Globalization continues to be one of the biggest economic trends of the 21st century. With some educational institutions in the Middle East reporting more than 3000 expatriate applicants per month from all over the world and employing up to 60 different nationalities, it is clear the education sector is one of the leaders on globalization front with mobility of Faculty and administrators at the highest level in history. Many well known educational brands are also partnering with local institutions to broaden their student population and tap into lucrative international markets such as the Middle East and China. Top rated institutions such as New York University, Imperial College of London, the Sorbonne University, Wharton Business School etc can be found in Abu Dhabi for example. In addition, many institutions in areas such as Saudi Arabia, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan are using English as the language of instruction. The US, Europe and Canada also remain top destinations for expatriates notwithstanding the current security and strict visa requirements. These developments suggest a significant increase in the number of opportunities for expatriate faculty to join the global work force. In addition, most countries base their employment visas on level of qualification which makes it relatively easier for expatriates in the education sector to relocate to foreign countries as they tend to be the high qualifications.
However, an overseas posting may sound very romantic, but once reality sets in, it can be a significantly more daunting experience than initially anticipated. Increasing our understanding of the impact of cross-cultural experiences on individual effectiveness and quality of life is becoming a key issue that will determine the outcome of expatriate assignments. In my role as international HR management professional and expatriate executive coach, I have often heard expatriates say that relocating from one country to another has been one of the most stressful, nerve-racking and disruptive events of their lives. The issue of adjustment becomes particularly profound if one moves to a completely different culture without familiar support systems such as friends, family and extended networks of familiar daily contacts. In addition to the psychological effects of relocating to a strange culture, both direct and indirect costs of moving one's family can be very high to both the organization as well as the expatriate family. Of course, importing expatriate faculty from abroad does not come cheap. Direct costs such as salary, relocation, housing, education assistance, travel, repatriation and training costs could end up being triple the amount that a domestic employee would cost. When things go wrong, indirect costs may include interrupted employment, negative impact on career development, damaged relationships and interrupted schooling for children.
Following the increase in the mobile work force, the management of the international HR function has also become more complex. As the globalization challenges on the HR front have developed rapidly, very few HR functions have been geared to adequately address some of the associated issues. These functions seemed to have been overtaken by the speed with which globalization has developed and many strategies that relate to the selection, management, development and relocation of expatriate employees have not been based on a solid foundation of research and often consist of knee-jerk reaction to fill an urgent position at a foreign station. In addition, there is a trend towards choosing the most technically competent candidate, even though the characteristic that make them successful in their home country do not make them suitable for an international assignment. Many international HR functions find themselves reactively focusing on processes, procedures and policies. Dealing with local laws, visa demands, expatriate orientation, taxation issues, security clearances, cross-border pay practices and internationally competitive conditions of employment remains a sharp development curve for most international HR departments. The top 5 international consulting companies seem to have made some great advances towards a more robust approach to their global work force management practices and in some cases have are able to rotate highly skilled employees with relative ease.
There are many horror stories involving expatriates. I recently received a call from an expatriate teacher who refused to accept an offer to move to the Middle East unless the family was given an apartment with a view of the mountains. Well, the particular area that they were relocating to did not have any mountains for more than a hundred miles, with a desert in between. Another request was from a single expatriate who wished to bring her twelve cats and another who wanted a villa with a big garden at the back for their two pet ponies. Managing expectations of wannabe expats can be a hair-raising (or losing) occupation.
Are birds of a feather more successful?
A question that I am often asked by both management and expatriates is whether there is an ideal expatriate profile. In this series I hope to unravel the failure and adjustment factors of expatriate employees and will try to address this question of an ideal profile. I will consider the determinants of expatriate success by commenting on what I believe constitute the ideal personality, experience, knowledge, skills and attributes and finally, family circumstances. Later in the series I will comment on cross cultural challenges and coping strategies, with a view to lower the risk of failed expatriate assignments. I will also attempt to provide a development model for expatriates who wish to explore opportunities abroad.
Darwin wrote that "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change". This quote has some significance to the profile of the successful expatriate employee. Adjusting to a new culture, language and position is not easy and leads to culture shock for most expatriates and I have seen aggression, anxiety, depression, general irritability and feelings of low self worth as a consequence. Negative physiological reactions such as insomnia, backache and asthma are also often observed.
