The increasing openness of national economies, coupled with the expansion of transnational companies, the impact of labour migration and advances in technology, have produced conditions of globalisation and internationalisation that are now standard features of our business landscape.

Although globalisation makes the world appear a lot smaller and flatter, it also makes cultural diversity commonplace, potentially leading to frequent misunderstandings, poor co-worker interactions and relationships, frustration and confusion, and lower levels of performance.

Success in today’s workplace means that not only do we need to be skilled and knowledgeable in our jobs, but we also need cultural intelligence (CQ). This means understanding, awareness, interest, and the ability to interact well with people from other cultures. Something that is particularly important for expats to have.

A lack of CQ may, at least partly, explain why expatriate failure rates are so high – 20 to 40 per cent on average. Not completing an assignment or failing to meet your designated objectives leads to substantial costs for expatriates as well as their assignments, organisations and families.

To better understand what could be done to enhance expatriate success, I conducted in-depth interviews with 11 experienced expatriates who represented 10 different nations and seven different industries. Collectively, they had completed a total of 30 expatriate assignments across 24 host country locations.

Those I interviewed indicated that CQ played a central role in their success. When asked to share the advice they would give to new expatriates, nine of them urged new expats to make developing CQ and adapting to the host culture among their key priorities.

However, too many organisations have given too little attention to issues of CQ. The costs of ignoring CQ are all too apparent: US-based firms alone reportedly lose more than $6 billion annually in failed overseas assignments.

Key strategies organisations should consider to boost their expatriates’ success include:

  1. Use a validated CQ assessment to screen candidates for expatriate assignments
  2. Deliberately develop your expatriates’ CQ in a holistic, ongoing manner using reading material, cultural sensitivity training, and CQ coaching
  3. Bring in external professionals as needed to help develop your expatriates’ CQ

Employees assigned to expatriate rotations would also do well to make sure they are poised for success and quickly adapting to the host country culture. Specific recommendations include:

  1. Develop your language ability before and throughout your assignment to make it easier to connect with host country nationals and make your way around the country
  2. Develop friendships with host country nationals and with people connected in some way to the host culture. These friendships will be very useful in helping you understand and adapt to the culture. Seeing the host country through your friends’ eyes may also spark your interest in exploring the country and connecting with its culture
  3. Allow yourself time to learn, explore, and find ‘your place’ in the host country. Travel, try new activities, and engage in lots of experimentation
  4. Find a cultural liaison at work who can help you make sense of new customs, local expressions, and other interactions at home and in the workplace
  5. Prepare for a long adjustment process of around nine months or more. This time of trial and error and (often) feeling out of place is normal but can be eased. Remember that adjusting to another culture can be difficult, so take deliberate measures to build your CQ

Although an expatriate assignment will require significant fortitude and demand much from you and your family, it also can yield profound returns, both personally and professionally. Be sure to evaluate your CQ and think about how to improve it so that you can gain as much reward from your experience as possible.

Aideen O’Byrne is an executive coach and organisational development specialist

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