Sunday, July 30, 2006

Managing Global Careers - Dealing with Culture Shock

Today’s global companies operate in highly competitive business environment, they need executives who understand the world and have had experience working in numerous countries/continents. So, today if you were to interview senior executives in any companies will agree that having international experience is vital for career growth. And for organizations having managers with international experience is a source of competitive advantage.

Traditionally MNCs have sent one of their top performers abroad for senior roles abroad. Expatriates were expected to live and work aboard for an extended period of time. These long term foreign assignments were meant to enhance their (expats) career and the organization had someone whom they trust working for them in a foreign outpost. Since persons selected for a foreign assignment were top performers at home, it was assumed that they will succeed abroad too. But after studying expats performance abroad, it has become clear that a top performer may not necessarily perform at the same level abroad and in reality their performance actually drops substantially during the first year of a foreign assignment. Many expats feel dejected in their foreign assignments during first few months that they request a transfer back home or simply change jobs. The main reason for the failure of an employee sent abroad is Culture Shock.

Global Soft Skills

In this article, I will write about dealing with culture shock. In my earlier article on Soft Skills for Global Managers, I had written about the importance of soft skills. However these soft skills are not something that an expat will be armed with when he goes abroad. In most organizations, virtually no training is provided for people who are sent abroad for an extended periods of time (this is changing a bit though - a few MNCs have a one day training program or some form of training - but these are largely inadequate) Almost all organizations today do not have a process in place to manage cross-cultural transitions.

Moreover these soft skills have to be developed over a period of time. In my study, I found that people face the brunt of the culture shock during the time they are learning these vital soft skills.

In other words, getting the requisite soft skills is essential for one to overcome the culture shock.

What is Culture Shock

In a nutshell, culture shock is a state of mind or mood of the expat. When a person is sent abroad - a person undergoes a mood swing: From a high when he/she is selected to go abroad to a low when making the necessary cultural transition. The culture shock occurs during this low phase (see figure-2).

When a person is selected to go abroad he/she feels ‘high’. They are happy and feel rewarded and eagerly look forward for the new assignment. Once in the foreign country, every new thing they encounter is seen as a challenge: finding a taxi or find one’s way to the office or getting around the town etc. At this point in time, people also become a part tourist - they are eager to see interesting places and learn about the place’s history etc. The individual’s mood is at the highest at this point of time. Slowly the mood swings towards a low. After a period of time, the sense of adventure disappears and people start to complain about how different things are in this (foreign) country when compared to their home country. If there is a language barrier - then communication becomes an issue and that further depresses the individual. I have seen that communication in the same language - say English to English becomes a barrier because English spoken in Asia is a lot different than the one spoken in England or US. The person is now more sensitive to cultural differences between his culture and the foreign culture. Every minor change is treated with disdain. And at end of the day, the person is stressed out and depressed. This is called as the culture shock.

Culture shock can be primarily attributed to difference between the cultures of the manager’s native country, work organization and work group and that of the new country, local organization, and local work cultures.

During this phase of culture shock, expat managers find work to be very difficult. Managers often find fault in other people’s behavior and work and even more disconcerting - that their own behavior does not produce the expected results. Expat managers find that the new work environment makes new demands for which they are unprepared and they don’t have the ability to respond to these new demands.


People who are facing culture shock also face high levels of stress. This stress is caused by change: Change of country, change of work culture, change of organization. Separation from family (parents, spouse & children) and friends increases stress. This when added with a sense of loneliness in a new country with different perceptions and conflicting values can exacerbate stress.

Adding to this problem is the fact that expat managers feel that they do not have adequate support structures from their organization to deal with this stress. This makes them angry and spiteful against their organization.

Stress from culture shock make take many forms: anger, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, embarrassment, impatience, identity confusion, irritation, short - temperedness etc. Stress can also cause physiological problems such as sleeplessness, headaches, stomach upsets, trembling hands, high blood pressure and in some cases even a heart attack.

The stress on the individual cannot be suppressed for long and eventually it will start affecting his/her work.

The most common symptom is: Blaming the host nationals or local employees.
Often times, expat managers will blame local employees for every little thing: "You [foreigners] are stupid and cannot even do simple things"

"An Italian manager was sent to United States. One day he sent his travel schedule to his secretary and expected her to do the needful. But on the day of travel he was shocked that none of the travel arrangements were done. He was furious and blamed the secretary of incompetence. Later his other Italian colleague told him that in America, secretaries will do the work only if they are asked to. Sending his travel schedule did not translate to asking his secretary to do the necessary arrangements. Next time the manager began asking his secretary to make the travel arrangements and then they started getting along very well."

The above is an example of how different work cultures results in a blame game.

The next common symptom is: Blaming the company.
Companies cannot tell everything, train the expat manager in everything, so when expat manager does not find something or finds something going wrong he blames the company: "How does the company expect me to do sales if they can’t provide me the address/phone number of the customer?"

The least seen and yet the most common symptom is: Blaming the spouse.
Spouses get blamed for everything - but since this takes place discreetly in the privacy of a house, organizations rarely see it. Blaming the spouse results in greater stress - as they lose the one place where the can relax.

Dealing with Stress

The most common way one deals with stress is blaming the spouse, company and others. But this is the least productive way of dealing with stress. One does not get far by blaming others.
Successful global managers develop their own techniques to deal with stress from culture shock.

