Expats: Keeping Feet in Two Cultures

Employees’ ability to integrate their home-country and assignment-country cultures leads to effectiveness when working abroad.

By Eric Krell Dec 1, 2012

1212cover.gifFew mobility specialists pay enough attention to an important determinant of an international assignee's achievements: cultural integration skills. Yet new research suggests that cultural integration—the ability to reconcile a new culture with a person's home culture—could make employees more innovative, elevate professional performance and help organizational diversity efforts.

Unlike many companies that use employee engagement surveys simply to "take the company's temperature," Starwood's executives have taken the next step to link those metrics with customer satisfaction and financial outcomes. The data revealed the impact of employee engagement "on the guest experience, so we could give context to where priorities lie," says Valenti.

The research was co-authored by professors Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Carmit Tadmor of Tel Aviv University and William Maddux of INSEAD, the international business school. The three experiments conducted for the study found that bicultural identification allows people to notice and integrate diverse perspectives into daily activities. The ability to integrate diverse perspectives—"integrative complexity"—contributes to greater creativity and professional achievement, the research indicates.

"The study underscores the idea that it's not sheer exposure to other cultures that helps spur creative development, but the psychological connections one makes among multiple cultures," Galinsky says.

The research, "Getting the most out of living abroad: Biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success," published in September's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, may have significant implications for HR professionals involved in mobility and diversity activities. The findings identify ways to improve the performance of expatriates during international assignments and point to a way to strengthen diversity programs.

A Bicultural Skills Deficit

Despite the prevalence of cross-cultural preparation programs made available to U.S.-based international assignees, the bicultural skills the researchers examine are "not that common," notes Laura Levenson, New York-based director of consulting services for Weichert Relocation Resources Inc.

Levenson, who speaks fluent Mandarin and completed a three-year assignment in Shanghai earlier in her career, notes that employees chosen for international assignments are typically selected for technical skills or effective management in their home countries. Although some first-time expatriates have notched international business travel, that experience "is nothing like an international relocation," Levenson asserts. "The skills required to integrate culturally are quite different from those needed to deal with 'helicoptering' in and out of locations."

While noting that cultural competence can be developed, Neal Goodman, co-founder and president of Global Dynamics Inc., a New Jersey-based consulting firm that conducts cross-cultural training, says that "a very small percentage of people are born with the DNA to be culturally competent."

Developing these skills is not easy, Levenson, Goodman and Galinsky agree. Providing employees with cross-cultural training prior to going abroad can help, depending on how those sessions are taught, Levenson emphasizes. "Integration happens over time, and there are various stages people experience when adapting to a new culture," she notes. "Two to three days of working with a trainer, reading some materials and maybe even role-playing—that's just a start."

Eighty-one percent of companies make cross-cultural training available for international assignees, according to a January survey of 123 global mobility professionals from all company sizes conducted by Brookfield Global Relocation Services. The same survey, however, found that only 24 percent make cross-cultural training mandatory.

This raises important questions for HR professionals: Can we make cross-cultural training a requirement? And how can we ensure that this training is effective?

Culture Is Part of Diversity

The three professors' research offers interesting answers to the latter question. Galinsky explains that he undertook the research, in large part, to understand why there is relatively wide variation in the performance and creativity displayed by professionals living and working abroad.

The research, he says, indicates that these professionals tend to get the greatest and longest-lasting benefits from the experience when they adapt to the local environment, embracing new perspectives and behaviors, while remaining connected to their home environments. Why? Because that reconciliation process requires more mental gymnastics, tough decision-making activities and deeper understanding of cultural differences

"If I go abroad and simply adopt the local environment, my life is pretty easy," Galinsky explains. "I can simply do what the locals do. And if I don't adopt the local environment, my life is pretty easy as well. I can just stay the way I was at home. However, when you simultaneously adapt to your new environment and stay connected to your home environment, you face more-difficult dilemmas. What is the right way to behave in this situation, given these competing demands and forces?"

The research drives home the "no pain, no gain" point. "When people are forced to grapple with cultural differences, it is more difficult," Galinsky says. "But ultimately there is a huge reward because this type of bicultural engagement forces you to think in more integrative and creative ways."

One of the experiments conducted for the study was based on a survey of 100 Israeli professionals. It found that professionals who engaged in bicultural ways during overseas assignments later achieved higher promotion rates and more positive reputations.

‘Integration happens over time, and there are various stages people experience when adapting to a new culture.’

Galinsky advises HR professionals to remind expatriates "not to blindly adapt to the local environment nor to blindly refuse to adapt to the local environment. Let's remember that these are two competing perspectives and trying to understand both of them can deliver significant benefits."

Another implication of this research relates to diversity programs. Developing a bicultural understanding is exactly the sort of perspective required to thrive in any diverse workplace, Levenson says.

Not enough diversity programs and initiatives address cultural competence, Goodman adds. "Most diversity leaders … miss this because they have a very limited understanding of cultural competence and how it must be nurtured and promoted."

HR professionals might take a page, then, from high-performing expatriates by simultaneously grappling with and addressing cross-cultural issues related to mobility and diversity competencies.

The author is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource, finance and social marketing issues.

Web Extras


Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect