Why managers fail to prepare for culture shock abroad
Most businesses cross borders these days. Sooner or later, even proudly virtual firms must send some of their best people abroad in search of promising resources, markets or investors. Overseas assignments are usually promotions as well, with higher authority, positions and salaries than the newly assigned expatriate had at home. But taking an expat position is not just another promotion. Even seasoned executives who had comfortably double-paced corporate ladders before will meet unexpected hurdles once they take their careers abroad. Whether high-flyers admit that or not, every great career is a result of teamwork. Successful managers maintain control, speed, quality and creativity because they can draw inspiration from others, delegate details, master expectations from bosses and clients and know whom to call when they get stuck. If they do well and get promoted, they access smarter people to inspire them, more helping hands, sharper supervisors, stakeholders and legal, marketing, human resource or technical specialists to get them unstuck. They expect the same from overseas postings: better engines, thinner air and less obstacles so that they can keep top speed.
But expat assignments slow even the most committed and experienced managers down instead of speeding them up. The reason is a group of phenomena we call culture shock: adapting to a new country, city, climate, language, office, team and boss is hard while top performance is required, not to mention strange food, daily shopping annoyances and settling in an uprooted family. Even if amazing relocation and human resources teams shoulder mundane tasks, newly appointed expats experience what in my forthcoming book Dragon Suit I call the ‘boss baby’ phase: having to relearn basic professional behaviours, paired with the temporary loss of productivity and self-confidence. By relearning I don’t mean high-level leadership stuff often labelled with fancy words like ‘competency’. I don’t mean advanced cross-cultural negotiation tactics, brain-based motivational techniques for diverse teams, or ‘Guanxi’ in China, collectivist leadership in Japan, or modern adaptations of ancient wisdom anywhere. I mean the very, very basic skills people learn before age 6. In an unfamiliar culture, managers must learn to properly greet people in the morning, and again differently in the afternoon. To dress for the day, table manners, to enter a meeting room, where to sit and who should talk first. How to converse differently one level up or down the hierarchy. Mistakes are inevitable, frequent and to observers, amusing. Not for the new expat, who is used to being right and expected a boost in productivity, authority and ego. Managers often fail their first round of cultural adaptation because they never anticipate such growing pains. And the more unexpected it is, the more painful the ‘boss baby’ phase becomes. Expat bosses can stall previously functional teams in weeks, whether team members are locals, foreign or both. Sadly, human nature encourages blaming outsiders for our mistakes, and newly appointed expats consider almost everyone around as an outsider. “My delegation skills are fine: the problem is that they don’t do what I tell them to do,” a German executive coaching client told me in Shanghai, with no intended irony. For weeks, he had waited for technical managers to brief him on production problems, while they expected him to question them and offer solutions. Both sides blamed the other from their respective trenches. Human resources management teams don’t prepare future expats for culture shock because they don’t know how, or because they have tried and failed. Instead, like the candidate, they hope that the overseas job will be just another promotion. This time, they hope, candidates take a plane instead of an elevator, but otherwise they can unpack their stuff, log in and get to work. If that were the case, they could assign expats the way they match talent with any other job: based on qualifications and performance record. They try to avoid cultural issues because values and traditions seem messy, differ from place to place, and individual candidates respond differently. One previously successful European manager can fail miserably in Thailand or India, while another with similar credentials can do well. Why is that? Cross-cultural workshops and coaching often suggest simplistic steps: observe, understand their rules, then imitate and everything will be fine. There are many reasons why that approach doesn’t work in real human communities, from kindergarten to board rooms. First, newcomers must grasp the exact nature and magnitude of differences between one’s habitual culture and the new one: are they braver, livelier, kinder or more disciplined than people at home? Second, anticipating culture shock requires clarity about one’s own values, which few people have without expert help. A mental map of the home culture, the target culture and the candidate’s own temperament shows the magnitude and nature of likely culture shock, and also the candidate’s likely reaction to the new situation. As in any other walk of life, there are more bad combinations than good ones. In the worst cases, expats can be in denial about their ‘baby boss’ existence for years.
Most conflict is actually with ourselves. Expats, especially if sent by large firms, aren’t helped by their GSD (‘get-stuff-done’, where ‘s’ can stand for worse than ‘stuff’) attitude: this how we’ll do it whether the hosting country likes it or not. Many executives I coached had successfully learned the vocabulary of adaptation and peppered their speech with ‘empathy’, ‘active listening’, ‘alignment’ and ‘agility’ while trying to force hime-grown methods onto locals. An American manager proudly presented his “zero-tolerance policy” to gifts for new clients in Japan. A German one felt “sick and tired of small talk at business meetings” in China. A French one in Thailand refused to discuss family problems with team members because “I am not their baby-sitter”. Many such expats never learn: in a few years they are sent home in the firm knowledge that they were right and the country was wrong. Understanding culture shock and its remedies can save firms lots of wasted time, effort, talent, money and damage to their brand among local workers, applicants, clients, suppliers and investors. It’s alright, for instance, to send inflexible managers abroad: smart people are often stubborn. But knowing their lack of cultural adaptability helps the company choose the right expat strategy, for instance surrounding a rigid manager with flexible and culturally agile helpers. Human Resources can move adaptable candidates to culturally more exposed locations, while keeping less flexible managers in major cities, in offices and apartments that could be in Boston or Berlin rather than Beijing or Bangalore. Culturally curious candidates can report to local bosses while another expat next door reports virtually to HQ in their native language. Once they get the cultural facts right, the only limit is the decision-maker’s imagination. Our dawning age of ‘slobalisation’ and new divisions may cause the illusion that less travel and more online hours reduce the impact of cultural differences on business. It is an illusion: even conferencing software and self-driving vehicles work differently based on where the programme was written. Wherever they go, smart and experienced people carry around their values and habits, but that’s exactly what makes global cooperation and multinational projects unexpectedly innovative. Culture shock has been a hidden force behind some of the most cherished brands and life-saving innovations you see around you right now, and it will put new ideas to the test as long as people try to turn them into solutions anywhere around the globe.
To learn more about culture shock in leadership and discuss your challenges and experiences with fellow managers, join my upcoming free webinar ‘What is culture shock and why should business leaders care?’ on March 9, 2023. Details and registration at: https://www.holch.biz/events