Leslie Van Zyl-Smit_Research_PaperResearch Paper By Leslie Van Zyl-Smit
(Life Coach, SOUTH AFRICA)

1 Background

Chuck Palahniuk once said:

The first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in.


wever, there are many worlds out there and Culture can never be seen in isolation.  Life is complex and the worlds we occupy require diversity to be healthy.  Every culture has boundaries, and it does not take a long journey to reach the periphery of the status quo defining someone’s familiar “world.” It can be argued that to build a healthy society or organizational structure, it will be required to cross the Rubicon into the unknown in search of new awareness about other cultures, but also our own.

This research paper, explores the concept of culture, in particular organizational culture, and how the application of coaching practices within organizations can facilitate growth and change.

Life Coaching Model Leslie Van Zyl-Smit

2 What is Culture?

Humans like many other animal species, group into communities for various reasons.  Whatever the reason, when people gather in groups, they start sharing collective beliefs and learning that identifies them as a community with a particular culture.

The definition of the noun “Culture”, in the Oxford South African School dictionary(Oxford, 2010) is stated as: “the customs, ideas, and way of life of a group of people or a country:  the language and culture of the Aztecs.”  Humans are quick to apply the concept of culture to “others” or “those out there”, as in the people from foreign nations like the Aztecs.  But culture is also about “us” and “those like us”.

The complexity of culture is often misunderstood and there are many meanings and definitions given in an attempt to explain different concepts that define culture.  People belong to the culture at home, a culture at church, culture at work, culture at the local sports club, etc.  Culture is the accumulated learning of each individual within a particular group experience.  Culture is something that is inside of us(Google, 2016).  Much about culture is not visible and is in constant, dynamic evolution.  What someone defines as a culture today can be vastly different from the same culture tomorrow, due to changes in circumstances and the discovery of new ideas and awareness related to a particular environment.  It is wise not to underestimate the complexity of culture.

2.1 Culture is Multi-dimensional

Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is arguably one of the top scholars in recent history when it comes to the study of culture and more specifically organizational culture.  In one of his most notable answers to the question “What is Culture”, published in the book “Reframing Organizational Culture” (Schein E., 1991), Schein gives a graphic definition of culture and explains his understanding of the dimensions of organizational culture.  According to Schein, organizational culture is multi-dimensional, and in addressing the question, he uses an iceberg metaphor to describe three distinct levels comprising what he defines as a culture.  These three levels he refers to as Artifacts, Espoused Values, and Basic Assumptions.

To understand or change the visible “artifacts” of culture, you need to go below the waterline to a deeper level of understanding by considering a particular culture’s espoused values and basic assumptions.  This is a process that requires, leadership, skill, and time.

2.2 Culture is Structured

Apart from the culture being multi-dimensional (the iceberg metaphor), Schein also differentiates between different cultural structures prevalent (Schein & Schein, 2019) within society and typical organizations.  He identifies the following three major structural entities namely Macro-culture, Sub-culture, and Micro-culture.

In summary, the concept of culture is complex and it influences all aspects of human life.  It’s about “those out there” and “those like us”.  Culture is multi-dimensional and culture is structured, and as Schein (Google, 2016) once said well, culture is the accumulated learning of individuals within a group experience”.

3 An Organization’s need for Coaching Across Cultures

Due to the complex and ever-evolving nature of culture, it is clear that it takes a lot of effort and expertise to attempt to define an organization’s culture.  However, despite the complexity of culture and the difficulty to define organizational culture, there is consensus that culture is extremely important when it comes to the success of an organization.  As Peter Drucker, management consultant and author, famously said: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”.

Developing and maintaining an organizational culture that is aligned with an organization’s business strategy, is key to ensuring the sustainable operation of any business.  For an organization to be successful, it is required that everybody pulls in the same goal-orientated, focused direction.  This can only be achieved if the organizational culture is aligned with the business strategy and brings focus to where the organization has agreed that the future lies.  Laszlo Bock in his book “Work Rules” (Bock, 2015) elaborates on the importance of Google’s organizational culture and makes it clear that everyone working for the organization is required to embrace the culture of mission, transparency, and voice.  Google is an example of an organization with a high level of focused organizational cultural awareness that has a proven track record of achieving success.

