The Real Reason Why Overseas Assignments Fail
Globalization is hardly a cakewalk.
Companies now have to think about logistics, problem-solving, departments, pay scales, and performance at a global level.
Throw into that mix all the other variances that come with operating across borders: cultural differences, work ethics, belief systems, management styles that are all influenced so differently.
Now imagine moving people within that system, from one office to another or one region to another. The speed, flexibility, and agility to be able to get the right people to the right job at the right time, anywhere in the world, is crucial.
And yet, no matter how globalized the world is getting, and how quickly companies are expanding, about 72% of international assignments FAIL. They fail to take off or fail to get seen through to completion or fail to be as profitable as they were intended to be.
For the longest time, companies scratched their heads, wondering what was going wrong. They were ticking all the boxes: covering relocation costs, offering hefty benefits packages to their international assignees, making sure training and orientations were in place…
But it took more digging to arrive at the real reason: Difficulty adapting. For the relocated employee and their family.
This is not just a practical adaptation issue either. It’s the emotional transition that’s the hardest part, and all the other aspects that aren’t talked about or broken down in corporate training programs.
I want to take you through the big and little challenges that make adapting to a new country difficult. I faced these challenges first-hand when I moved to Norway at 45 after my husband got his dream career opportunity here.
Whether you’re managing international teams or happen to be an expat yourself, acknowledging and understanding these challenges is going to help you make the journey abroad a tad bit smoother.
1. The emotional transition is a slippery slope
Nobody talks about it or prepares for it. In fact, relocating individuals and families don’t even anticipate it themselves – I didn’t.
Those first months are a blur as you jump into the adventure exhilarated by the possibilities ahead.
The slight nagging feeling that things are going to get hard after all the boxes are unpacked gets buried in the excitement and adventure of the move.
2. The socio-cultural shock is real
When I moved to Norway, I was determined to settle in and make it home as quickly as possible. I was positive, curious and excited. I’d get on the bus and smile and wave good morning to everyone on the bus.
If you’ve spent any time at all in Norway, you probably know that smiling and waving at strangers is just not the way of the land here.
Fitting into a new socio-cultural environment forces you to loosen your grip a little on your own sense of self.
3. Your self-worth is going to take a dive
Back home, you have a career, a network, family, friends, comfort foods, and favorite spots, all ready to reassure you that everything is going to be alright. People and places that you’re familiar with and are familiar with you. All of these things build into your ‘self-concept.’
When that’s gone, where do you turn for validation?
Your self-worth is suddenly dependent on external factors – on your ability to make friends or fit in or get a job or learn a language. And all of those aspects have their ups-and-downs – dragging your self-worth up and down with them.
Feeling worthwhile becomes synonymous with fitting in. We look for validation externally.
4. What counts there doesn’t count here
When I moved to Norway, I came with a pretty plush resumé – 20 years of managing companies in Silicon Valley and 12 years in the mental health sector. My qualifications were all attested, and my experience well-rounded.
But suddenly, all of my accomplishments meant very little. They weren’t considered relevant to this new market I needed to break into. It’s devastating to watch something you’ve built over decades get disregarded so easily.
To compensate, most people will try and reshape their professional lives and career paths, so they fit into the new molds that they desperately need to fit into. I know I did, and I spent a couple of unhappy years trying to be someone I wasn’t.
All of these challenges seem philosophical almost, but they manifest in very real day-to-day hurdles that make settling in painful.
Most companies offer little support on this front, and so in many cases, the real problem never even gets communicated until it’s felt in the pocket. When the employee tells their employer that they must go home.
The unhappiness and loneliness that a relocated employee and their family feels often leads to the decision to repatriate, or move on to another job, company, or country.
Let’s face it, we need to start talking about these challenges and addressing them for what they really are.
Research shows that just like grief has a cycle, moving abroad also evokes a predictable pattern of feelings that can be handled and overcome with the right tools in place. I am committed to demystifying and dementalizing the emotional challenges that come with transitioning abroad.
I have learned to live authentically, no matter where I am in the world.
I’ll leave you with this fitting quote by Pico Iyer: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”