Coaching to overcome corporate culture clashes


Culture clash, or conflict caused by differences in cultural values and beliefs, is a key challenge for leaders in international, multi-cultural and multi-generational organisations. For example, emerging and high-growth markets have diverse cultures and face unique business challenges, or settling into a new culture post-merger or acquisition is a major challenge around the globe and across industries.

Added on 10 March 2015 by Erik de Haan

Coaching to overcome culture clashes

The theme of this year’s Ashridge’s Relational Coaching Conference is ‘Culture Clashes – rupture or opportunity?’, which will explore what happens when someone’s sense of individual or cultural identity is at odds with organisational culture, with a focus on culture differences between executive coaches and their clients. As different cultures meet, leaders and their coaches must find ways to deal with difference and learn where cultural diversity can provide opportunity, innovation, and problem-solving.

Executive coaches working with top leaders will often see how a tough focus can sometimes lead to a strain on relationships, to culture clashes, and to difficult moments on both an organisational and an individual level. Senior executives need a particular set of traits to push themselves and others to succeed – but under pressure, the same traits can work against them.

One of the Conference discussions, led by myself and John Higgins, focuses on how coaches can help leaders overcome culture clashes that lead to derailment, hubris and overdrive.

Often hidden or discarded aspects of our identity and leadership ‘shadow’ us, leading to overdrive and hubris. The idea of a leadership shadow is as old as psychological storytelling. Countless tales of doubles and alter egos, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, examine the duality of human nature, the perils of a life without a shadow and the importance of the shadow’s resourcefulness and inspiration. Recent research published in the book The Leadership Shadow: How to Recognize and Avoid Derailment, Hubris and Overdrive explains what makes managers act precariously, providing methods for identifying and challenging self-defeating behaviours.

The Leadership Shadow reveals how derailment occurs when managers’ strengths are overused. Using examples taken from executives’ experiences and descriptions of psychological behaviours based on well-established sources, such as the Hogan Personality Inventory model, our research demonstrates how leaders can find stability in the face of uncertainty, and resilience in the face of gruelling demand.

One of the most surprising yet powerful resources that executives can muster in overcoming their ‘overdrive’, comes from the people that they have the most difficulty with, and are most likely to clash with. Their most troubling frustrations and irritations when in ‘overdrive’ can become their most helpful resources in moving beyond patterns of derailment.

Patterns or ‘strands’ of personality emerge at different times and in many shades of intensity, from slightly neurotic to full-blown instability. These strands help leaders and executive coaches identify when traits are constructive and productive, or problematic and counterproductive. 

What are these leadership overdrive patterns?

The personality strands identified are based on the assertion that each of us has a personal leadership profile, with its own ‘derailer’ behaviour. Below are different leadership types and their associated counterproductive ‘overdrive’ patterns. 

Overdrives of the movers and shakers:

  • Antisocial patterns linked with the charming manipulator: you believe the rules are made to be broken. Do you find it hard to be accountable for your actions?
  • Passive-aggressive patterns linked with playful encouragers: what you say is not what you really believe. Do you find it hard to take responsibility for your views?
  • Narcissistic pattern linked with the glowing Gatsby: you think you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Do you as a leader often think others are wrong and not up to their jobs?
  • Schizoid patterns linked with the detached diplomat: you’re disengaged and disconnected. Do you distance yourself from the everyday running of the business?

Overdrives of the rigorous thinkers:

  • Obsessive-compulsive patterns linked with the responsible workaholic: you get the little things right and the big things wrong. Do you often fret about minutiae whilst losing focus on the big picture?
  • Borderline patterns linked with impulsive loyalists: you’re subject to mood swings. Do you find it hard to hear bad news about the business?
  • Paranoid patterns linked with the brilliant sceptic: you focus on the negatives. Do you often think that people are against you?
  • Schizotypal patterns linked with the creative daydreamer: you try to be different just for the sake of it. Is your picture of the future often proven wrong?

Overdrives of the sensitive carers:

  • Dependent patterns linked with the virtuous supporter: you try to win the popularity contest. Are you looking after everyone and trying to make them all happy?
  • Histrionic patterns linked with the accomplished thespian: you need to be the centre of attention. Are you obsessed with your public image?
  • Avoidant patterns linked with the simmering stalwart: you’re afraid to make decisions. Are you concerned or hesitant because of what other people might think or do?

Implications for coaches – helping executives regain the balance

Knowing your leadership type is obviously important for leaders on a personal level, but it’s equally important for executive coaches if they are to support leaders through culture clashes and (near) derailment. Coaches have a key role to play in the development of leaders, inquiring into the traits and qualities senior managers need to work well with others.

Coaches have a crucial role to play in bringing light to leaders’ dark sides through:

  • Offering support and challenge in a safe and confidential space, where leaders can test their ideas of leadership
  • Offering open and sometimes painful feedback to help growth
  • Nurturing the important upwards feedback and distributed leadership
  • Encouraging clients to engage in active and honest (self) reflection.

Erik de Haan is director of the Ashridge Centre for Coaching and professor of organisational development and coaching at VU University Amsterdam. He is co-author of the book The Leadership Shadow – How to Recognise and Avoid Derailment, Hubris and Overdrive.

You may be interested in:

Book now! Erik De Haan will discuss leadership and culture at the third Relational Coaching Conference ‘Culture Clashes’ – rupture or opportunity?’ on 13 July 2015. Book before 1 April 2015 to take advantage of an early bird discount of £50. Ashridge Coaching Alumni will receive a further 10% discount.

Find out about Ashridge’s Masters in Executive Coaching programme, taking a relational psychological perspective designed to deepen your clients’ self-awareness and understanding of key relationships in their organisation.

Join our webinar, Developing executive teams – a coaching perspective on 22 April 2015 at 12:00 GMT.