As an executive coach who works with leaders all over the world, I believe it is important to be aware of my clients’ cultural traditions.
On a recent trip to China, I worked with a man named Li, an avid reader of wuxia, or kung-fu novels, which usually feature an ancient Chinese warrior with almost supernatural martial arts ability. Once I understood who Li’s heroes were, I could help him find the courage, humility and discipline to fix a trail of broken relationships at work.
Li was a senior executive at a PC company. A procurement specialist, he was known for his skillful negotiations with vendors, which had saved the company millions over the years. At the same time, his colleagues found him difficult.
I began by putting him through 360-degree feedback. He was very quiet after I delivered the news: while his peers respected him, they said he often responded to their ideas with an abrupt “no.” He was coming off as negative and arrogant.
“To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person.”–Bruce Lee
Li resisted their suggestions at first, arguing that he knew the job so well it was a waste of time to explain himself. In his mind, he was a martial arts hero who felled his enemies in a single stroke, no explanation needed.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are your co-workers your enemies?”
“Well, they’re annoying,” was his answer.
Over the next few coaching sessions, I worked hard to convince Li that his colleagues were allies, not enemies, and that he should accept their feedback. It would take courage to face his failures, but he would be better for it in the end, I told him.
He eventually began to see the damage he’d done by treating the people around him as opponents. Extending the kung fu analogy, he realized that his ruthless efficiency was actually creating more enemies – a strategic error.
He didn’t need to change his inner beliefs about the value of hard work and loyalty to the company. He did need to change his communication style.
“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” –Bruce Lee
The next step in the coaching process was for Li to meet with the people who gave him feedback. He was reluctant to admit his shortcomings in front of his peers, but he did. He thanked his critics for their honesty and told them he had a plan to improve.
“I’m not going to say no immediately from now on,” he promised. “I’m going to ask questions, listen and come up with win-win solutions with you.”
“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”–Bruce Lee
Changing behavior is a hard, daily practice. You have to keep your goal in mind all the time, through every interaction, so that your new habit will take root.
Despite his initial reluctance, Li proved a good student. The people around him began to notice him becoming kinder and gentler. His new attitude spread to his team, too.
He faced a big test in a high-level meeting, when a manager asked him to do something he felt was unreasonable and nearly impossible. Instead of immediately saying no, he took a breath.
“Let me explain why it can’t be done,” he said, and then offered an alternative solution. He made a point to smile and even cracked a joke. His co-workers were surprised and pleased – and happy to accept his alternate plan.
I have seen many clients use these principles with great success. Having the courage to know yourself, the humility to accept your shortcomings and the discipline to work toward positive change can help you, too, wherever in the world you happen to live.