Business Book of the Week: Dangers of the expatriate game

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The Independent Online
Breaking Through Culture Shock by Elisabeth Marx

Nicholas Brealey Publish- ing, pounds 18

YOUNG GRADUATES often hope for foreign travel during their careers, if not an overseas posting. Indeed, such opportunities are part of the attraction of working for large companies and the firms that advise them. But although working abroad is sometimes glamourous, it can also be acutely disorienting. Take the UK manager transferred to France. "I found that all the normal ways of managing people in the UK did not work," he says.

"The things I said were not perceived the way I intended and I did not understand what they were saying ... It took 18 months to sort out the situation and it was only really resolved after my car tyres were slashed - in a way an attempt at murder."

Or this account by an American of his time in Asia. He considered himself sociable and adaptable, yet his work pattern became erratic, leading him to not turn up for appointments or to work around the clock.

He recalls: "After six months, I fetched a boat to an island in a neighbouring country. On arrival, I took off my clothes, and threatened the local population with a gun in a stark-naked state. Eventually, I succumbed to the police and was brought back to my home country."

Both examples are used by Elisabeth Marx in this book to illustrate how easy it is to come unstuck when out of your natural environment. These cases of culture shock seem extreme, but she insists they are from real life.

But although many expatriates experience negative feelings, they tend to be mixed with emotions such as exhilaration and developing confidence, so that most international managers "go through some difficult phases but eventually develop effective international skills."

By being aware of the dangers, those working away from their native lands can put themselves in a better position to survive and prosper. "The majority of us can be internationally effective if we put real effort into developing our ability to adapt," she writes.

This is encouraging for the organisations that forever transfer staff around the world - only to find the "international manager" an elusive creature. So how can such managers learn to adapt?

Marx, a German psychologist who has taught in Singapore as well as studying and working in Britain, believes they have to deal with culture shock in three ways. Whereas advice for those going on assignments has tended to focus on understanding the cultural dimensions of management, she suggests that there is a need to look at the international manager "as a human being with development needs at a professional and personal level".

As a result, she has come up with the notion of the "culture shock triangle", a new model that she says will help international managers cope with the stress of the transition, change the perception and interpretation of events and behaviour, and develop better social skills and an international identity.

But Marx, a director of the executive search consultant Norman Broadbent International, is not handing down a blueprint for success. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on managers helping themselves. There are tips from those who have had some success in this area - Peter Job, who became chief executive of Reuters after spells in parts of the world as a journalist and manager for the international news agency; and Deborah Percy, a UK manager working for the video rental chain Blockbuster in Dallas.

And there is a certain poignancy in the interview with Walter Hasselkus, conducted with the former BMW man before his resignation as chief executive of Rover last December. Among the characteristics he says helped him are "the ability to listen and to be empathic to others" and "patience".

Marx closes the book with a checklist by which managers can assess their international effectiveness. But she makes clear that how well they do depends on them. An important factor is being aware that - even in countries that appear superficially familiar - culture shock is ready to strike.