environment within which we and our clients are operating and look for ways of leveraging cultural differences to improve relationships and raise the level of trust. When there are different cultures interacting in the workplace, our task is often to assist the participants to build on the strengths of the various approaches to come up with a third culture that is appropriate to their unique context.
I will refer to the relationship between two concepts that have been useful for me in developing my work in organizational coaching and coaching research in the international environment. The first is creative dialogue in organizations, a concept developed by Lynda Gratton and Sumantra Ghoshal (2002) from the London Business School. The second is authentic trust, discussed by Robert Solomon from the University of Texis and Fernando Flores (2001). Fernando Flores was a cabinet minister with the government of former Chilean president Salvador Allende and is now a consultant and writer in the USA. At one time he worked closely with Julio Olalla, founder of the US coaching group the Newfield Network and a leading writer and speaker on trust and meaning in coaching.
Gratton and Ghoshal (2002) wrote a particularly powerful article on the nature of conversations in organizations. It was based on research over five years in organizations around the world. They established a 2 x 2 matrix of low and high Analytical Rationality on one axis and low and high Emotional Authenticity on the other. The matrix is on the following page.
They suggest that much of the talk that goes on in organizations lies in the low analytical rationality and low emotional authenticity – what they describe as dehydrated talk. This kind of conversation is a ping-pong exchange of views looking for a win where the parties involved do not really expect to develop any new insights, nor did they expect to collaboratively arrive at any new conclusions (p. 211).
At the other extreme is creative dialogue, which is high in analytical rationality and high in emotional authenticity. It is this kind of conversation where they found inspiration and sense-making and a desire to build creative solutions that were superior to existing understandings. They commented that whenever they heard deep, rich creative dialogue, the topics were exciting and the agenda loose and relatively unformed. Those topics gave people the space and the energy necessary for combining the rational and the emotional in a context of engagement, novelty and surprise. Indifference and cynicism quickly destroyed such conversations (p. 218). The contrast here is between an ‘either / or’ approach of dehydrated talk and the ‘and’ approach of creative dialogue, a distinction made clear in Philippe Rosinski’s (2003) Coaching Across Cultures.
The emotional element is a crucial element of creative dialogue in establishing authenticity and creating the basis for appreciating one another as human beings (Gratton and Ghoshal, 2002, pp.214-215). Bureaucratic depersonalization acts to discourage creative dialogue because it removes emotion. Emotions allow the alignment of the individual with the company yet managers shy away from them for fear of negative emotions. The introduction of emotion into conversations promotes trust. Much of the power of coaching comes from creating spaces where people can have creative dialogue. Emotion and rationality can exist together. High quality coaching can model the types of conversations that executive clients can then have with their professional colleagues and direct reports. One of the challenges in mergers and acquisitions is that the structural elements of the joining of the organizations tend to overwhelm the careful nurturing of productive and sustainable professional relationships. That is, emotions are lost in a maze of structural and financial adjustments and intricacies. Further (and related), there is little room for trust-building.
Coaching aims for creative dialogue, though of course the coaching conversations move through different phases where other kinds of conversations are quite appropriate. However, if the conversations with a client regularly and quickly move away from creative dialogue it is a signal that the conversations the client is having at work are likely to have some characteristics of dehydrated talk. Clients will often comment that the conversations they have in coaching are quite different than the kinds of conversations they have in their organizations. Coaching goals often include changing the nature of dialogue that the client has in the work environment.
Most people would like to have conversations that result in meaning-making, learning and growth. The cliché is that if it was easy we would all do it. There are obviously some barriers in organizations to creating such conversations. One barrier is lack of trust. My observation, supported by persuasive theory and solid research, is that creative dialogue is not possible without trust.
Solomon and Flores (2001) have developed a model of trust that I have found very useful in the organizational context and in coaching generally. They argue that true trust is what they term ‘authentic’ trust. Authentic trust is, ‘an ongoing, delicate dance of trust and distrust, the tests and trials of commitment, the careful scrutiny and reassessment of the relationship’ (p.102). It is built up through routine, experiment and experience. It contrasts with ‘simple trust’ that a child has for a parent and ‘blind trust’ that people may place in a charismatic religious figure or politician (or CEO or coach!) They contrast authentic trust with ‘cordial hypocrisy’ which they describe as the ‘strong tendency of people in organisations, because of loyalty or fear, to pretend that there is trust where there is none, being polite in the name of harmony when cynicism and distrust are active poisons, eating away at the very existence of the organization’ (p. 4).
In the cross-cultural environment, the development of trust is particularly challenging, partly because the two parties begin from a position of difference. I found evidence of this in my recent research in El Salvador on how coaching could facilitate expatriate manager adjustment. The development of trust between the American expatriates and the local Salvadorians was often impeded by different understandings of the symbols, gestures, and behaviours that combine together to facilitate trust. For example, the American way of building trust was through open and direct conversation about the issue at hand. The Salvadorian way was more diffuse. The preferred approach was to establish a relationship first and then move towards the task or issue at hand. Thus, when both pursued their culturally appropriate ways of building trust, the effect on the other was the opposite of what they were trying to achieve. The result was an undermining of rather than a building of trust. However, when the same executives explored this issue in coaching conversations (though creative dialogue) they became aware of this paradox and were able to devise strategies to build trust in more culturally appropriate ways.
Osland, Franco, and Osland (1999) found that Latin American cultures generally had a fairly low level of trust in people who were not family or close friends (p. 224). My research confirmed this finding. However a low level of initial trust is not necessarily the end of the story. Johnson and Cullen (2002) concluded that efforts at trust making, regardless of the cultural appropriateness, can in the long run themselves contribute to the building of trust and be part of a trust-building cycle. Coaching dialogue assisted the managers to gain awareness of the differences and acted to diffuse tension and provide new possibilities for trust building. Coaching therefore played a part in starting and reinforcing the cross-cultural trust cycle.