Combining Schein’s ice-berg metaphor and his proposed cultural structure within organizations, I imagine an organization’s business strategy being like an arctic sea (the Macro-culture) with the people of the organization grouped in different sub-culture ice-bergs floating within this body of water.  Each so-called sub-culture ice-berg represents a collective of people who share acquired learning in some form of knowledge that contributes to the organization’s culture as a whole.  For each sub-culture, there is an imaginary boundary that can be identified by the visible “artifacts” part above the waterline, but we know that beneath the water line there is a lot more to it.  Successful organizations, like Google, have mastered the art of getting the focus of its different sub-cultural structures aligned with the organization’s overall business strategy.

A key challenge, therefore, for any organization, is to get all the sub-cultures focused on the business strategy both from a social- as well as technical sub-culture point of view.  To achieve this, it is required for any organization to understand its different cultural dynamics in an attempt to identify these so-called sub-cultural ice-bergs.  Some sub-cultures within an organization can function within proximity of each other, while other sub-cultures can be counterproductive or even destructive should they enter common waters.

Wherever there are boundaries between cultures, sub-cultures, or micro-cultures, Schein states that “figuring out what they think they are up to”(Schein & Schein, 2019) is critical in generating positive organizational change.  The skills and competencies available to professional coaches can assist greatly by facilitating engagement between the boundaries of organizational sub-cultures in an attempt to increase learning and awareness.  Developing organizational culture is all about “them” and not so much about “us”, which is what coaching is all about.


4 Application of the Coach Approach

How can coaching help to “figure out what they think they are up to”?  According to the International Coach Federation (ICF), Coaching is defined as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential(International Coach Federation, 2019).  Coaching is all about facilitating a process whereby clients are encouraged to consider multiple perspectives in an attempt to shift views to facilitate the progress of goal-driven action toward new horizons.  Coaches, therefore, possess the knowledge, skills, as well as tools, and techniques to help different cultures to engage and synchronize as a collective whole.  Coaches also know and understand the relativity of their own understanding, values, norms, and culture, which is a vital condition for anyone attempting to engage in ethno-relative approaches of “figuring out what they think they are up to”, in a non-judgmental way.

The following coaching tools and techniques provide some of the key skills required to chart the course for cultural icebergs to interact in a safe, non-judgmental space conducive to innovation and growth.

4.1 Releasing Judgement

Human beings have very strong emotional reactions to the feeling of guilt.  These emotional reactions emanate from our primal brain (also referred to as our reptilian brain), which is in charge of our innate and automatic self-preserving behavior patterns that ensure survival.  Responding to a person in a way that makes them feel that they are being judged, triggers such feelings of guilt.  Nothing breaks down a relationship of trust quicker than judgment.  When this happens, that people experience emotions triggered by guilt, it has been shown that their thoughts start to bypass their normal cognitive pathways by allowing the brain to react in an emotional response before time has passed to process a particular thought or emotion.  This can be very destructive to change management processes when people start reacting and making decisions from an emotional background when solutions and progress required rational thinking.

Coaches are ideally trained to provide a safe environment by avoiding “leading” questions and instead ask powerful “open-ended” type questions to support a process of change without participants feeling judged.

Furthermore, the cure for judgment starts by loving one-self, by valuing yourself without comparing yourself to others.  This is another aspect of coaching that provides a valuable tool in getting cultures to a place of self-love where the process of understanding another culture without comparison can begin.

4.2 Visualization – Shift the focus to the end goal

Coaching is focused on progress toward the future and does not deal with past events from a therapeutical point of view.  One of the tools used in the coaching process to bring new awareness regarding future goals is that of visualization.   With a clear picture of the result in mind, the setting of goals and the path towards the result becomes more real.  This can help individuals and teams to create a focus on the future.  It can be argued that a lot of energy is wasted on obstacles within an organizational context because of a poor vision of the end goal.  Visualizing an end goal for organizations is key in assisting sub-cultures to get over themselves and others.  Creating a birds-eye view of the organization can greatly assist in obtaining a focus on business strategy and end goals.  Teams working together need to understand their individual requirements and be in unity in striving to achieve the end goal.  Having a clear picture in mind of the finish line or the end goal creates hope and clarity at the moment.  Visualization helps us to believe that the impossible can become possible.

