FOREIGN EXPERIENCE AND EXPATRIATE ASSIGNMENTS
One of the most challenging ways of confronting cultural differences is living and working in a foreign country for a temporary period.
BUT I AM CHINESE! Changying, a Chinese American with a master’s degree in international business who is fluent in Chinese, had taken an assignment in China with a multinational firm. She felt she would be a bridge between the firm’s Chinese and American managers, but she was surprised to find that she had misunderstood the environment. After a year she noted: “My understanding of managing effectively came primarily from trial and error. I learned the hard way, falling on my face. But each time I fell, I’d assess what the critical learning of each incident was. When accepting an overseas assignment one must have an open mind. China has one of the highest expatriate assignment failure rates in the world, and inability to manage across cultures is the most important reason, because expatriates fail to understand the thought processes and motivation of local employees.”6
As this case demonstrates, cultural intelligence is often gained by trying out new behaviors and observing their effect, even when they don’t work out as planned. Also, the observation that understanding how local employees think is important to expatriate success cannot be overemphasized. Foreign visits and assignments require, perhaps more than any other situation, that you try to understand the behavior of others in terms of their own cultural background. They offer opportunities for intense experiential learning. If, like most people, you have had very little cross-cultural training before going overseas, you will have to adjust on the fly.
In foreign experience, unlike work in multicultural teams, we are typically focused on the single culture in which we are immersed, and the experience consequently tends to be intense and emotionally charged, causing high stress levels until we adjust. When everything seems to be working against us, it is difficult to see the situation as a meaningful
learning experience. Figure 8.2 shows a model of the phases that some experts believe
people go through as they adjust to a foreign environment.7 The process follows a U-shaped curve through a honeymoon period, culture shock, attempted adjustment, and then mastery. In the honeymoon stage everything is new and exciting, as it would be to a short-term tourist. In fact, most fast-moving tourists never get beyond this stage, making tourism often too shallow an experience for the development of cultural intelligence. In the culture-shock stage, the differences between what the expatriate is used to and what the new culture provides become apparent, as the individual either learns—including developing his or her CQ—or fails to learn, how to adapt. Those with high CQ get into the routines and rhythms of daily life in the new country and move eventually to mastery, while others never properly adjust.
FIGURE 8.2. The U-curve of cross-cultural adjustment
A real possibility for some people is that the adjustment is so successful and their view of the new country so positive that they lose all desire to return home. Others meet romantic partners in the new environment, and the couple must make the tough decision about which of them will make the other’s country home.
BREAKUP IN BEIJING For Dublin natives Jonathan and Julie Henderson, Jonathan’s move from his corporate position in Amsterdam to Regional Vice President for Asia seemed like a wonderful opportunity: a big promotion and salary raise, the chance for the couple and their children to experience Asian culture, a home in a luxurious
expatriate development with good schools for their two children, a minimum three-year contract with a guaranteed subsequent job in South America, and a part-time job for Julie in Beijing with the HR consultancy she had worked for in Europe. It was a chance the adventurous Hendersons were up for. They traveled to China with high hopes.
But two years later it seemed that everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. First of all there were minor problems: the move had not been handled well by HR at Jonathan’s company, there were unexpected expenses due to Chinese bureaucracy, and communication was either too indirect or was hampered by poor English skills among some of the locals in Jonathan’s organization. Then there were contextual discomforts: high air pollution, poor sanitation, difficulties in sourcing food secure from contamination, living in a compound cut off from proper cultural experience and having the children gawked at by locals whenever they went out. In addition, Jonathan’s job required much more travel than he had expected. Julie, left at home with an ayi (maid) to look after the family, felt under increasing stress. This was compounded when their two sons each suffered major medical problems and she realized the frightening inadequacy of local medical resources. She even had to travel with one child to Hong Kong to ensure adequate treatment. And the children said they didn’t like China; they couldn’t relate to the locals, and they missed their Irish relations, who they had seen a lot when they were in Amsterdam. Their unhappiness upset Julie further. When did I sign up for this? she thought.
Two years into the assignment, Julie went to her hometown, Dublin, for a work-related conference, where she also met up with her Irish family. In Dublin, the children enjoyed a happy reunion with their grandparents and other relations, and Julie was unexpectedly offered the job of her dreams, with a global consulting firm. And in her own home town! Time for the family to repatriate, surely? But Jonathan was contractually obligated to continue in his job in Beijing for another year and did not want to break his link with the company and perhaps jeopardize his entire career. Reluctantly, the family agreed to split up for at least the next year, Jonathan remaining in Beijing while Julie re-settled in Dublin with the children.8
This case shows that cross-cultural issues may be only one of many factors affecting expatriate assignments that may cause problems for assignees, their organizations, and their families. As a result, many organizations operating internationally are re-thinking their whole approach to such assignments, with alternatives including shorter stays, flying visits, and more employment of locals. On the other hand, some expatriates find living overseas a very positive, sometimes life-changing experience.
As the case also shows, cultural intelligence may be important for the whole family. If you want your children to grow up with a high CQ in a world that will increasingly value it, why not give them a taste of international experience while they are still young and flexible enough to make the most of it? They will need support and guidance, but gaining cultural intelligence as a family will be a great experience.
