Have your people got what it takes to move seamlessly...

Have your people got what it takes to move seamlessly between one country and another? Or could stress and dislocation affect your bottom line. Dr Lesley Perman-Kerr writes

The increasing globalisation of operations requires a stream of key personnel with sound international credibility, who can move seamlessly between home and abroad. For both individuals and organisations, the mutual opportunities for growth and development can be perceived as a win-win situation. However, given the severe shortage of internationally able individuals and the fact that many businesses are just beginning to build global talent pools1), it is crucial for organisations to analyse the most advantageous approach to growing and retaining the talent they require.

One solution is to place people overseas. Responding to the costs and risks of long-term expatriation, some organisations have focused on short-term and commuter assignments. These in themselves carry significant drawbacks from fatigue and lack of continuity. In addition, research by the Cranfield School of Management (2000) has shown that long-term expatriation has not decreased with the increase in shorter assignments, – 48% of the companies surveyed predicted an increase in the former.

Physical and psychological risk
Despite the need for internationally effective personnel, organisations have been slow to establish best practice in selection, preparation, career planning and repatriation. The consequences have been poor retention and the failure of many assignments2).

Few would question organisational responsibility for the well being of employees. People are regularly listed as 'the organisation's most important asset', but it is hard to see more than lip service being paid to this concept. It is only with increasing health and safety directives and the success of high compensation claims that employers are taking workplace psychological injury seriously. Privately, they often express the view that individuals who cannot cope are weak – if they are worth their salt, they will just get on with it!

However, learning to live and work in an unfamiliar culture can present significant risks both to psychological and physical well-being. A routine business transaction can become transformed into a complicated minefield of cultural misunderstandings that leave all parties with a sense of confused discomfort. All things being equal, we do business with people we like, people we perceive as being similar to ourselves. Thus, this 'business dislocation' is detrimental to the bottom line.

Unfamiliarity with the local culture can also pose significant physical risks for expatriates. Unknowingly flouting a rule with severe penalties or experiencing targeted crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion and robbery, are real threats in certain areas. Since these are now standard tactics for groups seeking international publicity or ransom money, it is not surprising that this set of dangers has received the most attention and is most considered when assessing risk.

Several international security consultancies offer close protection, well-tried practical and effective measures to reduce risk, and training in survival techniques and life saving behaviours alongside negotiation advice, should the worst occur. Such preparations are not controversial, yet preparing people psychologically to face an environment where their assumptions about life and behaviour may be challenged seems 'pink and fluffy'. The essential link between psychological fluency and physical safety appears to be lost or disregarded.

Managing transitions
Life transitions, such as a change of home, work role, social activity, and even a change in eating habits, cause a degree of stress in the most sophisticated of individuals. Their response will depend on the amount of adjustment required, the degree of preparation, and their personal resilience. It follows that a cluster of transitions can provoke severe stress reactions, making people vulnerable to a variety of psychological, physiological and behavioural symptoms, which may include a sense of overwhelming helplessness and panic.

Moving to live and work in a different location necessarily involves key transitions. When the move is within a familiar culture, it is still stressful, but the practicalities of living and working and the ground rules of social interaction are implicitly understood. However, when the new location is in an unfamiliar country, there is the added major complication of learning to live and work under new, and often incomprehensible, 'rules of engagement'. It is the difference between being an expert driver who completes the necessary operations automatically and a learner who has to think laboriously and anxiously about every action. Individuals cannot fall back on an automatic understanding of everyday life, but must meet situations with wearying vigilance, as they attempt to decode unfamiliar rules of behaviour and language.

We continually adjust ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands, what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. Cues to behaviour, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or social norms, are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which are unconsciously learned.

While we can predict the reactions of business colleagues in our own country with some accuracy and understand how to behave in most situations, we are often on unknown territory internationally. Take one small example. Our overseas clients often comment on the 'coldness' and reserve of many British colleagues. It is not until they understand that reserve is often fuelled by a desire not to intrude or to cause embarrassment that the penny starts to drop, and the behaviour, while still uncomfortable, no longer provokes a sense of bewildered rejection. Include non-verbal gestures and facial expressions, and the magnitude of the task becomes obvious.

The failure to appreciate the effect of your behaviour on another is a potential risk for expatriates. Imagine a Saudi and a Briton both trying to create a comfortable personal space in which to converse. The Saudi moves forward and the Briton moves back; the Briton feels uneasy when the Saudi gets too close and the Saudi feels affronted as the Briton steps back. Neither may recognise the impact of his behaviour on the other. In their own eyes they are both behaving normally. The dance continues and misunderstandings fester, resulting in hostility where none is warranted.

The feeling of being at the mercy of others and unable to understand and therefore move confidently through the physical and social environment is a key symptom of culture shock. Oberg (1998)3) has defined it as, 'the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse'.

An investigation into trainee adjustment problems4) confirmed that the stress reaction known as culture shock provokes:

  • fatigue, due to the effort of adapting to a new way of behaving and communicating in the language of the host country ("sometimes I felt too tired to speak in French")
  • feelings of isolation and homesickness ("I feel lonely in the evenings and very vulnerable")
  • feelings of rejection either towards or from the host population ("I went out for a meal and the host seemed to be hostile to me")
  • confusion about how to behave and what is expected ("by mistake I addressed my boss by his first name. This meant that I had broken with tradition and I felt embarrassed")
  • unfavourable comparisons between home and host cultures ("The banks open at stupid times. I was left for a weekend without money because I could not get to the bank")

    All expatriates suffer from some degree of culture shock as they adjust to the host culture. The degree to which they are debilitated by it depends on their understanding of the host country, their personal attitude and possessing sufficient flexibility to confront problems positively. Often 'Type A' personalities are chosen for overseas assignments, because of their ambitious drive. However, these individuals can be too rigid and tense to meet the challenges they will face, particularly in a country that is less structured, or goal-oriented in its work culture, than the home country. I recently watched a senior executive pace his office floor as he vented his incomprehension of the 35-hour working week in France, "How can they do it? How can they be productive?" He was totally unable to sympathise with the French attitude to the work-life balance. Imagine the same individual in Greece, where the balance is even more relaxed.

