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

Coaching in Asia (CIA): Determination

Updated: Aug 31, 2018

Pushing through beyond one's physical and mental limits tends to be commonplace in the Asian workforce.

Pushing through beyond one's physical and mental limits tends to be commonplace in the Asian workforce. For instance, Korean employees’ weekly working hours consistently rank as one of the longest in the world. The high value placed on diligence and determination is prevalent in most of the Asian educational systems.

In September, 2011, Time Magazine reported that there were South Korean government patrols, comically snooping around tutoring Centers (called hagwons) with their flashlights at night to catch any kids who may secretly study after 10:00pm, which was apparently against the local law, and stop them! It is a farcical contrast from the stereotypically affirming American parents who struggle to get their kids to finish their homework after showering them with unjustified praises.

The groundbreaking research on grittiness as published in her bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by the Chinese-American psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania provides the latest scientific insights on its strong predictability on success. Grit alone tends to predict success better than other variables such as IQ, grades and social relationships. Dr. Duckworth measures grittiness by devising a 12-item Grit Scale asking participants to rate questions such as: "Setback don't discourage me" or "I have difficulty maintaining focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete."

Her grittiness research also indicates that cadets at West Point with the highest scores were almost four times as good at predicting drop out rate as any of the Whole Candidate Score, which tapped into factors such as SAT, class rank and physical fitness. The highest scorers on the Grit Scale were also 60% more likely to make it through "Beast Barrack," one of the toughest challenges at the military academy, than cadets with average grittiness.

It is noteworthy that half of the items of the Grit Scale assess resilience related to bouncing back from adversity and the other half is actually about ones' awareness of consistent interests and passions to attain long-term goals. In other words, the notion of Grit consists of not only being persistent but also cognizant of one's passions and values in order to achieve long-term objectives.

This author observes that Asian executives, in general, are excellent in the former, but not as good in the latter due to a variety of psychological, behavioral and cultural reasons.

For further application of the research on grittiness to the corporate environment, Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth gives a succinct summary of her findings during an interview at the Google office:

The latest research on Grit reinforces the belief that coaching could provide the safe and impartial environment that Asian clients need to reflect and learn to act based on their long-term vision, aspirations and overriding professional values.

"Begin with the end in mind," as advised by Stephen R. Covey’s classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is particularly poignant and on-target for executives in this region.

Without the big picture context, it would be particularly stressful to be constantly busy and preoccupied with fixing immediate problems and quenching fires for no apparent reasons. This lack compromises one's sustainability, effectiveness and efficiency as a thought and innovative leader in the long haul.

Furthermore, the semantics of “Talent Management” or “Talent” (天才 in Chinese), which could be loosely translated as "Ability from Heaven,” in the corporate world can falsely imply the insignificance of real effort in success.

While endowed giftedness plays an important role in corporate success, increasing observational research demonstrates that natural talent is over-rated and unsustainable when no commensurate effort is made by the executives.

Renowned Professor of Psychology at the Florida State University, Dr. Anders Ericsson's research found that successful performers are consistently good at: 1) Focus; 2) Practice to improve on deficits; 3) Seeking and receiving continuous feedbacks; and 4) Ongoing refinement. All are actual applied efforts, not innate tendencies, by the participants.

Coaching in Asia (CIA), when conducted competently, could rightfully serve as the proper and individualized platform to directly address these behavioral traits and help Asian clients exhibit those "Ability from Heaven” (天才) in action.

At the risk of over-generalization, a few key points of business intelligence on the CIA this week:

1. Highlight that learning agility or more precisely “the rate of new skills acquired with effort during change” is key to success in the modern economy. Ask more exploratory questions such as: "What would you change in your strategy or approach next time?" "Knowing what you know, how could you possibly accomplish your goals more efficiently?" "If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?" or simply "When are you going to take a break?"

2. Alert clients the downside of over-perseverance and excessive grittiness in this region. Help clients be aware of the opportunity costs by being overly driven or gritty without consistency with their underlying reasons and values for their determination. Help make sure that their corporate ladders do not lean against “the wrong walls” as they vigorously climb.

3. Elucidate and clarify the concept of "Less-is-More" sometimes. Illustrate that best athletic performance in the sport world is demonstrated by the well-documented behavioral notion of the "Flow." It is a certain lack of self-consciousness and not over-exertion after voluminous focused practice with feedbacks in the process of optimizing one's performance.

Now that Rio Olympics 2016 is just over, it would be remiss for this writer not to use another Olympic sport to illustrate the concept of Determination in this region. Hammer throw is one of the most dangerous and arguably the most technical of the throwing Olympic events. Athletes in Hammer throw typically rotate their bodies about 3-5 times to build up momentum of the forward movement of the 7.3kg metal ball while the thrower remains essentially in the designated area. With maximized momentum built, they properly release and launch the hammer at the speed of about 29m/s to a distance over 80 meters.

This author believes that Asian executives often found themselves excessively driven, persistent and diligent, but unfortunately sometimes spun within the circle of restricted area without releasing their best potential. Some Asian executives would have to learn to let go of themselves and effectively exhibit their "Ability from Heaven" (天才) in action without over-belaboring themselves. With the right matching and alignment in the dyad between coaches and the clients and other criteria of positive coaching outcome discussed in this series, Executive Coaching could be the pertinent catalyst for motivated executives to do just that in Asia.

Thank you for reading this summer insight series of the CIA (Coaching in Asia)!

“I'm convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” -- Steve Jobs

Author's Profile:

Tommy Chan, Ph.D. is a Michigan State University-trained and registered psychologist with an integrated cross-cultural business background. He regularly coaches and consults 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. He currently runs his private firm PPC, Ltd. after holding senior posts at Korn Ferry and CEB/SHL. Fluent in Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and English, he is a highly demanded speaker, workshop facilitator, psychologist and senior executive coach for over 20 years in Asia and the US. A US citizen based in Hong Kong and Atlanta, Tommy could be reached at:

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