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How to Avoid Expatriation Failures?
This is my site Written by Thomas Tøth on October 1, 2012 – 12:15 AM

Over the last couple of years, being an ex-expatriate myself, I have spoken to quite a few professionals with expatriate experience. When groups of (former) expatriate managers meet I find that one of the subjects most often discussed is ‘How to act as a leader or manager in a foreign cultural setting‘.

I was luckier than most: When I went to India to work I was enrolled in a team of four expatriates in the company with substantial experience from India; and all with the inclination to share their experiences with me. Also, I was so fortunate to meet two Indians rather quickly with whom I had an almost instant ‘mental connection’. I ended up becoming good friends with both and thus I got ‘equipped’ with two confidants with whom I could ask all sorts of questions and quite rapidly get a deeper understanding of Indian life than I would ever have managed without them. These relations was (and is) characterized by mutual curiosity and openness to the other’s perspective. 

Alas, not all expatriates are as fortunate as I was. A lot lack the support I had from my knowledable Danish colleagues and my two Indian confidants. Consequently, they are left to themselves when it comes to figuring out how to act (as a leader) in a foreing cultural setting.

Questions like ‘how do you motivate subordinates?’; ‘how do I gain respect?’; ‘what can I do to emphasize importance of a task?’; what do I do to make people turn up on time?’ et cetera are all difficult questions when acting as leader in a foreign culture and many expatriates learn the hard way: By repeatedly failing! And as a conseqence they may have a hard time adapting at work; they may be considered rude or even appauling by their local subordinates due to irreparable communication failures; and they may find themselves unsuccessfully trying to untie a Gordian knot – or in other words: THEY FAIL AT THEIR JOB.

An example of cultural failure and learning:

“Jimmy is older, he is more senior and he is my boss. And this means that even when we have an argument, we observe the proprieties […] I speak with him in a polite manner, and I make sure to express myself so that he has a ‘back door’ – if in the end it turns out that what I said was right, I can say: ‘Well, that really was what you meant from the beginning, wasn’t it?’ […} Some of the biggest cultural mistakes I’ve made in China concern situations in which I was right and the solution I suggested were eventually used, and it was witnessed by others. […] Once I sent out a mail that made it clear that I recommended solution A, and people knew that Jimmy had recommended B. Jimmy called me, very upset: ‘Listen, either I have to cut you down to size or take a major face loss myself – what on earth were you thinking?’ […] ‘Why did you send a copy of that mail to everyone in the office?’ […] This situation was one of my first eye-openers”.

– Gertsen & Søderberg (2012): ‘Expatriation: Stories of Intercultural Face-Work’ in Gertsen, Søderberg & Zølner ‘Global Collaboration: Intercultural Experiences and Learning’. Palgrave Macmillan.

Now, expatriating people is not exactly cheap and naturally companies would like the biggest possible return on the expatriation investment? So, what can they do?

Here’s a couple of suggestions:

  • Make sure that people with an appropriate mindset are expatriated: Technical skills and proven managerial abilities in a mono-cultural setting just doesn’t cut it: Expatriates need to be open to other cultures; curious; able to adapt; and master assertive communication.
  • Do not underestimate language. People with poor skills in the language spoken at work in the host company will have a hard time adapting, simply because it is harder for them to understand the nuances of communcation and decipher messages as well as to make them self understood.
  • Prepare them well. Working in foreign cultures is not easy and a lot need’s to be learned by experience, but that does not mean that understanding of the culture, the history, pleasantries, appropriateness et cetera cannot be introduced prior to expatriation via cultural crash courses and meeting experienced expatriates.
  • Make sure they are recieved well by already established expatriates in the host country and time is dedicated to help the new expatriate get started. Both at work and in life in general.
  • In cases, where families are expatriated too make sure that their needs are catered for: accomodation, schools, social activities and social network are the keywords.
  • Assign a local “culture-buddy“. Indeed building true friendships with local’s is the best way to learn about culture, but that may take time. Assigning a culture buddy is the second best option. Such a culture-buddy may be another expatriate; a trusted local manager; or an outsider e.g. a consultant. What is most important is that the expatriate has the possibility to openly discuss cultural issues with someone with intimate knowledge about the local culture.
  • And finally make sure that the organization are listening & learning from the expatriates experiences. These experiences are the key to future successes – and indeed often one of the most important reasons for expatriating employees.

Needless to say, abiding to the abovementioned suggestions do not guarantee successful expatriation. But it sure helps!

Comments, thoughts, ideas and “war stories” are more than welcome 🙂

See also: The Evolution of an Expatriate

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