For those in international organizations, employers can assist adjustment to overseas postings by providing appropriate training. There is evidence that cross-cultural training assists with overseas adjustment, relationships with host nationals, and employee performance. However, some organizations believe cross-cultural training is not effective and do not provide it. If you have been given this book by your company as part of an education program, it is a sign that the company is giving some thought to these important issues. If your staff has cross-cultural issues, consider giving copies to them.
DOING IT HER WAY Margaret is English. She has always enjoyed travel. At nineteen, she traveled for two years in Europe. She funded her travel mainly by working in Greece as a bartender and even gained supervisory experience in a restaurant. Her European experience sparked an interest in both history and in business. So on her return to the UK, she went to university to study history and economics.
When she finished the degree, Margaret decided on a career in teaching. But she first wanted to travel again, so she gained a place with JET (Japanese Exchange Teaching)—teaching English to adults in Japan, an opportunity she thought would be culturally, linguistically, educationally, and financially valuable to her. Her assignment carried a two-year contract.
Margaret settled well into the JET work in Osaka, where she was soon approached by a local government organization wanting to hire her to set up an English-language program for its
employees—an opportunity for further personal and professional development. Her students were well motivated, and this six months of additional part-time work helped Margaret to add to her savings and gave her a friendly social circle. She took trips around Japan with her adult student friends.
Margaret also had enough money and time away from teaching to do about three months’ touring per year in Asia. She traveled with an American friend, a colleague in the JET program. Meantime Mama-san and Papa-san—a café-owner couple with whom she boarded, adopted her almost as if she were their own daughter. They showed her around, taught her about Japanese ways, communicated with her only in Japanese, and gave her part- time work in the café. Margaret’s cultural learning was dramatic.
After two years, Margaret became aware that she wanted to return to Britain. She wanted to see her parents and brothers again, and she wanted to own her own home. As to her teaching career, she thought about the rudeness and poor self-discipline of British school students and compared them unfavorably to those of her polite and motivated adult Japanese students. She realized how poorly paid teachers were. She returned to the UK with some money but no real plan. She bought a small house in her home city.
She got a job as a sales rep for a company selling database solutions and soon realized that she had found her forte—selling. Then, two years ago, she was approached by a software company and took a sales job with it. The job is good but doesn’t utilize all her energy or fulfill all her interests. She aspires to start her own business. She learned a lot from Mama-san and Papa-san and the way they had turned their little Osaka café into a gold mine! But she feels she lacks skills and knowledge relating to the wider business world, so she has enrolled for an MBA. She has a business plan—to start an export-based Internet company selling British products overseas. She sees Japan as a key market and believes her understanding of the language and culture will assist her greatly.
Among the things Margaret learned overseas were the Japanese language (and a smattering of other Asian languages), patience, and what she calls “cultural sensitivity”—particularly how to interact with Asians, an ability she uses a lot with Indian and Chinese staff in her current employment. Overseas, she
gained self-knowledge, self-confidence, and a broader perspective. She enhanced her cooking skills, her ability to speak in public, even her abilities in her sport, judo. And of course she now has a special interest in, and affinity for, Asia, especially Japan and its people, and good contacts there. She knows Japan will continue to be important in her life.9
Margaret’s self-initiated expatriation has not only dramatically increased her cultural intelligence, it has transformed her entire life, including her employment, her long-term ambitions, and her identity. She is now much more of a citizen of the world. In her determined internationalism, she is typical of many of today’s young people. They want to see the world. Because employment in other cultures forces us to come to grips with those cultures, young people increasingly work as they travel, and the acquisition of cultural intelligence is integrated with their career development. As one returnee from extended foreign travel put it
I have learned to look at the world around me with a childlike wonder and to drop any preconceived notions…. I have learned that just because I have grown up indoctrinated by a certain set of rules regarding how relationships and society in general work, that does not make them universally true or right.
If you are a middle-aged reader and are thinking, “Gee, I wish I had thought like that when I was young,” it’s never too late. Talk to your children about it!
ACQUIRING CQ THROUGH OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE
As shown previously, spending time living and working abroad is an important way of developing cultural intelligence. But it does not happen automatically. It requires a significant interaction with the new culture, providing the opportunity to practice mindfulness and develop cross- cultural skills. Some leading companies use global experiential programs in which high-potential employees work in multicultural groups to solve problems in developing countries. An example is Project Ulysses at PricewaterhouseCoopers.10
PROJECT ULYSSES PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) consists of legally independent firms in 150 countries and employs more than 160,000 people (5 percent of whom are partners). Project Ulysses is an integrated
service-learning program initiated by PwC in 2001. Participants are sent in multicultural teams of three or four to developing countries to work with NGOs, social entrepreneurs, or international organizations. These teams work on a pro bono basis in eight-week field assignments helping communities deal with the effects of poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation. As of 2008, 120 PwC partners from thirty-five different countries participated in the program. The overall goal of the project was to develop global leaders in PwC’s worldwide network of firms. In reporting on the leadership needs of PwC, Ralf Schneider, a PwC partner based in Frankfurt and head of global talent development said, “It was clear it was not going to be a standard business model with a standard leader. We needed to take people outside of that box.” Knowledge gained by individuals is transferred back to the organization not only by participants resuming their jobs but also through formal debriefing sessions that permit PwC to continuously refine the Ulysses model.
