Living and working in a new culture is challenging for the majority of us. While speaking the local language can help a great deal, it is not enough. Those employees posted on an international assignment are exposed to huge emotional and work-related issues that can derail an assignment, causing their employee significant reputational and financial loss. By developing their intercultural competence, assignees can learn how to navigate these issues and succeed in their new country. 

Intercultural competence – lifelong learning

Organizations that manage their international assignees successfully follow these three practices to make the assignments work from beginning to end:

  • Focus on creating knowledge and developing global leadership skills
  • Ensure that candidates have cross-cultural skills to match their technical abilities
  • Prepare employees to make the transition back to their home offices

Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity

The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce

Five must-have intercultural competencies for any international assignee

Being interculturally competent goes beyond having a spirit of adventure and buying a guide on how to do business in China.

International assignees should be given training and ongoing support on how to behave and communicate successfully when working internationally.

Constantly analyzing cultural differences on a daily basis can be exhausting. International assignees require emotional resilience and coping strategies to perform to the level expected while on assignment.

International assignees require these five key intercultural competencies to increase the chance of a successful Global Mobility assignment

Further reading

What Is the ROI of Intercultural Skills?

Why International Assignments Are Vital for Talent Attraction and Retention

Ever Committed a Cultural Faux Pas? 8 Ways to Recover

1.  Flexibility

Flexibility is not an inherent part of every culture but is a prerequisite for an international assignee. Here we look at adaptability in terms of being flexible in behavior, language and decision making. 

International assignees must not let past experiences and unconscious bias get in the way of doing the job but they must also not be led off-piste by culturally-different working styles either. 

These can be dilemmas when working across cultures, but if you can adapt to the cultures you are dealing with and not lose sight of your objectives you will go a long way.

2.  Perception

Having and showing interest, understanding, and intuition are key intercultural competences. It’s important to “read the air” and see what is happening in the non-verbal department of communication.

Kuuki Yomenai is a Japanese term that can be literally translated “can’t read the air.” In Japan it is often used as a reference to foreigners. Not an easy feat if you are from a low-context culture where what you say is what you get!

According to Paul Watzlawick’s communication theory “one cannot communicate”, it doesn’t just take words to get a message across.

Perception is a competence that gets overlooked by confident managers, or managers from more hierarchical countries. Being savvy and attuned is an intercultural must.

3.  Open-mindedness

When people are asked if they are open-minded, have you ever heard anyone reply in the negative? However, people often overestimate their level of open-mindedness.

Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity

The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce

In this area, a lot can be learned from the millennial generation, the collective where true open-mindedness manifests itself more commonly than in any other group. 

When working internationally, open-mindedness refers to welcoming new ideas and people and accepting all opinions no matter how much they may differ from your own. Those who love creative thinking and diverse ideas are good at working internationally and thrive on the power of synergy.

4.  Resilience

Resilience is often overlooked as an intercultural competence. Working internationally can be stressful and many assignees go through culture shock and feel isolated or alone because of misunderstandings or lack of familiar routines. Global Mobility professionals have a duty of care to their assignees to help them deal with this. 

Assignees must take care of themselves whilst on assignment and make sure they have adequate social support. But it’s also all about learning how to pick yourself up and dust yourself down when things have gone wrong.

Try and encourage employees to become Stehaufmännchen (German for someone who bounces back) – they will thank you for it. 

Some international assignees become tired throughout their careers, which according to the International HR Adviser is a predictable outcome of a career spent too focused on tasks and performance and not enough on enjoying the ride.

5.  Self-awareness

A vital skill required by international assignees is self-awareness – a skill that goes deep and is, therefore, harder to learn.

Using self-reflective tools such as the Johari window can assist professionals to reflect on how they are perceived by others in various international scenarios.

Typical questions asked as part of an intercultural competence training session include:

  • Do I come across as too direct/ indirect?
  • Is my communication clear – am I speaking in plain English that the whole team can understand?
  • Do the members of my new team trust me? If not, what have I (not) done to get them on board?

Such questions can help international managers adjust their communication style or approach to rapport-building. This can significantly increase the chance of a successful international assignment

Further reading

What Is the ROI of Intercultural Skills?

Why International Assignments Are Vital for Talent Attraction and Retention

Ever Committed a Cultural Faux Pas? 8 Ways to Recover

Strike the right balance

Being an international manager requires having a Swiss Army Knife multi-toolkit in your pocket. It’s about building trust, having cultural self-awareness and handling the psychological demands that result from intercultural exchange. At the same time, it’s so important to hold onto inner values and beliefs – getting the balance right is fundamental.

International assignees must be nurtured and provided with the required skills through a structured career path that includes intercultural training.  This is the only way that companies can get the most out of their international assignments.