Introduction – Ensuring Strategic Impact and Protecting your Investment
Corporate globalisation often requires companies to send professionals abroad to man offshore operations, critical to achieve and sustain a competitive advantage in the international marketplace.
For multinational companies effective management of expatriates on international assignments is critical – you would not put a key person into a new job or an important negotiation without the context, the ‘rules of the game’, or the necessary preparation, skills, and knowledge. It wouldn’t make business sense. It could be detrimental to both the organisation and the individual. Yet international organisations often do this with expatriates or those on overseas assignments.
Many MNC’s put people into a country they know nothing about, a culture that may have values very different from their own, with attitudes and etiquettes that elude them. Expats and their families may arrive ignorant of the local norms and ways of doing business, without knowledge of the language, or appreciation of the importance of relationships or hierarchies or whatever is central to that culture. And we are surprised that there are difficulties, or the work stalls, or that the assignment fails with deep personal trauma and at great cost to the organisation. So, when sending your staff overseas, you need to protect your investment if they are to have strategic impact.
Dr. Peter Curran, Lead Consultant with Farnham Castle Intercultural Training, has over twenty five years experience with organisations in Learning and Development, Human Resources and Project Manager roles.
In this article, Peter shares with readers his personal experiences of working on special projects overseas and gives some insight into how to avoid the cultural pitfalls that can and do lead to international assignment failures.
Avoiding an expensive faux pas
I had started an assignment in Angola. All seemed to be going well when, unexpectedly my opposite number on the project (a senior state company manager), objected to an action I’d been pursuing and raised it with the Chairman. Suddenly the whole $6m project was at risk. I found out that my ‘management by objectives’ and task-driven approach to get things done had inadvertently caused my Angolan colleague to lose face, and that I had subverted the hierarchy by my active networking up, down and across the organisational structure. I had to apologise, backtrack, rebuild bridges, and invoke senior management support – it was hard work restoring the damaged relationship.
So, it is not enough to be well meaning and simply apply a standard western approach, expecting everyone else to just do it your way. We have to understand the ways that things may be done differently, find out how we can adapt our approach as well as getting tasks completed, and discover a modus operandi that is acceptable and works in that organisational and cultural setting.
Recognising power structures
Cultures have different attitudes to hierarchy, position and status. Many are more hierarchical than our own, where those at the top are very much in charge, and who you know and have a relationship with is very important. And often the line between personal and business matters is more blurred than we are used to. Where hierarchy is important, it is important to acknowledge status and titles, roles and responsibilities, power lines in the organisation (often vertical), approvals and permission. Such cultures require respect to be given appropriately, sometimes through gestures such as eye contact, through addressing senior people first, and ensuring appropriate protocols are followed. Undertaking a speech to launch a project in South Sudan at which the Vice President was present meant I had to take advice on how to address His Excellency and other senior figures in the audience. Clearly, showing appropriate respect is crucial if you are to achieve clarity and goodwill rather than misunderstanding and offence.
Communicating and building relationships
When I arrived as an expatriate in South Africa, I sent out an email to my new network across thirteen African countries requiring urgent action. There was not one response. I followed up with an even more urgent request, which achieved the same result; electronic silence. A similar communication at my base in the UK would have been responded to almost immediately. On consultation with my boss, she asked ‘Have you met any of them, or spoken to them on the telephone?’ I replied, ‘No, I’ve not had the time.’ She advised, ‘That’s what you need to do.’
I quickly learnt that in such cultures, people do not deal with those who they don’t know, and that where possible I had to meet people face-to-face first, that I had to invest some time in getting to know them before I could expect them to respond to my urgent requests. Learning how things get down in a particular setting and what forms of communication work best is fundamental.
Communicating well across cultures means recognising when ‘yes’ actually means ‘no’ and finding another way to get accurate information. It is understanding that in some cultures forming and maintaining relationships is viewed as more important than undertaking tasks, and in fact is the only way of getting tasks done.
Managing expectations and time
When I saw the tight project plan that my western based organisation had put in place, I was sceptical. I knew they hadn’t left enough time for the key decisions that would have to be made within the partner state organisation in Angola, where many decisions had to be pushed right to the top, in this case the country’s President. Learning from the frustrations I had experienced with the project I was running – everything took longer, logistics were more difficult than at home, skill levels more varied – I realised that I had to build in more time, contingency time, in the schedule since people’s view of time here was more flexible than my own, and the unexpected frequently happens in developing country contexts.
