How do you select staff for international assignments? It's an important question because, no matter how effective and successful your employees may be at home, they cannot be guaranteed the same performance in a different culture—unless, that is, they can demonstrate some key competencies. But beware, these may be quite different from the competencies they need to succeed in their own environment.
To begin with they need to be receptive to the host culture. This will mean that when they face new ideas, new ways of working, new people, different values—they can accept these as different, but still valid. If they go with the firm belief that their own way of doing things is the only way, if they are suspicious of the new people they meet, and if they cannot respect the values of their host culture, they will simply engender hostility, fear and antagonism—hardly the best climate for a successful team effort.
Building on that receptiveness, they will have to be sufficiently adaptable to blend into the local style of doing things. Take working hours. Mediterranean cultures often have early starts, long lunch breaks and late finishes. It's a timetable that takes some getting used to because that lunchtime break really does need to be a time when you wind down and rest, otherwise the working day and its related stresses will occupy every waking minute. Not everybody is capable of adapting their natural rhythms to this. Employees with family commitments in particular find it very hard, so in assessing the suitability of somebody for an overseas position, you need to ensure that their family too is fully supportive of the move.
It is also essential to be able to take an objective view of the host culture and not to judge new colleagues on criteria you have brought from home. For example, a manager who moves to a culture in which the normal working environment is very hierarchical should not be surprised if individuals lack initiative. What may seem a negative quality from a British perspective could well be seen as a strength in the local context.
Given that the new environment could make your managers feel like fish out of water, it is important for them to have clarity of vision. As they face the many hurdles that arise from the different ways of working and living that characterize the new environment, they will have to be able keep a hold on their purpose for being there. They will need to let that vision drive their actions so that progress towards the required goals is maintained despite the obstacles. And part of this clarity of vision should be pre-assignment awareness of the new culture and its framework so that they are prepared for what they will find and have thought of some coping strategies.
They will also need excellent communication skills. These involve the ability to listen and interpret any implicit messages that their new colleagues may be emitting, and give directions with clarity and with respect for the means of communicating in the host culture. Of course, communicative skills are important no matter where you are, but they are crucial in a new culture. If the manager goes from Britain, say, to a Scandinavian country, it will be important to remember that the local team may be much more direct in their expression of criticism, say, than in the UK. Conversely, it will be important not to use typically British understatement or irony because, the more direct style of the hosts will predispose them to interpret everything literally.
They will need to be sensitive to the customs, motives and values of their new colleagues. They will only be able to achieve their goals by building good rapport with the local team and this can only come in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. Of course rapport can be established in many different ways, but it essential to show an interest in the host culture and in the local team. As the outsider it is important not to offend by flouting local dress code, being over familiar—or too distant, as the case may be—or showing impatience with aspects of behaviour that are in keeping with local tradition.
Resilience and emotional robustness are also important. The period of settling in will involve what is known as culture shock. This involves some key stages, the second of which puts a big strain on both physical and emotional strength. To begin with your managers will go through a honeymoon period in which all the new experiences are exciting and stimulating. But this is followed by a period of disorientation during which homesickness, loneliness, frustration and disillusionment with the host culture will cause a great deal of stress. To be able to pass through this to the stage of acceptance requires considerable inner strength.
Of course underpinning all these competencies is knowledge. The managers need two kinds of knowledge to be effective abroad. Firstly they need to understand the theory of culture difference. Culture goes very deep and the unfamiliar behaviour patterns are the external signs of underlying values. It will help your managers if they understand the nature of these different cultural values. Then they should have country specific knowledge that prepares them for what they will find. This should, of course, include training in the local language not just for the person concerned but for their family.
Brenda Townsend Hall is a writer and trainer in the field of cultural awareness and English for business and is an associate member of the ITAP International Alliance: http://www.itapintl.com