In considering the ideal personality profile I have found that personality provides the foundation upon which the rest of the more dynamic determinants of expatriate success can be developed. The reason for this is that personality also helps us deal with many of the other factors and informs our coping styles, even if there are other individual or contextual issues that are not ideal. I prefer to look at the overall profile assessment as a process of determining risk for both the expatriate and the institution. The aim is to produce an individually crafted development plan that will either assist the expatriate with preparing for the assignment or facilitate the adjustment process once the expatriate has relocated. Although a reasonable amount of empirical research has been done on the personality success factors of expatriates, relatively little of the recommendations find themselves on the HR agenda. To my mind there are various reasons for this: A shortage of potential candidates, which means we have to take what we can get and not put them off with too much assessment, the time that it takes to do proper assessment, the lack of practical business focused and qualified assessors, test-happy institutions in search of the derogatory during assessment rather than the opportunity and foundations for development, clumsy and ignorant use of the assessment results, expensive assessments tools, lack of management confidence in HR's ability to produce practical assessment solutions and the over emphasis of technical expertise vs more complex relational skills.
At the risk of over simplifying a very complex concept, I describe personality is the typical way that we do things and respond to people and situations. In my experience, individuals who posses stable characteristics are likely to make more effective expatriates for various reasons. Stable people adjust better to new situations and seem to pick up on and respond better to cultural and interpersonal subtleties. The so-called "Big Five" personality factors have been investigated by many researchers. I have found these dimensions very appropriate in developing a predictive personality model for successful expatriates. The five broad factors include extraversion (related to enthusiasm and active involvement), Agreeableness (being cooperative and optimistic), Openness (intellect, variety and the unconventional), Conscientiousness (orderliness and responsibility) and emotional stability. I have also added additional dimensions for expatriate assessment in the assessments that I do. These include intercultural competence (ability to interact effectively with individuals from other cultures), effective stress management ability, personal hardiness (capacity to cope with negative events in a resilient and resourceful manner) and emotional intelligence (understanding and using emotions constructively).
Extraverts tend to seek out the company of others and their behavior is marked by an engagement with the outer world. In my experience, extraverts are able to adjust easier to expatriate life as they are sociable and outgoing with the need to establish relationships. These profiles are more likely to develop and mobilize social support systems which also help with managing stress and coping with the changes in the new world. Typical assessment questions to determine this dimension would be: "I don't mind starting conversations with strangers"; "I generate a lot of enthusiasm", "My friends would describe me as the life of the party". Additional words that describe extraverts are: talkative, outspoken, adventurous, outgoing and assertive.
Agreeableness is associated with being compassionate, cooperative and good natured towards other people. Individuals who are agreeable get along with others and are helpful, friendly, optimistic, affectionate and willing to cooperate, which is a key requirement for living in a strange country. Additional words that describe Agreeableness people are: sympathetic, kind, appreciative, warm, generous, trusting, helpful, forgiving, pleasant, good-natured and friendly. Typical assessment statements include: "I take care not to offend other people"; "My friends would describe me as being generous"; "I believe people are basically honest." and "I often praise people for their accomplishments".
Openness is also associated with intellect and refers to an individual's general ability to appreciate art, emotion, variety of experience and intellectual curiosity. Individuals who are open to experience tend to be creative, aware of their feelings and imaginative. The opposite of this trait includes being more conventional, traditional and avoiding complex and subtle matters while preferring familiarity over nonconformist or adventure.
I have found that if expatriates are more open to new experiences, their increased interaction with the local people contributes positively to their adjustment. These individuals are more likely to have a need to actively explore and understand new concepts, places and people and therefore adjust more easily to a new assignment in a different culture and a new country.
Typical assessment questions to determine this dimension would include: "I am quick to understand complex issues"; "My friends will describe me as having a vivid imagination" and "My friends say that I am unconventional". Words that also describe people who are open to new experiences include: original, insightful, curious, sophisticated, artistic, clever, inventive, sharp-witted.
Conscientiousness is a tendency towards having an orderly approach, acting responsibly and being dependable. The trait is characterized by a preference for planned and targeted behavior rather than a spontaneous demeanor. Conscientious individuals are self-disciplined, thorough and organized and think carefully before they act. This trait is also associated with components of emotional intelligence. Although, conscientious individuals tend to be hardworking and reliable, it should also be noted that in some expatriate situations, being too controlled and perfectionist with a tendency towards compulsive behavior may lead to high stress levels in a new setting. Some cultures are by nature slower to respond or are less procedurally orientated as opposed to being results driven and they may demand a somewhat more laid back approach. Being too forceful in these settings may lead to stress and conflict.