    Sometimes the experience can be so disorienting that expatriates retreat into their own cultural ghetto and remain there, creating a parody of home where antagonism towards the locals becomes common currency. In such circumstances, developing the international identity sought so keenly by global organisations is scarcely achievable.

    Minimising the risk
    Marx2) has carried out extensive research into international assignments. One of her conclusions is that success depends on a combination of personality and preparation, with both the individual and the organisation taking responsibility for the accomplishment of the venture.

    Successful expatriates recognise that they will experience a sense of disorientation. They give themselves time to adjust, and, where misunderstandings are encountered, they take the trouble to find out what has gone wrong. Cultural differences are observed, but not classed as second-rate. At the same time, successful expatriates do not go native, recognising that they must stay on solid ground by honouring their own beliefs and value system. Experience may modify and enrich their understanding but losing the essence of what they bring to the organisation from the home culture is unproductive.

    The successful international manager is likely to have the following characteristics:

  • flexibility and receptiveness to new situations and practices
  • a sense of humour
  • the ability to tolerate failure
  • the facility and willingness to communicate feelings and thoughts appropriately to the culture; a positive regard for others
  • the ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations non-judgmentally
  • a desire to learn about other people, places, ideas
  • positive and realistic expectations.

    Most importantly, successful expatriates must have a strong sense of self. They do not abandon what they believe, but are open to new information, perspectives, or ideas. These individuals are neither weak nor overbearing in their relations with others.

    Military and law enforcement personnel refer to improving defensive capabilities as 'hardening the target'. One of the first objectives of any cross-cultural preparation programme must be to ensure that people feel secure in themselves and in the host country and, therefore, paradoxically, less defensive and more open to their new situation.

    The first priority is for individuals to know themselves psychologically, including their motivation and suitability for the assignment and their ability to handle stress and anxiety. Learning stress management skills and understanding how to channel the anxiety caused by stress in constructive, positive ways keeps individuals motivated and enthusiastic. By learning self-help techniques, individuals become psychologically resilient and more able to withstand challenging situations.

    Second in importance is to know the new situation. Understand the 'dos' and 'don'ts' of safe behaviour and how to manage personal security at home and in the street. Good language skills are invaluable, but so is a practical understanding of the country, and the general pattern of life there. The expatriate should not be continually confronted by the stress of not knowing how to observe the simplest everyday routines, such as getting to work, shopping or being able to follow and take part in general conversation. In the business environment, it is essential to understand the infrastructure and etiquette of business transactions, the motivations, management styles and the hidden rules of everyday working relationships.

    The return home often incurs the greatest risk, as expatriates, particularly after an extended period overseas, may simply no longer fit back into the old way of life. They may find everything smaller and less challenging. The company structure may feel claustrophobic and family problems left behind may suddenly reappear. Experiencing new ways of life can be a double-edged sword for both individuals and organisations.

    Mutual responsibility
    Although the organisation has an essential part in preparing its personnel, individuals also have a significant responsibility to make themselves fit for what they have agreed to undertake. Cosseting does not produce the resilient world player, but thoughtful preparation minimises the risk of losing seasoned, effective international ambassadors.

    The effective management of psychological risks requires significant commitment to practices that may seem soft or irrelevant compared to the hard issues on which business performance is measured. However, we would do well to be reminded that there was a time when measures to protect the safety of workers were seen as too expensive to be practical. History has shown that the opposite is true, and that ignoring safety costs much more.

    Without an understanding of the difficulties and without contingency plans in place to ameliorate them, the whole process can be very costly, not least to the reputation of the organisation. The cost of appropriate selection and briefing will always be more favourable than the cost of failure. Choosing the right individuals and giving them the skills necessary to flourish in a new environment is simply sound business practice.

    Dr Lesley Perman-Kerr is the managing director of Vivant Artemis Ltd, a specialist consultancy providing emergency psychological services for organisations.

    Tel: 01727 868 754 , E-mail: info@vivantartemis.com
    1 The Economist Intelligence Unit, 1998
    2 Marx, E, Breaking through Culture Shock. Nicholas Brealey Publishing /Intercultural Press, 2001.
    3 Oberg (1998)
    4 Student Trainees Abroad: an Investigation into Adjustment Problems (de la Croix, EV and Perman, LMV 1988), Report for the Department of Education and Science, 1988.


  • Breaking Through Culture Shock by Elizabeth Marx
  • When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully Across Cultures by Richard D Lewis
  • Psychology of Culture Shock by Colleen A Ward, et al
  • Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business by Alfons Trompenaars, et al
  • Building Cross-Cultural Competence: How to Create Wealth from Conflicting Values by Charles M. Hampden-Turner, et al
  • Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival by Geert H Hofstede

    Further details from www.amazon.com

    David Gamble, executive director, AIRMIC, comments: "I have seen overseas postings fail because the family and, in particular, the spouse was unhappy in the new environment. This can cost the individual in terms of his or her career path in their organisation and can also cost the company concerned a great deal of money in retrieving the situation.

    "There may also be problems with repatriation. When you are on the other side of the world running an organisation, often to all intents and purposes you are your own boss. When you move back, particularly to head office, it is a considerable culture shock. The qualities of resilience and self-reliance that you built up overseas, particularly when heading an operation, are different from those required when you return to a political and consensus environment."