We’ve probably said it ourselves to reassure friends or family: "Just be yourself and everything will be fine." However, if you have ever uttered that phrase to reassure a colleague, friend or family member as they embarked on their first international assignment, you were wrong.
When we tell that future expatriate to just be herself what we often forget is that the notion of being yourself comes from a U.S. perspective and may not work in countries that operate under a completely different paradigm.
So, what is a future expat to do?
Questioning the Answer
More often than not, the exciting international assignment starts with a dull questionnaire. The Human Resource department requests and signs an agreement for S.M.A.R.T. trainings from a chosen external consulting firm. The engaged firm then sends out a standardized needs assessment which often includes the following:
- Which strengths do you think will enable you to succeed in your new international assignment?
- What do you want to learn during this training to enable you to be successful in your new assignment?
As a cross cultural trainer, the answers to the first question vary little and fall under a basic cultural assumption found within most of us born and raised in the United States: "I’m friendly, informal and get along with most anyone."
This answer, while seemingly benign, raises a red flag — and more questions.
The ability to put people at ease and draw on every human being’s desire to be accepted and recognized for who they are, is definitely a plus when it comes to melting the ice.
Yet, being informal can also be misinterpreted as being disrespectful — something all cultures despise. Humans all over the globe feel the need for respect in both personal and professional environments.
In order to know what might be considered impolite or a "mistake" in another country, the future expat has to delve into his/her basic cultural assumptions, beliefs and values.
The Science Behind Ethnocentrism
A pre-departure training provides information as to what the expat will experience, but in no way, shape or form can a training prepare the person for her reactions to her expectations. Just as the placebo effect will influence expectations, received ideas will do the same.
Today, neuroscience has proven what we long assumed about how the brain functions. The idea that we can tell somebody something once and they get it or can apply it, is simply not true. Trainings are thus ineffective when a comprehensive, perspective shift is the end goal. As an adult, our neural hardwiring has been functioning one way for a certain number of years. The sense of disorientation we experience in a foreign environment is a physical experience of not yet having formed the neural pathways that allow ourselves to feel at home in this new place.
Frequent flyer miles do not create new neural connectivity. Living, breathing and finding one’s way around does. Neural connections can only be built through a voluntary focusing on wanting to learn something. When people find answers to questions on their own, the "Aha!" feeling is the reaction as the brain releases a massive dose of neurotransmitters like adrenaline.
So, if a short lived training cannot do what it promises to do, what is the alternative?
Training vs. Coaching
Coaching is a conversation with the purpose of raising awareness, increasing listening skills and empowering self-reflection in a secure environment.
In opposition, training is a quick fix. Training transfers knowledge and provides solutions.
Effective coaches enable their clients to work out solutions on their own resulting in the "Aha!" feeling that signals the beginnings of new neural connections. Coaching is a journey of continuous improvement based on various researched methodologies such as G.R.O.W: clients defining goals, determining how realistic they are, focusing on options and the will to generate the actions required to achieve these commitments (Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore)
Knowing that international assignments can easily cost a company ten times an employee’s salary, preparing the expat correctly becomes a minor investment when compared to the cost of a failed assignment.
As author of People First, Jack Lannon once stated: "If you want your profits to grow, you must grow people first."
Eureka!...In Small Doses, Over time
At many training programs, we have all had that "Eureka!" feeling, only to realize later that we can't remember what we had learned. Research has shown us that many small bites of knowledge, digested over time, may be more efficient than large meals of methodologies. A 1997 study of 31 managers by Baruch College researchers Gerald Olivero, K. Denise Bane, and Richard E. Kopelman found that a training program alone increased productivity 28 percent, but the addition of follow-up coaching to the training increased productivity 88 percent. Initial training with small, consistent doses of coaching seems to be the most effective way to successfully prepare the expat. Coaching accompanies the assignee to avoid backsliding or leaving the trained notions unpacked or back at home.
Ask any person going through a transition what would be the most useful thing a company could provide – the most common response is someone to call on to help me through this phase.
This response is proof that the theory behind coaching works — all you have to do is give the expat someone to talk to, someone to listen and it can make a big impact on productivity and innovation, as well as leadership and team effectiveness.
Learning to live, work and thrive abroad is complex because we are complex. As adults, we have fully formed communication styles, interpersonal skills and perceptions. So, when we are asked to redevelop these skills in different ways, it is difficult. A pre-departure training will provide the expat with practical information pertaining to public transportation, safety issues, childcare and housing. Follow-up expatriate coaching then becomes essential as the international assignee experiences the U-curve adaptation period while the brain develops new neural pathways.
The long-lasting "Aha!" feeling belongs to the culturally sensitive, reflective, adaptable and productive assignee.
(First published in Mobility Magazine, July 2008, an ERC publication)