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  • Writer's pictureTommy Chan, Ph.D., PCC

Coaching in Asia (CIA): Authenticity

Updated: Sep 1, 2018

The significance of authenticity is increasingly examined as a theoretical construct by the academics in its role in the executive coaching process. Miriam-Webster defines "authentic" as: "real, genuine, not copied or false."

Any two or three-year-olds are naturally adorable because of this unpretentious trait. Their unblemished innocence and lack of self-consciousness are very appealing to complicated adults. Many of this psychologist-turned-coach's clients commented over the years that when stricken with grief, the only thing that would cheer them up and eventually dislodge them out of their misery is playing with or just watching young children play.

Authenticity in coaching is almost like the increasingly valuable rare earth element of our tech-savvy world. They are both uncommon and precious. At the same time, we see the emergence of the concept of developing robots and utilizing the Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to substitute psychologists and coaches. Such possibilities are no longer far-fetched and the application of AI technologies to enhance, or at least some aspects of, human performance is within reach (a dire warning to aspiring psychologists and coaches!).

This author contends that robots or AI could never fully replace psychologists or coaches in flesh-and-blood because of our basic human yearning for authenticity and the indispensable capacity to offer it. Could we really genuinely trust a robot?

In Asia, face-saving and putting up a facade is still prevalent in the business world and in relationships to protect one's reputation and family honor. (For the Asian readers out there, don't worry. This writer will highlight other Asian cultural assets in later entries just to be fair). There is a strong need to protect one's public image. When it is defamed, its negative impact appears to be far more humiliating and detrimental to the individual than the Western counterpart. (Anyone saw the Japanese legislator's tantrum-like crying bouts when caught for corruption a few weeks ago?) As a result, it is difficult to be real, vulnerable, admitting one's fragility, especially for Asian males, who are largely conditioned to be logical, rational, well-grounded and in full control of emotions, or so we try.

This psychologist-turned-coach is still suffering from the "trauma" of shame by shedding some tears after missing the coveted 1st place in a long distance school run, and then got teased and laughed at by teenage school girls, at the age of about 13! He was told "男人流血不流淚“ which essentially means "men could bleed but never tear." Not good advice, psychologically. The Chinese concept of "Ren" (忍), closely translated as "repression" in the Western psychological construct, or tolerating and not revealing true emotions, is paradoxically seen as a cultural virtue. Thus, it is naturally difficult to expect others to be transparent and real, at least initially.

When the coach sensitively fosters the process of executive coaching with genuineness, it would be a breath of fresh air and puts one on the road of coaching success because all clients deep down desire to safely disclose and resolve their career challenges with the support of someone who has integrity, candor and competence.

This is obviously not a recent proven discovery. This writer used to lecture in undergraduate psychology courses in Michigan over 20 years ago on seminal research by well-known psychologists such as Dr. Carl Rogers, who pioneered in the field of Humanistic Psychology. He was one of the first researchers to identify genuineness and congruence, or authenticity in modern-day terminology, as a critical factor in successful psychotherapy in the 1950's. Dr. Rogers attributed that genuineness builds trust and forms real relationships, the obvious prerequisite of successful coaching.

Why is it sometimes so difficult to be authentic for the coaches and the clients, especially in the Asian context?

One strong possibility is due to the clients' predicament of fear. The basic psychological instinct is to avoid fear or pain and seek acceptance or pleasure. When one addresses his or her vulnerabilities, indecisions, blind spots, developmental needs, derailments and even wrong doings at work with a coach, one is at the risk of being judged; or at least misunderstood and at worst punished.

Another hypothesis relates to the stage of development of coaching in Asia. As a young profession, basically transplanted from the West, both the practitioners and clients potentially do not know what good coaching is all about. Yes, sometimes including supposedly certified coaches themselves. The closest mental model in the Asian psyche about coaching is the relationship between the Shi Fu (師傅), the Master and the Tu Di (徒弟), the Apprentice martial arts. But even here, there are some underlying misalignments. For example, the traditional Shi Fu would inculcate and model Kung Fu routines and disciplines, and hit their students with a stick if they do not follow instructions! (Ask Jackie Chan about his formative years in traditional Beijjng opera and Kung Fu apprenticeship if you don't believe this).

On a serious note, it could be challenging for Asian clients to engage in the coaching process that tends to be facilitative and investigative when they expect it to be instructive and directive, receiving specific advice and instructions on the course of actions at work. If business leaders are not prepared to take full responsibility to charter their own path of career growth and to maturely make use of the coaching process to refine their trade through primarily facilitative self-enhancement in coaching, any seasoned master coaches would be of no significant long-term value to them. Clients who want to be spoon-fed are not good candidates for coaching.

The adage that "the teacher shows up when the student is ready" always rings true. In our case, the clients' right mindset about coaching is one of the key criteria for being prepared for the coach.

Particularly in Asia, setting the right expectations, clarifying the mechanisms of utilizing the coaching process by all stakeholders involved and planning follow-through, is analogous to tuning precisely to the oboe's A note (440 hertz per second) by all musical instruments before an orchestral performance. The music would flow right only after that.

Another reason why being authentic in coaching is at times more challenging in Asia is because inexperienced coaches in the region sometimes do not have the self-assurance to admit that they do not know anything about the subject matter at hand.

However, after over 20 years of practice as a psychologist and a coach, this practitioner was often amazed by the trust developed in the therapeutic and coaching process when he simply acknowledged that he does not know the answer. It is this dyad of being "consciously incompetent" (you could guess the other three combinations) that sometimes conveys authenticity, which in turn facilitates breakthrough through trust. Ironic, isn't it?

