Culture shock: why we fail expats

The Age of the global business means that, with increasing frequency, managers can expect to be moved around the world. Yet, according to a leading consultancy, organisations are not going to get the most out of such assignments until they reach a better understanding of the implications involved.

Elisabeth Marx, director of executive recruitment consultants NB Selection, says her organisation's research findings show that international work needs to be reviewed in three areas. "First, there should be a focus on the personal problems executives are likely to face, the adaptation they will go through, and how they will adapt psychologically to this change," she says. "Second, international assignments often represent a big promotion for executives. Sopreparation should focus on general management development so that managers succeed at the next level of seniority. Third, there should be a focus on the international - through cross-cultural training."

These conclusions stem from a survey of 45 executives who have worked abroad. While most reported that they adapted well, 33 per cent experienced significant difficulties in adjusting to a position overseas. The respondents mentioned stress-related conditions such as as irritability, mood swings and generally feeling unwell. Some had had short spells of culture shock or even depression.

So far, much of the concern about international assignments has focused on foreign languages - traditionally a problem for British and US managers - and the difficulty of moving to a place, like Africa or the Far East, that is culturally different.

But, increasingly, consultants are realising that managers can often experience the biggest problems moving to somewhere that seems similar to their home country - for instance, moving between Britain and the US.

According to Chris Crosby, director of Transnational Management Associates, there is a tendency to think that geographical distance - at least involving regions other than the US - means cultural distance. While a lot of people think they know Europe very well, they are more cautious, for example, about Asia. The outcome is they prepare much more thoroughly for such "exotic" locations.

For people crossing the Atlantic "the concept of the same language lulls them into a false sense of security", says Crosby.

But even language need not be the barrier it is perceived to be. Mr Crosby says there is a lot of preoccupation with language training. "But really what is required is learning how to communicate, and language is only a part of that. There's not enough emphasis on learning to speak English in a way that's understood by different cultures."