Culture Resource Centre

The Art of Fitting In

The art of fitting in

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Expatriates’ Readiness for International Assignments

Are expatriates required to be compatible with local colleagues and clients during an international assignment? In other words, how important is ‘the art of fitting in’ when professionals transition to an expatriate position?

A situation
An Australian female manager who attended my Cross-Cultural Management postgraduate course, contacted me again a few years after completing her MBA. Her organisation proposed a 2-year leadership role in China to further improve her general management skills in a globalised work environment. She wanted to have a conversation with me about this upcoming international assignment. Remembering her as an assured, accomplished student I was slightly taken back during the meeting: she seem to falter, hesitate, and overall a bit uncertain about her upcoming assignment.

I asked her what really worried her. She looked at me and said, “I am worried that I do not fit in”.

To elaborate on the situation: besides from being tall, blond hair, blue eyes, and speaking (only) English (external observable factors), she also showed behaviour consistent with being raised and educated in an egalitarian, self-oriented, and short-term focussed culture (internal cultural programming). According to cross-cultural research*, the opposite seems to be the case in the Chinese culture.

Fitting in
When unpacking the concept of ‘fitting in’ across cultures it suggest that people need to assess a cultural situation and to becoming like the others to be culturally accepted. This could imply adjusting ourselves to meet the expectations of culturally diverse others, resulting in denying the power of your own ideas to stand out, and thus potential creativity might be lost.

This is not the most favourable way to go if you want to show your organisation that you have further improved your general management skills and are ready for the globalised work environment.

I would like to rephrase her question “how do I prepare myself to make this international assignment successful considering possible differences“.

Key factors for successful international expatriate assignments

Rather than trying to fit in and losing out on potential creativity, let’s explore some key factors to ensure the best chance towards success in an international assignment.

Personal traits
First, assess a set of invaluable personal traits that should be taking into account before selecting and offering an expatriate an international assignment (IHRM – the organisation), and considering and accepting (the expatriate) the assignment. Is the expatriate:

  • Adventurous – willing to go where you haven’t been before and being resourceful and try out new methods or experiences.

  • Curious – motivated and interested in learning about the new culture, people, environment, and job.

  • Flexible – ready and able to change so as to respond and adapt to different circumstances.

  • Open-minded – objective when you approach new things, being comfortable to listening to other points of view, and being willing to admit what you don’t know.
These personal traits are essential to have at your disposal and tap into when on an international assignment.

Cultural competence
Second, we also need to look at preparing expatriates to be culturally competent and ready for effective intercultural interactions. Does the expatriate have intercultural competencies such as:

  • Intercultural sensitivity:
    – How actively are you interested in other people and their cultural backgrounds?
    – How much you notice when interacting with people from other cultures?
  • Intercultural communication:
    – How mindful and self-reflective you are when communicating with other cultures?
    – How effectively do you adjust communication style to meet needs of culturally diverse people?
  • Building commitment:
    – How much do you invest into developing relationships and building culturally diverse networks?
    – How creative you are in developing solutions that satisfy the interests of different stakeholders?
  • Managing uncertainty:
    – How comfortable you are with cultural complexity? And how well do you deal with it?
    – How effectively do you use cultural diversity as a source of learning and innovation, as a tool for creativity?
Impact of failed international assignments

Impact on expatriats
When international assignments fail and early repatriation is on the cards, expatriates need to anticipate the likelihood of e.g., suffering loss of self-esteem and confidence, damaged professional reputation and future career disruptions, mental and emotional toll on expat and family, and perhaps no job to return back to (your replacement is likely still there).

Impact on organisations
However, it is not only expatriates who suffer from failed international assignments. Organisations should also be prepared for failed international assignments. Research shows that:

  • Failure rate of international assignments is 25% to 40% to developed countries, and in under-
    developed countries it reaches 70%.
  • Cost of international assignments exceeds three times the cost of the domestic annual salary (with no Return on Investment when assignments fail).
  • Failed assignment can harm companies through damaged client relations and problems with local business and government.
  • A lack of follow-up quality repatriation services by IHRM to expats (and family) sees that almost 40% of repatriates leave the organisation within a year, and another found that 50% left within two years of their return (with all that investment into corporate knowledge and experience).

You won’t fit in
“You won’t fit in” I said to my former student and explained that rather than being afraid she would not fit in, she better focus on preparing herself for the job at hand and to be able to complete a successful international assignment. Reflect on your personal traits and develop the required cultural competence to better manage the complexities of cultural challenges expatriates will (likely) run into.

Wrapping up

My ex-student and I got to work: we explored her readiness for her upcoming intercultural interactions, and identified those areas in which she had strengths, i.e. things that came naturally to her or skills that she may already spent time learning, and which areas needed to be further developed in order for her to be more effective in new intercultural situations. She was confident, prepared and ready for intercultural interactions when she left for China over a month later.

Rather than ‘the art of fitting in’ and possibly losing out, aim for belonging: to be somewhere where you want to be, and they want you because you understand them. This starts with preparing for the journey, quite literally.

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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