Traits of Successful Expats

Discovering why expatriate assignments fail is an important task, and experts have made considerable progress. Personality is one factor. For example in a study of 143 expatriate employees extroverted, agreeable and emotionally stable individuals were less likely to want to leave early. Furthermore the person’s intentions are important. For example, people who want expatriate careers try harder to adjust to such a life. Non-work factors like family pressures usually loom large in expatriate failures. In one study, US managers listed in descending order of importance for leaving early, inability of spouse to adjust, managers ability to adjust to other family problems, managers personal or emotional immaturity and inability to cope with larger overseas responsibilities. Managers of European firms emphasized only the inability of the manager’s spouse to adjust as an explanation for the expatriate’s failed assignment. Other studies similarly emphasize dissatisfied spouses effects on the international assignments.

These findings underscore a truism regarding international assignee selection: It’s usually not incompetence but family and personal problems that undermine the international assignee. Yet, employers still tend to select expatriates based on technical competence rather than interpersonal skills or domestic situations. As one experts put its:

The selection process is fundamentally flawed. Expatriate assignments rarely fail because the person cannot accommodate to the technical demands of the job. The expatriate selections are made by line managers based on technical competence. They fail because of family and personal issues and lack of cultural skills that haven’t been part of the process.

Family Pressures:

Given the role of family problems in expat failures, it’s important that the employer understand just how unhappy and cut off the expat manager’s spouse can feel in a foreign environment. One study involved analyzing questionnaire data from 221 international assignee couples working 37 countries. Perhaps the most poignant finding concerned the degree to which many spouses often felt cut off and adrift consider this quote:

It’s difficult to make close friends. So many expats have their guard up, not wanting to become too close. Too many have been hurt, too many times already becoming emotionally dependent on a friend only to have the inevitable happen – one or the other gets transferred. It’s also difficult to watch your children get hurt when their best friend gets transferred. Many acquaintances are nowhere near the close friends. My spouse therefore has become my rock.

One study identified three things that helped make it easier for the spouse to adjust. First is language fluency. Since spouses will obviously feel even more cut off from their new surrounding. If they can’t make themselves understood, the employer should provide the spouse not just the employees with language training. Second having pre-school age children (rather than school age children or no children) seemed to make it easier for the spouse to adjust. This suggests that younger children perhaps because of their increased dependency help spouses retain that part of their social identities as parents their responsibilities for these children remain the same. Third it also clearly helps that there be a strong bond of closeness and mutual sharing between spouse and expat partner, to provide the continuing emotional and social support, many spouses find lacking abroad.

What the employer can do?

There are other useful steps the employer can take. Providing realistic previews of what to expect careful screening, improved orientation and improved benefit packages are some obvious solutions. A less obvious solution is to institute procedures that ensure your firm treats its employees fairly treating them with respect, providing an appeal process and so on. In one study of international assigned non-work problems were significantly less pronounced when the organization’s procedures were judged to be fairer.

Another way to reduce expat problems is simply to shorten the length of the assignments something employees are doing. About 23% of employers’ overseas assignments last over three years down from 32% in 1996. Person job match is also important in so far as expatriates who are more satisfied with their jobs are more likely to adapt to the foreign assignment

  • Thank you very much for taking the time to talk about these studies and the traits of successful expats. I’ll be sure to mention these for you on our Expat Women Blog and my Twitter account.

    One question: May we know the names of these studies that you are referring to please? It’s always handy to know this, in terms of quoting anything from these studies in other articles, or mentioning them in talks to expat groups etc. Many thanks if you can!

    Warmest regards, Andrea Martins,

  • Uma warrier

    Nice and informative post