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Expatriate work requires more than just technical skills

Publish Date: Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Success on international assignments requires more than a set of technical skills. It also
requires social and perceptual skills, strong reasoning abilities and a personality that
allows one to adjust to the local culture. Employees living abroad need the same technical
skills as their domestic counterparts, but they also need additional skills to adapt to new
cultural and social demands.

“U.S. Expatriates have more demanding jobs than people working in the U.S.,” Frederick
Morgeson, Professor of Management and Valade Research Scholar in the Eli Broad
College of Business at Michigan State University, said. “One of the reasons we see so
much expatriate failure is because of their failure to adjust to the non-technical aspects of
the job.”

Morgeson and his co-authors surveyed 1,312 mid-career professional
employees in an international agency of the U.S. government that operated in 156
countries –including the U.S.

For companies sending their employees abroad, picking the right people and training
them to be successful is essential. Expatriate work demands more social skills, perceptual
skills, reasoning ability and flexibility to adjust than domestic work.

Traditionally, many employees are sent abroad based on their technical abilities, but if
they do not have the necessary extra skills, they won’t succeed.

“A multinational energy company might send you to Kyrgyzstan because you know
everything there is to know about petroleum exploration,” Morgeson said. “That makes
some sense because you need to know how to do the work itself. But if you get there and
can’t work effectively with any of the local staff your assignment is likely to end in

Surprisingly, speaking a language other then English didn’t increase worker requirements
abroad. Employees in both English speaking countries and non-English speaking
countries expressed similar adjustment challenges.

Although Morgeson found that American employees faced greater struggles adjusting in
countries where they weren’t able to use their native language, he associated that to
cultural differences rather than added difficulties from communicating in a new language.
He also found that when people move abroad, successful ones adopt behaviors from their
new environment.

For example, Western societies tend to value individualism. Think of John Wayne riding
through a lawless town. Yet the societal values in Eastern countries like Japan and China
have different cultural values. They are considered collectivist societies, where group
harmony and community are considered much more important.

When Americans move to live in Eastern societies, they should try to adopt less
individualist behaviors. The people who adapted successfully to their new homes began
to behave like their host culture. They behaved in a more community building and
relationship building fashion than their Western counterparts.

“It is a case where what you do depends on where you are,” Morgeson said. “People
really should adjust their behavior to the local cultural values, which would require you
to understand what those values are and what expectations arise out of a particular set of

He suggested training prospective expatriates about local values to promote successful
experiences. “Even if people are aware of differences,” he said. “They still need to learn
the best ways to fulfill new cultural expectations.”

The study, "What you do depends on where you are: understanding how domestic and
expatriate work requirements depend upon the cultural context," was published in the
Journal of International Business Studies in 2007. Shung J. Shin, Washington State
University, and Michael Campion, Purdue University, were co-authors on the study.

Written by Gordon Shetler, Graduate Assistant at Global Initiatives.