Another Miriam-Webster's definition of authenticity is "not copied." This poses an immediate major challenge to coaching in the Asian context, as coaching was "copied" from the West and the mental set of Asian clients typically expects the "coach" to act according to their subconscious wish of a master "Shi Fu," as alluded. One may never recover from the negative consequences from this initial misconception if this flawed expectation is not re-calibrated at the outset.

If executive coaching in Asia were to thrive as a bona fide, well-accepted and thriving profession, it requires the continuous development of Asian coaching theoretical frameworks, devised and revised by Asian coaching research and practice experience in the region.

It is also worth noting that if the coaching process is to be fully authentic, it is much more preferable to conduct coaching in the coaches' and clients' natural tongues - their heart language - that is, likely in their native Asian languages supplemented by English, or in the case of Hong Kong or China - some form of "Chinglish," the insertion of English terminologies in one's Cantonese or Mandarin. It is intuitive that clients are more prepared to share precisely and gain insights about often ambiguous and ambivalent work-related subjects in their spontaneous language.

Broadly speaking, coaching in Asia (CIA) needs its own voice (發言權), preferably championed by the academics and practitioners in Asia to bring maturity and credibility to the profession as a behavioral science. Only until then, perhaps a reciprocal American or European colleague in New York or London would one day write (even possibly in Chinese) about adopting and integrating the Asian coaching experience in years to come. Geopolitically speaking, this is not at all inconceivable as we continue to witness the economic and soft power shifts from the West to the East.

While writing and googling references for this second weekly entry of the four-part insight series on coaching at a sushi bar in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, literally on his iphone 6s, this writer cannot emphasize more and viscerally feels about the importance of authenticity in coaching. Effective coaching is essentially about inspiration, not information. If coaching is just about disseminating the latest scientific facts in order to help change people's behavior in business performance, we would just really need nothing more than a smart phone and a swift Wi-Fi connection. Obviously, we human beings need real logical and emotional connections and authentic interactions before embarking on the journey of making behavioral change and performance improvement at work.

At the risk of over-generalization again, here are this week's coaching business intelligence to CIA - Coaching in Asia:

1. Be aware of being genuine at all times. Find out what are the obstacles for the coach and client to be authentic. Spend a considerable amount of thinking and effort, especially in coaching Asian clients, to set realistic expectations about coaching and to elucidate case examples of behavioral change. Specifically delineate the whats, hows and whys of coaching. Do not under-sell the value of coaching and make assumptions that even senior Asian business leaders have familiarity about coaching. This author's assumption was proven to the contrary multiple times in coaching Asian business leaders.

2. Say I don't know candidly when one does not know the answer. However, do not awkwardly pause there. Learn from good and quick-witted politicians (some may wonder if there were any) in addressing subject matters beyond your scope of knowledge. That is, try to intelligently add value around the topic by injecting related helpful points and make referrals to resources to find the specific information.

3. Intermittently highlight confidentiality and its limits to protect privacy. It reinforces trust building and enables clients to relax and be real. Be understanding and show genuine care by making appropriate empathetic remarks, eye contacts, non-verbal cues and body gestures at the right moments.

4. Practice coaching within professional ethical guidelines consistent with one's background in education, training and experience. Never over-claim, but especially in Asia, spend considerable priority to explain and clarify the Return of Investment (ROI) of coaching with Asian case examples as well as its limitations.

5. Building genuine relationships in the coaching process in Asia with Asian clients tends to take a relatively longer duration, as compared with the West for a variety of psychodynamic reasons. However, the good news is that once trust is built, the leverage the coach would have on the coaching process and the client would typically exceed that in the West. Relevant disclosure of coaches' business experiences could help build mirroring effects and authenticity when such information is poignant to address the issues at hand.

Rio Olympics is upon us and this author cannot resist not using a sports example to close this week's conversation. After all, a lot of us are "coaches" and we could draw so much inspiration from the world of sports to enhance business performance. US super-swimmer Michael Phelps, aged 31, would attempt to increase his already record-breaking 22-medal haul for the fifth time at the Olympics. (He apparently just earned his 19th Olympic Gold at Rio a few hours ago). In a NBC (Today) interview in April this year, he candidly admitted that in 2014, two years after the London Olympics, he had a major fallout with his coach, involved in drunk driving, speeding, illicit drug use and was suspended for competitions by he USA Swimming for 6 months. He later said that: "I got myself into a vicious cycle, and became quite serious. I did not want to see the next day and became very despondent... momentarily I did not want to live." After 45 days of rehab, he regained his direction and shared that: "I don't know whether I fear losing of what I have achieved or tried to prove something. Fortunately, I became clear. I do not want to hide from myself. You may not like who I am, but I am me..." His authenticity about himself psychologically may catapult him to another peak performance at the Rio Olympics 2016. Watch out for Phelps.

Until next week's insights on CIA, let's coach with business intelligence!

Author's Profile:

Tommy Chan, Ph.D. is a Michigan State University-trained and registered Chinese-American psychologist with an integrated cross-cultural business background. He regularly coaches senior executives in Asia and the US to transverse and narrow the gaps between the Western multinational business mindset and Asian approaches in business performance in his private firm PPC, Ltd. after holding senior posts at Korn Ferry and CEB/SHL. Fluent in English and Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), he is a highly demanded speaker, workshop facilitator, psychologist and senior executive coach for over 20 years in Asia and the US. Based in Hong Kong and Atlanta, he could be reached at:

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