The cultural distance experienced by many expats in the regional hubs of Asia Pacific is much larger than anticipated. This creates some unexpected points of tension that limit performance and effectiveness across their tenure. This can be significantly reduced through integrated third level cultural coaching programs.
1 st level – What to do – Cultural training programs that somewhat unrealistically target assimilation
2 nd level – Mentoring to build deeper level of cultural intelligence – integrating new way with old ways
3 rd level – Developmental coaching to form new “beyond culture” identities
Most expats are challenged at some level by different cultural values and nuances and many expats find the adjustment more demanding than expected. Even for those expats who naturally identify with some of the “values”, a behavior change is still often required as nuances of culture go well beyond what is stated and what is explicit. Culture is really beyond definition and carries so much implicit or tacit knowledge that it cannot be taught through an e-book or online training program. Cultural definition at best provides a general marker for behavior and often cultures themselves find it hard to describe their own modulations and subtleties and when they do, the words are so charged with difference that they make little sense to others.
Most expat roles are within regional businesses and as such have a broader remit and by nature; a more complex cultural landscape. They may lead a business with staff and operations that straddle perhaps 5 to 6 developing countries across ASEAN or even 12 countries across Asia Pacific. This makes for a different cultural challenge than adapting to one country. In some ways it is easier, as greater variation across the regional cultures allows for the expat to blend in with less significant discrepancy. Leadership of regional business requires cultural planning and reflection. However, leading a multi-cultured team demands much more than this, including an orientation of heightened sensitivity. It requires a lot of not knowing and creating personal permission to make cultural mistakes. It requires an ability to get outside of self and look back from the observer’s position. This to many highly driven leaders is a huge challenge. It requires a consistent intention of respect. It needs to be built out of curiosity. Regional execution is usually fast paced and demanding, and full of hiccups, u-turns and even dead ends. In this context, many regional leaders find it “unnatural” to pause and build reflective practices into their leadership journey. However their cultural challenge requires considerable doses of patience, respect and curiosity. To add to the challenge, the expat leader often is caught in the middle between the complexity of regional cultures, and various head office stakeholders demanding more, at a greater speed. So in this context what can the regional expatriate leader do?
Here is a suggested list of what an expat leader can do and be, to better deal with their cultural challenge:
> Give up on perfection in cultural understanding. Yet acknowledge it is important to keep trying to understand more.
> Reframe thinking to seeing the unfamiliar as a great pathway for building resilience and agility.
> Patience with a smile.
> Staying focused on what is strategically important and be far less attached to your preferred process.
> Work on your own “real time self observation” in cross-cultural situations and at catching yourself in old patterns from past cultural contexts.
> Practice agreeing more.
> Learn to operate with longer time frames.
> Adopt more active guidance than you may have done previously. Get counsel and support both from within the team and externally – get some other ears and eyes.