Expatriate Cross-cultural Training and the Bottom Line

More than just a “soft-issue service” cross-cultural training is imperative to meeting your company’s bottom-line goals. Here an expert on the subject tells you what your programs should include — and why.

Decision-making. Negotiations. Deadlines. Commitments. Another meeting this morning… finish that report this afternoon. Just another day at the office, right? Now take it overseas. Just as easy? Perhaps not.

We all know that business practices vary around the world. Countless articles have been written about business cards in Japan, or building relationships in Mexico. The latest focus is on China and India. Guanxi, saving face, patron, kaizen, meishi — all are terms introduced in the context of training expatriates to conduct business overseas or cross-border.

At least we are now dealing with business acumen that is skill-based, rather than relying on protocol tips, or do’s and don’ts, as we’ve done in the past. But although it’s encouraging to know we are moving in the right direction, we need to do more.

Global managers must be skilled in the intricacies of a culture. They must understand how to manage a country director in Malaysia, or negotiate with a vendor in Brazil. Human resource directors managing the global relocation process must know how to evaluate and select a cross-cultural firm that has solid credentials in business training. If the training program doesn’t adequately prepare employees to do their job in-country, we are missing the opportunity to build skills that lead to success in bottom-line business objectives.

Family adjustment to a global assignment is equally critical. Employees whose partners and families can’t make a satisfactory adjustment will opt to end their assignment rather than sacrifice their family’s welfare.

To successfully prepare your employees and their family members for an international assignment, your pre-departure cross-cultural training program should focus on three main areas: cultural profiles, cultural adaptation, and application.

Cultural profiles

All cross-cultural training programs should begin with a profile of the target country comprising the cultural propensities of time, risk, decision-making, communication and negotiation styles, and issues surrounding hierarchy and formality, to name just a few. Key background information about the country’s history, political structure, religion, geography and economy also should be included.

The true test of any cross-cultural training program is whether its participants are able to make the link between the target country’s profile and their own. In his book, Training for the Multicultural Manager, Pierre Casse notes that the most important skill for effectiveness in an international assignment is to “know thy own culture.” Unless expatriates have a benchmark from which to measure similarities or differences, all they have left are generalities and stereotypes. This makes it extremely difficult for them to read another culture on an individual basis.

Cultural adaptation

Quality training programs include significant time to review challenges the family may face as they build their infrastructure in the new culture. Where do they buy certain groceries? How about gift giving, tipping, taking taxis, or putting their kids in school? These topics must be covered – either by the relocation company under the guise of destination services, or as part of a cross-cultural workshop.

Culture shock is a term with which we are all familiar, but how do you avoid it? How can you ensure the family rides the wave of change without a bump? Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s tough out there. Try moving your family to Fuzhou, China, or Bombay, India – and these aren’t even the most difficult locations, according to hardship allowance statistics. Rather than avoid unpleasant inevitabilities, why not meet them head on? Realigning expatriates’ expectations leads to the greatest success stories.

Cross-cultural application

Unless expats are able to apply the information they’ve gained from the target country profile to the roles they will assume in the new culture, all they have done is increased their awareness of the culture.

Whether your training program lasts two hours or two days, employees’ job descriptions should be dissected to determine what cultural adaptations they will need to make. This ensures they are as effective in the target country as they are in their own backyard.

For example, Joe is a trainer about to implement a new performance management system at his company’s Tokyo subsidiary. The design he uses back home in the US involves brainstorming, individual participation, and self-initiative. If he doesn’t hear there is a problem with the content, and receives adequate nonverbal feedback (head nodding, eye contact, etc.), he assumes everyone agrees with him.

Based on the cultural differences between the two countries, what are the adjustments he might want to make to ensure his effectiveness in Japan? Three possibilities that come to mind are:

  • Work style – Japanese employees prefer to work in groups, sharing the task or exercise with others;
  • Feedback process – Due to their low-risk nature, issues of hierarchy, and the need to “save face,” Japanese seminar participants are unlikely to offer Joe their opinions, particularly if their supervisor also happens to be in the room with them;
  • Communication style – In Japan, it is rude to maintain eye contact with a superior, (in this case, Joe), who is “deserving of respect.” In fact, if participants were to look Joe steadily in the eye, they would be conveying the message that they considered themselves his equal.

Based on these cultural differences, Joe must redesign his seminar so he can achieve the same bottom-line goals as in the US.

Choosing a cross-cultural trainer

If your cross-cultural training program does not address these three core areas, you may want to reevaluate your service provider. Four questions to consider when choosing a cross-cultural trainer are:

  • Does the trainer have extensive experience living overseas?
  • Does the trainer have an advanced degree in intercultural training?
  • Has the individual been trained as a trainer? Does he or she have education in instructional design?
  • Does the trainer have significant business experience, either in-house or as a consultant?

Without these core skills, you risk hiring individuals who lack the credentials necessary to add significant value to your company. Ultimately, cross-cultural firms should be required to link their training effectiveness to your employees’ performance results.

You might also take a look at successful expatriate assignments at your or peers’ companies, and isolate the key factors contributing to their success. You’ll likely find that:

  • The accompanying partner and children thrived, not just survived;
  • Housing and other logistical details were addressed and resolved to the family’s satisfaction;
  • Language acquisition took place before and during the initial states of the assignment and continued at a reasonable pace throughout the sojourn;
  • The employee achieved bottom-line business objectives to the satisfaction — and even admiration — of headquarters management.

None of these events happened by accident. The long hours HR directors put into the management of an overseas assignment attest to that. But along with the global relocation department’s efforts, a quality cross-cultural program is vital if employees and their families are to succeed in the new culture. Only with the right program in place will employees achieve the performance levels necessary to meet the corporation’s bottom-line business objectives.





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