Cultural Competence

Coaching Dr. Laura: Focus on Changing Her Behaviors—Not Her Beliefs

More and more organizations require mandatory diversity training for employees who have stepped on multicultural toes. receives phone calls regularly from employees seeking diversity training that they can sit in on to meet a mandatory remediation requirement.

Human resource managers often hire a consultant to provide cultural competence coaching for a valued manager, supervisor or C-Suite leader. All too often, their primary objective is to protect the organization against legal action. Few human resource officers view the case as an opportunity to augment the individual’s ability to work more effectively in a demographically diverse organization. This is unfortunate.

The human resource professional is on the front lines of finding ways to hire, recruit, and retain talent, yet few appreciate taking the time to develop the competence needed coach employees with cultural competency challenges. The result is that they continue to wrestle with employees stepping on each other’s multicultural toes and the anxiety that comes with stepping in to manage the conflicts. Putting in the time and effort to develop the necessary competence will make their jobs easier.

For any manager who is serious about developing the competence needed to provide remediation coaching and resolve cross cultural conflicts, the problem is finding educational resources that offer the promise of high impact results. The set of guidelines offered below provides managers with a foundation for developing their cultural competence.

The following is an overview of the five steps a consultant would cover in a hypothetical one-on-one executive cultural competence coaching session with Dr. Laura.

Step One: Assess to Identify the Real Problem

The first order of business is to assess the problem to determine coaching objectives. The consultant interviews Dr. Laura’s immediate supervisor to get the facts from the organization’s perspective and information about the Dr. Laura’s overall performance strengths and challenges in her job role.

Any bystanders who observed the incident may also be interviewed, if possible. Seldom will the person who is grieving be included in the interview, and rarely does the individual come into contact with the consultant.

The goal of the assessment is to find out the facts, which requires separating out the symptoms from the real problem. For example, statements gathered during the interviews that describe Dr. Laura as being a politically conservative or culturally insensitive talk show host would be considered symptoms of the problem. The real problem may be that she has very strong opinions about race relations that causes her to say and do prejudice things—the symptoms—when giving advice in such topics. These observable behaviors directly interfere with her ability to stay within acceptable talk show etiquette, which is the problem for her, the caller, and her place of work.

The consultant’s job is not to change Dr. Laura’s beliefs and values—only the problem behaviors. Notice that it does not matter if Dr. Laura suffers from racial prejudice or not. She will likely reject the results of any test the consultant administers that scores her as prejudice. Consultants must avoid getting stuck in trying to get her to accept a personality flaw. That’s an uphill battle because no one cannot read her mind an she knows it. To tell her that she is prejudice only gets you into a “No I am not, Yes you are” debate that only makes her think less of the consultant.

Deal with the observable behaviors that make trouble for her and others—the things she said that over-stepped the boundaries of hosting that particular show.

Next, the consultant administers the Human Capital Inventory. Ideally, Dr. Laura will complete it along with her supervisor, at least two colleagues, and any direct reports in a 360° feedback format. Focusing on objective facts and data instead of opinions about what happened and why it happened is critical for developing a high impact coaching intervention.

Step Two: Build a relationship with the client

The initial coaching meeting with the client is both an interview and a relationship building opportunity. The consultant starts by telling Dr. Laura that she is a valued employee and that is why the organization is investing in coaching services on her behalf. After agreeing upon a brief set of ground rules, Dr. Laura is told that whether or not she suffers from prejudice is of no consequence because the consultant’s primary goal is to simply make her more effective at doing her job. She is also told that changing her values and beliefs is not the coaching objective. In addition, she is given a worksheet that allows her to identify the values that she holds dearly and would not like to change and bring the coaches attention to others in the list that she would like to address during the session.

Next, she is asked to share her strengths and challenges as an employee. Then the consultant shares with her a verbal summary of similar information that was collected from her supervisor. If Dr. Laura is like most of our clients—even our most conservative ones—she will feel a sense of relief and trust in the consultant by the end of this step. She and the consultant make an agreement about the objectives.

Step Three: Understand the Incident and Its Impact

The consultant asks Dr. Laura’s for her side of the story about what happened and listens intently, but without showing any signs of acceptance or rejection. A paraphrase of what she shares is offered to make certain that the consultant understood her points and to elicit any points she wants to clarify, emphasize or add.

She is asked to evaluate her job performance as a whole. Then the consultant asks what she thinks her supervisor would say. It is highly likely that she will state that the mandatory coaching is really a way to protect the organization legally and she would be thrown out at any point if there is enough public pressure. Most supervisors tend to state the person receiving the coaching is outstanding apart from the incident that needed to be remediated. When Dr. Laura hears the laudable things her supervisor had to say, she will be somewhat relieved.

Next, the consultant shows comparisons between her self assessment on Human Capital Inventory and ratings of significant others in the organization who were asked to participate in the 360° feedback.  Dr. Laura will be able to see her own responses in comparison to those of others in the organization. The impact of what she said on the target, on the organization, and on herself is discussed. As she digests the inevitable discrepancies, she starts to abandon feeling that she is the ultimate victim due to being misunderstood and unfairly categorized as racist.

The consultant uses a feedback chart to help her more deeply understand the problems that the incident caused and impact. If she is like most clients, she gradually appreciates the impact of her actions from the other points of view. It would not be surprising if Dr. Laura were to come to tears at this point.

Step Four: Substituting Behaviors

A set of hypothetical scenarios similar to the one where she got into trouble are presented to support the development of alternative behaviors. Dr. Laura is guided through each scenario and offered a set of alternative behaviors from which to choose a more effective behavior. One of the challenging of being a talk show host, for example, is to consistently think on their feet when covering volatile topics in order to respond within acceptable professional boundaries. Recognizing the situations in which personal values and beliefs are most likely to interfere with sound judgment is a critical part of cultural competence. Strategies for consciously controlling behavior in such situations and developing a repertoire of alternative behavioral responses that are more acceptable prepare her for success in the future

Step Five: Write an assessment report summary

A final report about the coaching is written to the client organization contact person and Dr. Laura is told verbally the gist of what will be included. The report avoids details about what Dr. Laura shared with the consultant during the session. Focus is on offering an overview of what the coaching involved and what Dr. Laura appeared to have taken away from it. Recommendations for sustaining and building upon the foundation resulting from the training are offered.


Coaching executives who have stepped on multicultural toes require a no blame, no shame approach. The matter that brings them to coaching is serious and the goal is make them more productive and competent in cross cultural encounters. Placing emphasis on productivity and clearly identifying the behaviors that have gotten Dr. Laura into trouble during the coaching offer a win-win solution because she is more likely to take the coaching seriously and understand the importance of making the changes to work more effectively.

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Billy Vaughn, PhD CDP is a certified cultural competency expert who has coached executives across sectors including Fortune 50 companies and political conservative grassroots organizations. His is author of Straight Talk About Race & Ethnicity in America Society: An Expert Answers Burning Cultural Diversity Questions, which will be published Fall 2010. He can be reached at billy at

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