Typical assessment questions to determine this dimension would be: "I generally prefer a structured approach in my work"; "I never make a mess of assignments that I tackle"; and "I always achieve what I set out to do".
Additional descriptions that are associated with Conscientiousness are: organized, thorough, planned, efficient, responsible.
Emotionally stable individuals who do not have the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, hopelessness, moodiness, vulnerability and anger tend to make better expatriates. If you're likely to be emotionally reactive and vulnerable to dysfunctional levels of stress it is likely that you will have difficulties in adjusting to expatriate life.
Typical assessment statements to determine this dimension would be: "I tend to worry a lot"; "My colleagues will describe me as sometimes easily upset" and "People who know me will describe me as generally quite moody". Additional descriptions that are associated with low emotional stability are: touchy, fearful, highly-strung, temperamental, unstable, self-punishing, emotional, and despondent.
The discussion to this point has mostly focused on the more popular "Big Five" personality traits used in research of expatriate profiles. In addition to these dimensions, I have also found the next four traits relevant in assessing the expatriate risk profile.
Emotional Intelligence may translate into certain adaptive behaviors. Adaptive behaviors are key to successful adjustment to expatriate life and assignments. Typical assessment questions to determine this dimension would be: "I am usually able to understand and interpret an individual's tone of voice as to the true meaning of their communication"; "If I have to deal with a sensitive issue, I will usually wait until I am emotionally ready for it" and "I can usually tell how someone is feeling without their having to tell me".
Intercultural competence includes being able to interact effectively with individuals from other cultures. Culturally competent people are those who are able to develop a good understanding of other cultures, free from the negative influences of prejudice and an interest and willingness to learn more about other cultures. It includes sensitivity and self-consciousness and the ability to express a personal view with the appropriate clarity and flexibility to provide for cultural differences. Typical assessment questions to determine this dimension would be: "I am generally comfortable socializing with people from other cultural groups"; "I would intervene if I observed colleagues engaging in behaviors that show cultural insensitivity and prejudice"; and "I find it easy to talk about cultural differences to individuals from another culture.
Stress management refers to the individual's ability to mobilize effective coping mechanisms to deal with the dysfunctional consequences of stress. Relocating to a foreign country with new cultures, languages and job demands can be extremely stress provoking. Typical assessment questions to determine this dimension would be: "I do not easily become fatigued"; "I am generally able to remain calm in traffic jams" and "I am a good listener and never finish other people's sentences for them".
Hardiness or toughness refers to the capacity to cope with negative events and ambiguity in a resilient manner. Typically, individuals who have a high score on hardiness or toughness are able to constructively deal with adversity. The level of change that is associated with taking on an expatriate assignment sometimes leads to adverse and negative experiences. Hence, I consider an individual's ability to positively adapt and adjust as a key factor that will contribute to a risk profile of an expatriate employee.
Typical assessment questions to determine this dimension would be: "I often see the humor in situations"; "I believe in working hard and playing hard", "I am able to quickly get rid of negative feelings when I need to".
Although I have attempted to cover some personality traits that expatriates should ideally possess to be successful with their overseas positions, the nature of the expatriate assignment may dictate further critical factors that may predict success. The key desirable personality traits covered here usually include most other traits such as tolerance of ambiguity, behavioral flexibility, non-judgmental, tolerance, cultural empathy and interpersonal skills.
In predicting the traits that may lead to expatriate effectiveness, it is important to consider these additional attributes which may represent some moderating effects on the successful expatriate assignment. These relate to an individual's knowledge, skills and attitudes and include those traits that are generally referred to as being "dynamic", implying that they are more likely to change over time given certain individual circumstances and development opportunities.
Although psychometric methods may report on a personality factor, the limitation of the instruments are that they do not report an individual's ability to still be successfull, notwithstanding the fact that they may not have an ideal profile for expatriate work. For example, I know many expatriates who are introverted who are very successful. Therefore care should be taken to constructively use the results of any personality assessment to inform further exploration of an individual's capacity to mobilize coping measures and their capacity to learn and change. I believe that the best way to make sense of all of the information is to develop an overall profile, and work with an expatriate (and their family) to set up a development plan that would help them to develop the areas that may require attention and help them understand how their profiles would assist or hamper success in their overseas assignment.
The additional determining factors such as family and individual factors, as well as experience, knowledge and skills are also important considerations in developing an overall profile. These will be discussed in the next column.
19 January 2011