Expert Series: Power, Privilege, Rank and Culture: What Difference Does Difference Make? – Part 3

In this third article in our series, we turn our attention to the presence and impact of rank and culture on coaching.

Rank is a relative position, standing, or station that a group is granted in a social hierarchy.  Rank is socially assigned, not individually chosen. Like other dynamics we have discussed in this series, rank can bring access and privilege, or marginalization.  Also like our other topics, although always present, rank can be difficult to recognize. As Rumi said, “We rarely hear the inward music, but we’re all dancing to it nevertheless.”

Sources of rank include education level, age, alma mater, title, profession, military rank, organizational affiliation, client base, and much more.  In coaching, the impact of rank can be felt in many ways. Clients may be intimidated by our rank and may think they have to be perfect (and therefore distant). We coaches may feel intimidated by our client’s rank and play it safe rather than being bold in our questions and observations.

Equally impactful is culture. Culture is the collection of behaviors, beliefs, and norms characteristic of a group, e.g. a particular country or a social or ethnic group.

For some coaches, the focus on culture is exciting and intriguing as it has the potential of moving us beyond ethnocentrism. For others, it represents a “safe topic” behind which people can hide to avoid the more difficult issues of ‘isms.  We believe culture can be both. As coaches, we can help clients recognize and evolve beyond their cultural programming, lenses, and frameworks and open up new worlds, or we can collude with our clients to keep them from facing something by generalizing an issue with the word “culture” to avoid admitting the ‘ism that is at play.

As coaches, we are in a unique position to support our clients to see the invisible cultural and social lenses that they look through every day. Being able to acknowledge and embrace these lenses is core to our work.


  • Be aware of the impact rank and culture has on you and your clients so you can check assumptions and prevent or minimize projections.
  • Be forthright, sharing your experience of your own rank and culture.
  • Be curious, asking your client questions, such as:  How might your culture or rank be influencing how you think about this? How do they affect our coaching relationship? Your work relationships? Your life?
About the Authors:

Halli MacNab, PCC is a life and leadership coach and trains coaches with Accomplishment Coaching.  Current President of the Association of Coach Training Organizations (ACTO), she is passionate about supporting coaches to initiate brave conversations about power, privilege, rank, and culture.

Compass International’s Karen Curnow, MCC is committed to developing powerful, compassionate, and equitable leaders across cultures. Having lived in five countries, Karen serves as a coach, consultant, and faculty member at Georgetown University’s Leadership Coaching program.

Karen and Halli helped create the groundbreaking Calling in Power and Culture Summit, bringing together over 30 coach education programs to focus on dynamics of power, privilege, rank, and culture in coaching.

The Expert Series is brought to you by choice Magazine as part of our ongoing efforts to bring opportunities for learning and growth to the coaching community. Delivered in four parts every two weeks, each series covers useful topics >>> Archive <<< for business development and coaching insights, serving the needs of leaders in all areas and walks of life.