You know that working abroad is going to be “different”, but how? Will it just mean different schedules, office layouts and work tools? Not quite.
The real surprises are invisible cultural rules stemming from deep values and beliefs about how we should organize our work and even why we should work in the first place:
Pay, Rewards and Motivators – Is your company sending you abroad all-expense-paid with a good salary and excellent perks to keep you motivated through the thick and thin of expatriate living and working?
Or are you heading off on your own to work for a foreign company or organization?
These are two radically different games. In the first case, let’s hope your home company has enough experience to genuinely understand what it will take to keep you happy as you wade through the challenges you will face. In the second case, let’s hope you do your homework before you go, so you honestly understand the rules of the game you are about to play.
Keep in mind that a salary or benefits that motivate a local worker at your destination may or may not work for you depending on how willing you are to be a chameleon and blend into the local economy and way of life.
Blending into another culture sounds romantic, but most expatriates find it hard to totally break with the past. And it’s expensive to satisfy your exotic, foreign cravings for so many things you miss, maintain your prior standard of living and afford the luxury of going “home” now and then…
Time and Schedules
Are you used to working nine to five? How would you feel about working from nine to two and then from five until eight or nine at night as they do in Spain, for example? Could you reorganize your personal life to adapt to such a schedule?
How would you feel if you discovered that everyone in your new organization puts in a lot of overtime – for free! – to compete in an economy with a high unemployment? Could you join in such a game?
Every culture and economy generates different rules for the game of work. Prepare for unwritten rules that may differ greatly from the fine print in your contract.
You already know people who have different priorities than yours, but inside your own fishbowl the variation is less than what you’ll discover abroad. You might come from a world where most people “live to work”, where work seems to be top priority, even before family obligations; people work hard and earn accordingly… But imagine a world where most people “work to live”, earning enough to live but putting other things first: family, friends and even just the pleasure of living.
It sounds like paradise to someone from a workaholic society – and it can be, but not always. Some adapt while others realize they value the fruits of hard labor more than they realized.
Space and Workspace
Switching cultures is a great way to become aware of the space around you. How much do you really need? Just how close can you sit next to your colleague – comfortably? Can you imagine yourself squeezing into a small area with several others working in close proximity? And what if they make noise – a lot of noise, without even realizing it?
One thing is theory – and there are plenty of theories and studies about personal space – but another thing is practice, the practical skills you will need to adapt to your new dimensions.
Technology and Tools
We live in a global community, don’t we? Our work tools are more and more homogenous every day, right?
You probably will find many of the same tools, the same Macs and PC’s, the same Google Drive and the same i-cloud wherever you go. But don’t expect everyone to be using these tools in the same way or for the same purposes. Prepare to enter new paradigms for organizing and working with your favorite tools, technologies, platforms and so forth.
Organization and Systems
Organization can be a big bone of contention even between two people of the same culture. So, just imagine how many surprises may await you in this arena. Prepare to be open-minded and flexible: what may appear chaotic, illogical and even backwards, upside down or inside out to you might start making sense over time, if – IF – you’re willing to give it a chance.
Cross-cultural communication courses exist for a very good reason. It’s not enough to just speak another language, and this is a big part of the expatriate work experience.
What does it take to persuade an Indian, a Philippine or an Argentine? When working abroad, you need deep understanding of the local value system in order to design a convincing message.
How do you mediate in a conflict between employees in Saudi Arabia or Thailand or Chile? The protocols are different in each case and if you’re in the middle, you had better know how to defend yourself in ways people understand – and accept.
What’s the best way to recognize someone’s good work, to give a compliment, ask a favor or make a suggestion? Is it better to communicate directly or indirectly? It all depends on the context and the culture.
Communication at work is a challenge for same-culture co-workers, but when you add the cross-cultural factor, it gets even more interesting. I guarantee that working abroad will make you laugh, cry, boil with anger, rejoice in your victories, question your sanity and bask in pride at the most unusual accomplishments. Prepare for adventure!
A boss is a boss, until you change countries and realize that there are many ways to interpret this role. If you’re used to working in a “flat” organization where everyone is “equal” (at least in theory), a hierarchical organization is going to challenge your basic beliefs about humanity, dignity and self-respect. How can you possibly pay homage to a god-like boss figure who seems to enjoy flaunting power and issuing orders in a patronizing tone? How can you be that kind of boss?
Believe it or not, it’s just as hard for someone from a hierarchical system to switch to a flat, egalitarian-style organization. The trick is to acquire education and support as early as possible to lay a foundation for success in this area.
How do you establish your professional credibility? That depends on whether you’re from a task-based culture or a relationship-based culture.
There are two paths to professional heartbreak:
- Path one: A task-based worker does an excellent job only to find her new colleagues will only respect her if she loosens up, spends more time chatting (i.e. “wasting time”) and pays more attention to her on-the-job relationships.
- Path two: A relationship-based worker lavishes attention and kindness on new co-workers only to find they will only respect her if she buckles down, gets to the point and focuses more on work and less on people.
No matter how individualistic or collectivist, every culture promotes its own particular brand of teamwork. Switching brands can take some getting used to.
Some cultures promote the lean, mean machine team in which each member represents a specific piece. Each one is an expert in his field and performs his task according to specifications in order to work harmoniously with the rest of the team. These tend to be task-based cultures that are focused on getting things done efficiently and effectively.
Other cultures promote a softer, relationship-based style where team members are less specialized, more multi-tasking and possibly even overlapping with different team members. These teams tend to do a lot of socializing and informal consulting punctuated by meetings designed more for social bonding than agendas, presentations or action plans and minutes.
Get ready to go!
To succeed abroad you need theory and practice. The theory involves learning what crossing cultures is all about, but the real fun begins when you dive in and get practical experience. It will be puzzling, exciting, overwhelming, terrible, exhilarating, exhausting, punishing and rewarding.
The question is: do you want to learn the hard way, one miserable mistake at a time? Or would you prefer to take the shortcut to success? Participate in cross-cultural training, read up on the subject and find a seasoned expatriate mentor to guide you through the labyrinth you’re about to enter.