Dealing with awkward requests
On more than one occasion, there were requests (quietly made) to divert project funds. ‘I would like us to use some of the project fund to make a trip to…’ was one such approach, where the intended excursion had no relevance to the work. To say ‘no’ directly can cause offence or damage a key relationship. But to say ‘yes’, if it’s a questionable or corrupt practice, is not tenable. On this occasion the response was, ‘Let’s discuss at the next Steering Committee meeting’ which met monthly and where project and financial issues were debated openly by all the partners. The request went away. In such situations, the solid and transparent processes of your organisation and its values can help you deliver a reasonable and ethically defendable response.
Showing respect and avoiding offence
Acting disrespectfully and causing offence, even if done unintentionally, can disrupt or damage business. This can be caused simply by being ignorant of customs or protocols – actions that may be seen as inconsequential or harmless in your own culture, may be a big issue elsewhere. For example, a few years back I was preparing to run some training in Sharjah, a conservative emirate of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The organiser advised me; ‘Be careful with contact and whatever you do, do not shake hands with the women.’ I needed to be mindful of unspoken rules about physical contact, of gender relations, and also of religious needs such as time for people to pray. Such situations do not require us to change our own values, but rather to adjust our behaviour out of respect for the values of others and to avoid causing offence.
Transferring skills and knowledge
An important role of many expatriates or assignees is to transfer skills and knowledge to local staff – to coach them. But comments I have often heard from such expatriate coaches are: ‘It’s just quicker to do it myself.’ ‘The person I allocated the task did not deliver.’ ‘I don’t know if they really understood,’ ‘He took offence when I gave him some constructive feedback.’
Being an experienced technical expert is not enough; coaching across cultures requires skills where you are able to transfer knowledge clearly without belittling the other person and in an appropriate style to that culture. You have to check understanding in ways that get an honest answer, to tease out the real issues or difficulties without making someone lose face. And when you give feedback, it has to be done very sensitively, mindful of the on-going relationship.
Staying safe and healthy
The site manager, upon my arrival in a remote part of South Sudan, gave me my induction/security briefing: ‘You’ll need a torch at night because of the snakes, zip the tent door up and sleep under the net if you don’t want to be eaten by mosquitoes, don’t touch the dogs as three local people have died of rabies this month, beware travelling on the roads because of bandits, take care in the bush due to landmines…’ Leaving the compound for some exercise the following morning, I was perturbed when chased off the path by a dog!
Your arrival in a new country or a new setting is when you are most vulnerable – it requires someone with good local knowledge to show you what’s safe and to introduce you to the ‘rules of the game’ as quickly as possible. Then you can stay safe and healthy. Organisations have a duty of care to ensure such induction and support.
Preparing and supporting
So what can your organisations do to help your expatriates and oversees assignees become culturally fluent as quickly as possible?
Firstly, prepare them adequately through cultural awareness, language training, country knowledge, and cross-cultural communication skills. The aim is to equip your expatriates with at least some of the cultural knowledge and skills they will need. Promote positive, open and curious attitudes to other cultures, and encourage (even select) people who are flexible, adaptable and resilient.
Secondly, provide on-going support, such as management and HR support from the home base and locally, and the advice of local managers and other expatriates/assignees in country.
Protecting your Investment
Doing the above will help your expatriates avoid faux pas, build relationships and communicate clearly, show respect to power structures and culture, coach others effectively, and stay safe and healthy. Ultimately, you will help ensure their strategic impact for your organisation, and protect your investment.
Bio – Dr. Peter Curran
Peter Curran, Lead Consultant with Farnham Castle Intercultural Training, has over twenty five years experience with organisations in Learning and Development, Human Resources and Project Manager roles.
A Chartered Member of the Institute of Personnel and Development (MCIPD), Peter holds a Batchelor’s degree (BSc, 1st Class Honours) from London University, a Master’s degree (MA) from Oxford University, a doctorate (PhD) from the University of Surrey, and a Master’s degree (MSt) in International Relations from the University of Cambridge.
Peter was BP’s Learning and Development Manager for Africa, based in Cape Town. He learnt to speak some Portuguese working in Angola and has led training projects across five continents. In Angola, Peter led a large project with the national oil company, working with both expatriates and national staff in Luanda. This was firsthand experience of working in a developing country affected by many years of war. Learning some Portuguese on the way, Peter grew to enjoy Angola’s rich culture, made Angolan friends and visited other parts country including Soyo, Lobito and Benguela.