Jumping On Assignment Abroad? Make sure your parachute opens successfully

Planning a trip somewhere outside your homeland means studying a map. So, too, is the case when parachuting into an environment that's foreign to you

It's just a matter of logic. As the world's markets continue to open, more and more businesses are realizing that hands-on experience is worth the travel effort. According to the Global Business Travel Association, spending on business travel last year was expected to top $1 trillion. So, whether it's to present at a convention or trade show, negotiate a deal, or take on a new assignment, you may soon be the next to embark. Yet, no matter the reason for travel, what makes your assignment abroad successful often depends on the perspective you take and the effort you make in preparing for what awaits you.

When in Rome…
Working among employees whose cultures are different from yours can be challenging. Managing a team comprised of multiple cultures can be scary. Styles of communication, greetings, perceptions of time are among a host of continuua from which misunderstandings emerge. And just because you are working in Rome (or Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, or Seattle), acting like a Roman might do more harm than good. 

Often, planning a trip somewhere outside your homeland means studying a map. So, too, is the case when parachuting into an environment that's foreign to you. And even when you have a map, once you arrive, you may find that the landscape isn't quite the same. Just because you think you know where you're going doesn't mean that you'll get there, at least not directly. So what can you do?   

Before you arrive
Educate yourself about the culture. Many books and websites can help, but realize that culture, or rather cultures (organizational, regional, national), can be far more complex and subtle than the how-to guides you might read. Simply put, your intent—translated into words and gestures—may not match others' interpretations. Visit to experience the culture first-hand, but don't assume a week-long stay on Miami Beach will ensure that you "know" American culture. If you think you can complete the sentence "All Asians…," you may be hurting your reputation much more than what you are showing with your know-how. Such generalizations offend others and brand you as ignorant or careless.   

Immerse yourself. Ideally, you can arrive a week or two before the assignment begins. This gives you opportunities to experience business transactions, develop a sense of their values (e.g., do they work to live or live to work?), and learn some of the ways and taboos of the culture. Mistakes can be forgiven, but only if they are followed by humility and an eagerness to learn. If relocating, involve your family (including children) in the exploration and learning. They will expand your scope of observation while engaging in a "joint venture" rather than following you and reacting to what they find.   

Engage in reflection and re-education. We all have dysfunctional habits and behaviors. Reflect on feedback received in your career to remind yourself of problematic habits that may cause you problems and work on them before getting there, and commit to doing this while on assignment. We learn best by regularly engaging in reflection and adapting and evaluating our "new" behaviors. Then, consider habits that contributed to your success in the past and assess their compatibility with the new environment.   

While on an expatriate assignment

Be interested as well as interesting. We all want people to like us, to find us interesting. Being interested in others is equally as important, if not more so. When you engage others, ask questions, and show sincere interest in who they are—as employees and people—you open yourself to learning and seeing the world through different eyes.   

Establish and manage expectations. In the same way you are learning to understand others in your adopted home, they are learning to understand you. Facilitate the process by engaging your team in a conversation about your strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and preferred leadership style. Sharing this information lets people know where you're coming from and what they can expect…even while you adapt your approach.   

In addition, you can prepare others for your humanness with a statement like, "It won't be long before I make my first mistake. I would be grateful if you could support me by telling me so that I can learn from you!" And if you respond graciously to those willing to point out your errors, the bonds of trust—and the willingness to give additional feedback (and receive yours)—will grow.   

Be sensitive to nonverbal feedback. Whereas a Dutch or German person is likely to directly share what he or she thinks about you and your approach, a Japanese or Brazilian may choose a more indirect approach. Do not rely on the adage "no news is good news" when gauging your effectiveness at managing across cultures. Instead, pay attention to the silence, shoulder shrugs, and eye contact (or lack thereof); it may be a sign that you need to ask for additional inputs. How willing conflict-averse team members are to respond to your direct requests with straightforward feedback will vary according to their individual preferences, the time spent interacting with you, and the psychological safety they feel in your presence.   

Learn how to apologize. It's easy to make a mistake, but not so easy to recognize—or apologize for--it. Some leaders feel that apologizing for mistakes makes them less credible in their subordinates' eyes. Research has shown the opposite; a healthy dose of humility goes a long way in building connections and trust with subordinates. Avoid hiding behind the cultural shield in your apology. "Don't be offended, I shout because of my Latin temperament" won't take you very far.   

Working across cultures is not unlike parachuting. The risks increase when the skydiver underestimates the jump and prepares less, when the certainty of competence diminishes the focus on the environment, when corrective measures are not taken because critical information is dismissed as unimportant, when adrenaline runs high and irrational automatic behavior takes over, and ultimately, when the feedback of the mistakes made in the process comes… too late. However, by understanding a culture before your assignment begins, you'll increase the chances of landing on your feet!

 
Suzanne C. de Janasz is Professor of Leadership and Organization Development at IMD and author of Interpersonal Skills in Organizations (2012, 4th edition, McGraw Hill). She teaches in IMD's MBA and Orchestrating Winning Performance programs, as well as in numerous customized executive development programs.  

Alejandro Altieri is a licensed Psychologist and Senior Executive Coach specialized in Leadership Development at IMD. He works internationally designing and delivering customized executive development programs for companies, as well as coaching teams and individuals in their journey towards success.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from IMD, a leading business school based in Switzerland. http://www.imd.org]

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