Examples of the project teams are the following:
Brian McCann, a PwC client service partner from Boston who specializes in mergers and acquisitions was the only U.S. member of the 2003 Belize team that included colleagues from Malaysia, Sweden, and Germany. Their mission was to work with Ya’axché Conservation Trust to evaluate the growth and income-generating potential of the eco-tourism market in southern Belize where 50 percent of the population is unemployed and 75 percent earn less than U.S.$200 a month. Brian reported that the learning experience from both a personal and a professional perspective was profound.
Dinu Bumbacea, a PwC partner from Romania, and his teammates from Thailand, Australia, and the UK worked with the Elias Mutale Training Centre in Kasama, Zambia, along with the United Nations Development Program and Africare on a strategy for economic diversification in the region. Dinu said that the experience gave him new insight into operating in a multicultural environment and team, and in dealing with the public sector.
Programs such as Project Ulysses provide cultural intelligence development opportunities combined from both multicultural teams and overseas experience. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to work
for organizations with such extensive programs. You can of course develop cultural intelligence from oversseas
experience without such formal programs. However, you will need to prepare, focus, and be mindful. Every cross-cultural incident—at your work, in social life, even when shopping—will be an opportunity to reflect, to learn, and to experiment. You will need to be in the right frame of mind to acquire CQ. Why are you going overseas? What do you want from the experience? Escaping a bad situation at home or hoping for career advancement on return may not be the best motivation. Self-development, a desire for adventure, a wish to broaden your horizons and meet new kinds of people, or a sense of mission are better. They will help you to live in the here and now and to take a genuine interest in your new environment and its people.
You will need to prepare. Read all you can about the new country you are to visit and find out about its cultural background. Study the cultural dimensions we introduced in Chapter 2, and try to figure out where your new home fits in. Seek out people who have been there, and ask them about their experiences. Consider also the various personal issues involved (such as those experienced by the Hendersons in the earlier case), including potential effects on compensation, family life, social networks, lifestyle, health, career, and stress.11
In many foreign locations there are opportunities for newcomers to feel at home—restaurants and communities set up by expatriates, international hotels modeled on Western norms and standards, and even, for example in Saudi Arabia and China, compounds or housing developments designed for specific groups of foreigners. To develop cultural intelligence, you should avoid the temptation of spending all your time in these environments, which are essentially just extensions of home. Remember our advice to get out of your comfort zone, and seek genuinely local experiences.
As in the cases of the Hendersons and Margaret, the most common reason that people return early from overseas is family issues. Make sure your relationships with family members you are leaving behind are considered. Involve family members who are going overseas with you in the preparation, and support them in the adventure. It is their opportunity to acquire cultural intelligence too, and their adjustment is just as important as your own.
You will have to be self-forgiving and patient. Even with plenty of preparation, you will doubtless make mistakes. Your performance in the
first year abroad is unlikely to be your best. You may sometimes need to laugh at your own inadequacies and to remember that you can learn from even negative experiences.
The future for many is not just intercultural but international. We, and our children and grandchildren, will more and more have to be able to feel at home wherever we are and to function with the ease and familiarity that is habitual to us at home. The opportunity to travel to foreign countries is precious. The investment is our time and aspirations and the energy we give to the process. Part of the dividend we receive is enhanced cultural intelligence. As we hope this book has shown, the reward will be well worth the effort.
Rules of Cross-Cultural Engagement Last, regardless of the specific cultural context, there are several rules of engagement for interactions with others who are culturally different. Become knowledgeable about your own culture and background, its biases and idiosyncrasies, and how these are unconsciously reflected in your own perceptions and actions.
• Deliberately avoid mindlessness: expect differences in others. See different behavior as novel, and suspend evaluation of it.
• Switch into a mindful mode, becoming attentive to behavioral cues, what they may mean, and the likely effect of your behavior on others.
• Adapt your behavior in ways that you are comfortable with and believe are appropriate for the situation.
• Be mindful of responses to your behavioral adaptation.
• Experiment with adapting intuitively to new situations, and use these experiments to help you acquire a repertoire of new behaviors.
• Practice new behaviors that work until they become automatic.
Summary Developing cultural intelligence requires experiences that involve both acquiring knowledge and applying mindfulness. Such development involves a series of stages, from simply reacting to external stimuli to proactively adjusting behavior in anticipation of changes in the cultural context. Some underlying individual characteristics support this development. Ways of developing cultural intelligence can include formal
education and training, but experiential learning, for which our multicultural environment provides many opportunities, is critical. Time spent living and working overseas is an excellent way to improve cultural intelligence, but one should first know a good deal about oneself, and one should understand the phenomenon of culture shock and the process of adjustment. Practicing mindfulness enhances this ability. Following a few simple guidelines for intercultural interactions can assist in developing the ability to act competently across cultures, adding a valuable skill to your repertoire.