4.3 Acknowledgement

Acknowledgment, as stated by Wiktionary, is “The act of recognizing in a particular relationship; recognition of existence, authority, truth or genuineness. ”The capacity to recognize and communicate something meaningful, wonderful, and valuable across cultural barriers is a desperately needed coaching skill that can assist in bridging cultural gaps.  We need help to see the best in each other, as well as ourselves, instead of looking for the flaws and focusing on the past.  But for this to happen, it is required that cultures first acknowledge themselves and put aside their own issues and ego to appreciate greatness in others.

4.4 Creating Awareness and Appreciation for Diversity

Western culture has become accustomed to binary- or dichotomous thinking patterns, which leads to a polarized way of thinking.  Someone thinking in this way does not allow for grey areas and perceive matters as either black or white, heads or tails, right or wrong.  Another way to refer to this way of thinking is either / or thinking(Schwarz, 2012).   However, much in life depends on perspectives and being receptive to an alternative way of perceiving situations or thinking, can often help to come to new awareness and create an appreciation for diversity.  There are often alternative ways to look at things, and adopting a dialectical or both/and way of thinking instead of an either/or thinking can greatly assist in bridging cultural barriers.  Coaches believe there is always a third alternative to either/or situations.

Coaching appreciates that each person is unique, and coaching tools and techniques are focused on creating awareness and appreciation for individual strengths and characteristics.  Coaches are trained in dialectics and possess attributes to recognize, celebrate, and embrace diversity in the process of creating awareness.  Awareness starts by knowing ourselves and to come to understand our own strengths as well as cultural baggage to take up our own responsibly and place along with other people around us to build the organization.  Diversity is an opportunity to harness the strengths and attributes of others that can benefit the organization.  Coaches understand the importance of getting to know other people and their differences instead of making dangerous assumptions based on generalized ideas and information regarding others.  Diversity can never be compared with our own understanding of culture as this will result in a position of judgment.

These and many other coaching skills need to be applied at the boundaries where differing cultural verges are encountered in search of harmony and strategy.

5 Final Thoughts

Changing organizational culture is not something that happens overnight and requires a lot of leadership, time, and skilled resources.  The natural inclination of humans is to rely on what we know and to avoid the hard work of learning something new.  But only through learning can our beliefs below the waterline be changed.  Culture is all about learning.  There is a great need to change knowing organizations into learning organizations(Quin).

We all know how difficult it is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but maybe this is exactly what is required of us if we are to contribute to sustainable, healthy organizations.  I believe a key to sustainable organizations is leadership, time, and resources dedicated to helping organizational sub-cultures “figure out what they think they are up to”.  Culture is complex and much leadership and skills are required within organizations to create awareness and balance among both social- as well as technical sub-cultures focused on the big picture that encompasses a future destiny for the better of all.  Cultural boundaries are danger zones that must be handled with professional care.  Many organizations have forgotten what they do and how they do it.

For the first time in known history, the life of every economically active citizen came to an abrupt disruption in 2020 due to the COVID-19 viral pandemic.  Most of us have had ample time to contemplate life before COVID-19 and agree that the world has changed.  The vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) applicable to us as individuals, as well as us as organizational collectives, have been exposed.  The future, just like the past, will depend on how we function together, our survival will depend on our collective learning, on the harmony between our Macro-, Sub- and Micro-cultures.  Change is inevitable and the opportunity for innovation is to be found where boundaries meet.  Professional coaches are trained and skilled to facilitate this process.

Find yourself a good coach to help you come to a new awareness that awaits at the boundaries of your comfort zones.  Your future might depend on it.


Bock, L. 2015.Work Rules. New York, N10104: Twelve Hachette Book Group, 2015.

Google, Talks at. 2016. Edgar Schein: “Humble Leadership”. YouTube. [Online] February 2, 2016.

International Coach Federation. 2019.International Coach Federation. [Online] 2019.

Oxford. 2010.Oxford South African School Dictionary 3rd Edition. Cape Town: Oxford University Press (Pty) Ltd, 2010.

Quin, Robert E. Becoming who you really are. Robert E Quin. [Online] www. Robert Quinn.

Schein, E.H. and Schein, P.A. 2019.The Corporate Culture Survival Guide third edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2019.

Schein, E.H. 1991. What is Culture? [book auth.] P.J. Frost, et al. Reframing Organizational Culture. Newbury Park, California, 93120: SAGE Publications, 1991, pp. 243-253.

Schwarz, Roger. 2012. Moving from Either/Or to Both/And Thinking. [Online] March 2012.

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