Successful managers understand that their own culture is vastly different than that of the host country - and they seek to understand the host country’s culture, the local organization’s culture and the local work group’s culture. During the process they recruit a local "mentor" who is from the host country and they seek to learn the new culture from them: By observing, by learning and by mimicking them. Global mangers slowly learn the do’s and don’ts of the foreign culture.

Comfort Zones are another means of coping with stress. Expat managers slowly create their comfort zones: A dedicated time & place to interact with people from their own culture to recreate their home environment in a new location. This creates a comfortable zone around them. For example going to their home country restaurants on the weekends, going to temples (in case of Indians) or Going to church etc.

Develop other stress reduction mechanisms: Successful expat managers develop highly effective and creative stress reduction techniques. I have seen Indian expat managers practice yoga or play music or involve in some creative activity - like me. I indulge in photography and immerse myself in writing blogs & poetry to deal with stress.

Getting Over the Culture Shock

Normally it takes about three to six months to get over the culture shock and start living a normal life abroad. Slowly but steadily, expat managers learn the subtle nuances of the foreign culture. They learn what the foreign culture considers important and meaningful. They learn what to focus on and what to ignore. They learn when "yes" means YES, when "yes" means MAYBE, and when "yes" means "no". Managers learn to differentiate an individual’s behavior from the national culture.

Over a period of time, they learn to appreciate the foreign culture, learn how to deliver in a foreign environment and stop blaming others. Successful global managers develop creative solutions to existing problems - by creating a fusion of their national culture and the new foreign culture.

Can Companies Help?

Companies or organizations can help a great deal in reducing the culture shock and the associated stress the employee goes through.

Organize a training program. In the first stage, companies must organize a training program aimed at educating the expat manager about the culture of the foreign country. Training programs should contain:

  • Work culture in the [foreign] country
  • Working effectively in the [foreign] country
  • Living (costs, lifestyle) in the [foreign] country
  • Social life (norms, mores etc.) in the [foreign] country
  • Work-life balance in the [foreign] country
Spouse and family members must also be invited to these training sessions. This will help the entire family cope with the culture shock.

Appoint a Mentor. Another good practice will be to appoint a mentor - who is a local national in the foreign country to assist the expat manager in dealing with cultural issues. This mentor - protégé mechanism is very important for the expat manager to become productive and successful in the new environment.

Prepare an introductory package. The local office in the foreign country should prepare an introductory package for all expats coming there. This package contains all the important information like: details of local medicare, policies of local banks, names/address/phone numbers of estate agents, Information on how to get local phone/electricity/utilities connection, Information on local rules & regulations etc.

Have a local orientation program. Once an expat comes to the new office, he/she must be formally introduced to the local employees and have a local orientation program to teach the local work culture to the expat manager.

Closing Thoughts

Culture shock creates a new set of challenges for the expat managers and it is the leading cause for the manager’s failure abroad. Culture shock is inevitable while working in a foreign country for the first time.

Therefore Expat managers must be prepared to face the culture shock and the associated stress. The better the preparation, the faster the expat gets out of the culture shock. Organizations must take an active role in preparing the expat manager to work abroad - conduct training programs, have a mentor program etc.

Also See


Heather said...

Arun - this is really interesting. As a british expat who's worked in Bangkok, Mumbai and now Mumbai as a 'local' (on an indian salary and contract) I have lots of view on this. Its interesting, but I have seen s many examples of expats who just want to remain in an insulated bubble, keep their distance from locals and meanwhile enjoy all the many benefits that expats have to offer. I've seen (and personally experienced) many many difficulties in understanding local cultures (particularly in SE Asia, India is much easier) but I persevered, and it was worth it. I've also really tried to integrate wherever possible, and I hardly ever spent time with expats. My point is really that I do believe that expatriates do have some kind of a 'duty' to accept that conditions are never going to be like 'back home', to appreciate the many many benefits that expatriatedom has to offer (huge salaries, luxury lifestyles) and most importantly, try to understand and work with, not against the local culture - learn the language at least a little, spend time reading about local traits, and develop some passion for their adopted country. No its not always easy but I think its part of the deal. Big fat salary and 'hardship allowance' ... should demand commitment to getting to grips with a new and exciting culture. Otherwise - stay at home!!!

sustainablejj said...

Thanks for the article Arun. Similar to Heather, I've lived/and still am living throughout Asia (Japan and Thailand) for over 6 years now. I have a few 'expat' friends, but the majority have always been 'locals' for the most part.

I think the 'comfort zone' you mentioned is very important - I think it has become a 'trend' recently among some Westerners (perhaps 'white guilt' about cultural imperialism and so on) to try to blend in so much with the locals, to the point to where it's not so healthy and a bit psychologically damaging. I think establishing a 'balance' is very important, and is a delicate art - the whole 'universalist-cultural relativist' thing. Perfecting this 'art' makes my 'expat' (I personally do not like the term 'expat') experience so intriguing. I have a degree in Anthropology so this could also explain my outlook!

You might know that Thailand is currently undergoing some major political and societal upheaval. There are some very strong fascist sentiments here, that's a fact. In such situations, it's quite difficult to know exactly how to perceive and/or react to such things ...

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I think the 'comfort zone' you mentioned is very important - I think it has become a 'trend' recently among some Westerners (perhaps 'white guilt' about cultural imperialism and so on) to try to blend in so much with the locals, to the point to where it's not so healthy and a bit psychologically damaging. I think establishing a 'balance' is very important, and is a delicate art - the whole 'universal list-cultural relativist' thing. Perfecting this 'art' makes my 'expat' (I personally do not like the term 'expat') experience so intriguing.

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