Vizualization of the stages of providing co-worker advice © Dr. Sabine Horst

This Has Major Potential!

Peer Coaching on the promotion of intercultural skills

Diversity offers a whole host of opportunities to companies, plus plenty of potential, but it also holds challenges and threats. Dr. Sabine Horst explains how companies can make efficient use of the potential offered by growing levels of internationalization and intercultural workforces, also exploring the importance of peer coaching. Dr. Horst is director of Competencies. Communication. Cultures. – the Stuttgart- based Steinbeis Consulting Center.

It all started with a business simulation, the kick-off for an international workshop for managers working alongside external consultants to look at different ways to solve urgent practical issues being faced by the participants in the workshop. The aim of the simulation was to lay a solid foundation for the next part of the workshop, which involved working on different business issues. Everyone knew that things would have to change – or get better – especially how people worked together. A number of problems needed to be dealt with, and in certain areas it would involve changing tack – the name of the game was “think again.”

The employer, a medium-sized company, had undergone major expansion over the previous two decades, especially at an international level, primarily through mergers and acquisitions. Whenever growth or integration initiatives were embarked upon, the focus lay solely in products, technology, and processes. In parallel to this, there were changes in the core field of business, partly fueled by digital transformation. People were increasingly under time and cost pressure, and this had a permanent impact on workloads. It was a similar picture with unforeseen challenges.

The aim of the workshop was to identify “pain points” and introduce changes, ideally based on concrete tasks. To do this, certain aspects would need to be pulled out of the complex subject matter to provide focus. In this case, the underlying assumption was that neglecting valuable resources and the potential provided by internationalization and intercultural aspects was creating barriers – and work. It was an assumption that needed checking.

The case study groups were set up to consist of six people from different countries and departments. The idea was for them to compete against one another. Which group would be the first to come up with the right answer to a given question in the defined time frame of 20 minutes? The groups were given cards with individual items of information, which initially appeared unconnected. There were also other rules.

Vizualization of the stages of providing co-worker advice © Dr. Sabine Horst

After 14 minutes, one study group was convinced it had worked out the right answer and the team marched off triumphantly for a coffee. Everything felt relaxed. And it turned out they had indeed got the right answer. The second group came to the same conclusion in exactly 20 minutes as requested. They did, however, emphasize that this was an interim result as there was not enough time to check the answer. Instead, they did the checking over a cup of coffee. There was a certain sense of nervousness but things became noticeably more relaxed when their result also proved to be right. The third group was still nowhere near working out the solution after the 20-minute deadline. According to one participant: “We got bogged down in details.” The uneasiness felt by the “losing” study group was tangible during the coffee break and people avoided talking about it. Everything experienced by the groups was important for the workshop as it reflected what happens in everyday work situations. One assumption was confirmed, namely that one of the levers required to solve current problems would be to address “interculturality” in a broader sense. All groups reflected on their work together and here are some of the excerpts of the factors that helped the first group win:

  • The colorful mixture of participants due to the different countries, cultures, personalities, and specialist experts sometimes caused confusion, but when it was time to make important decisions it became a positive part of solving the problem, due to the different views and creativity.
  • People switched between the different roles of moderator, provider of ideas, sceptic, mediator, decision-maker, etc. and interaction was dynamic, strongly influenced by a good sense of teamwork. Central to this within the team were the willingness to assume responsibility, respect, and empathy. The only role that was fixed was that of the minute-taker, who also carried out calculations. The person who did this worked in accounting.
  • Working as partners of equals made it possible to strike the right balance between speaking time and inputting with personal, social, and specialist skills. “All in all, we had everything we needed,” concluded one of the group participants.
  • Feeling like you’re part of the group made people more ambitious and also helped people enjoy working together. Experiencing work with co-workers by adopting different roles from the normal role at work helped the group members break down prejudices.
  • Humor and keeping the atmosphere informal made it possible to feel more relaxed about misunderstandings, also due to different levels of language skills. One manager made an important contribution which, when she thought about it, was clearly about social aspects and relationships. Her actions and her impact on the group encouraged others to suggest their own ideas, unlike in some business meetings which, if anything, demotivate people.

All groups successfully identified constructive aspects and areas of improvement. Factors that were considered a hindrance included:

  • People being intolerant toward mistakes, feeling a strong need to play it safe, or lacking confidence regarding their own competence. This was attributed to the influence of a large number of people in the groups as a result of their authoritarian or hierarchical culture.
  • When people adhere rigidly to roles (and don’t rotate tasks) the result is that skills are of limited effectiveness.
  • Once decisions had been made, they were not challenged and as consequence people just kept on thinking in the wrong direction.
  • Fundamentally misjudging levels of competence based on preconceptions or stereotypes.

To also make good use of the diversity of resources and the potential this offers at the workplace in finding creative solutions, the teams concluded that a professional tool would be needed. The method that was identified for doing this was peer coaching for leaders on same management level, and this had already proven successful while working through topics at the workshop. It had also been a success because it established a useful framework for the success factors identified by the group. To make sure the tool worked properly, it was given so-called leadership corners.These can be arranged differently to match different occasions and they can also be implemented virtually.

Diversity offers a variety of opportunities to business enterprises, but it also entails a large number of challenges. To ensure good use is made of every opportunity, it is therefore probably a good idea to approach the issue strategically, for example by introducing diversity management and providing development opportunities to managers and staff. In the example described above, the approach taken was tailored to an urgent problem and it showed that organizations and managers are capable of reacting quickly to situations, even without an overarching strategy. Nevertheless, in a world of growing diversity on a number of fronts, organizations and companies need to address this area on a variety of levels, adapting structures and systems accordingly and providing support and development opportunities to staff and managers.


Dr. Sabine Horst is director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center Competencies. Communication. Cultures. The services offered by the Steinbeis Enterprise range from management and human resource development programs to co-worker coaching, strategy and concept development for Human Resource Development, consulting on the Steinbeis Enterprise Competence Check, and advisory services and support for SMEs when applying for ESF funding.

Dr. Sabine Horst
Steinbeis Consulting Center Competencies. Communication. Cultures. (Stuttgart)