When you aren't ready for cultural services

Cultural services can be transformative for the individuals, teams, organizations, and communities who make use of them. As we’ve written before, one way to set yourself up for success is to make sure that you hire the right person. However, what the professional brings to the table is only part of the equation. The other, often overlooked part, is the client’s side. Usually, potential clients approach us with a growth mindset and an eagerness to learn. However, they sometimes misunderstand or misinterpret what we do and how we do it, and this can mean getting off on the wrong foot. Below are five red flags that a client is not ready, or that under current conditions they are unlikely to be able to benefit from our services.

The blame game

One of the biggest flags is when a client takes no responsibility for their part of the cultural situation and is adamant that everything is the other party’s fault. Every relationship is a two-way street, and if you are not willing to consider the possibility that you have a role in a cultural conflict, then there is very little that we can do to help you move forward. Put another way: if you aren’t doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to improve, so there’s no role for us.

Change by proxy

A related red flag is when a client wants to hire us to fix the other person. In some cases, this may be workable and appropriate - for example, if a boss recognizes that an employee needs cultural coaching or training in order to do their job more effectively, or to prepare for an assignment or promotion. However, these services only work if they are tailored to that person’s needs, and if they are willing and engaged participants in their own reflection and development. Cultural services aren’t a stealth maneuver to make someone change according to your own liking.

Already an expert

A third red flag is a client who is convinced that they already know everything. To be clear, the background cultural knowledge a client brings is very valuable, and we would never dismiss it (in fact, it’s a good place to start). However, when a client is preoccupied with controlling the narrative and telling us how much they know about culture, and shows little inclination to acquire more information, confront and challenge their own biases and assumptions, or reconsider and expand their perspectives, then they are not in a place where they will benefit from our expertise.

An ax to grind

A fourth flag is when a client believes that they alone understand what is wrong with their organization and how to fix it, and they want to bring us in as an expert to parrot their interpretation and make their bosses see the light. This puts the cart before the horse if the intention is to catalyze organizational transformation. As outsiders, we can’t drive or own that process because it is a massive undertaking that requires internal leadership, stakeholder input, resource allocation, and difficult decisions over a sustained period. Moreover: if linked to an employee with a reputation of being antagonistic, any advice we provide will fall on deaf ears.

We also see this flag with clients who know what they want to say in a training or presentation, but they want us to come in and say it for them. As in the scenario above, the problem is that our job is not to get on a soapbox and force-feed participants the personal interpretation of one person, but to equip them to navigate complicated cultural challenges in the messy real world.

Seeking a magic bullet

A fifth red flag is a client who expects a single training to make their problems go away. As with any skill, it takes time to learn new information and behaviors, experiment and get feedback, and move from incompetence to competence. When it comes to culture, it may also trigger perplexing questions about ethics, identity, and justice. As a result, cultural development is not a task to cross off a to-do list, but something that takes as long as it takes. And this ultimately depends on the availability, engagement, effort, and needs of the client.

How to know when you’re ready

We share these red flags not because we want to keep anyone away, but because we want to ensure that you’re hiring us for the right reasons and that you can truly benefit from our service. So, how do you know when you’re ready? Here’s a quick checklist:

  1. Am I willing to consider different points of view, even if they clash with the narrative I’ve already created? Am I willing to confront my side of the equation in cultural situations, even though this might be frustrating or uncomfortable?

  2. Am I hiring a cultural coach for myself because I want to change, rather than hiring someone in the hopes that they’ll change someone else?

  3. Am I willing to learn and work with new information, or consider new angles, that might challenge what I already know about myself, a specific culture, or the world?

  4. If I want to help my organization embark on an organizational culture change, a) do I have support from the top, and b) do I have a mandate to act on behalf of the organization to bring experts in? If I am hiring trainers, will I let them present their best professional knowledge, whether or not it promotes my own opinions?

  5. Do I understand that while cultural competence is not necessarily time-consuming, that it is a non-linear process that unfolds unevenly? Do I currently have the capacity to be not only physically or virtually present, but mentally and emotionally present?

How did you do? Do you think you are ready to dive into cultural work, either for yourself or on your team, your organization, or community? Contact us for a complementary consultation, and we’ll help you discern how to proceed.