The key to successful expatriation lies more in developing appropriate skills than in possessing favorable personality traits? Some evidence.

In my latest Fact or Fiction entry, I posted the question whether the key to successful expatriation lies more in developing appropriate skills than in possessing favorable personality traits. The statement can be rather considered a FICTION.

For example, a recent study by Shaffer and colleagues (2006) indicates that both stable personality traits and more dynamic cross-cultural competencies are important predictors of expatriate success. But let me take a step back and look into the broader origins of the question of employee selection for international assignments.

Over the last decade, the expatriate workforce has become much more varied, as witnessed by the emergence of new types of international assignments, a growing number of multinational corporations, and the continuous spread of global mindset within the working environment. This greater diversity of assignees has important implications for candidate selection, a challenge that tops the lists of several large-scale expatriate surveys. Specifically, the diversity of potential expatriates leads to questions of critical selection criteria and employee suitability for an international assignment. As my fact or fiction statement implies, candidate selection criteria can be differentiated between personality traits and learned competencies. However, as the research evidence suggests, it is not so much an either/or debate, because expatriate success involves both suitable personality characteristics and acquired competencies.

While substantial research on personality traits exists, with several exhaustive lists of essential expatriate characteristics, so far scholars have not managed to develop a prototype of an ideal expatriate. This gap can be explained by the multitude of different characteristics studied and the lack of an overarching theory. Nevertheless, with the emergence of the Big Five personality trait model (Costa & McCrae, 1992), it became a focus of recent research, and several studies have found a relationship between some of the Big Five dimensions and various expatriate effectiveness criteria. For example, Downes, Varner and Hemmasi (2010) found that extraversion, emotional stability, and openness to change had a significant, positive impact on expatriate adjustment, while agreeableness positively influences expatriate job performance; and Shaffer and colleagues (2006) indicated that all personality traits, apart from conscientiousness, had a significant influence on expatriate effectiveness and success. In other words, these scholars (p. 122) argue that ‘expatriates who are emotionally stable, who are outgoing and agreeable, and who are high in openness to experience seem to function better than others’.

In addition to personality traits, expatriate researchers have also identified myriad lists of competencies needed for successfully managing in a foreign cultural environment. For example, Shaffer et al. (2006) found that cultural flexibility was positively related to expatriates’ adjustment and performance. In addition, they found that task and people orientation (degree of motivation to attain assigned goals and interact with other people), as well as cosmopolitanism (a tendency to view one’s own traditions, culture, and patterns of behavior as no better than other distinct traditions, cultures, and behaviors), were positively related to expatriate adjustment and job performance. There are many other competencies linked to cultural and emotional intelligence, self-management and interpersonal skills that have been found useful in expatriate assignments. Accordingly, there is extensive evidence for the effectiveness of cross-cultural training in facilitating success on expatriate assignments (e.g. Littrell et al., 2006; Waxin & Panaccio, 2005).

All in all, academic research has provided some evidence for the importance of both personality traits and learned competencies in expatriate success. However, may we still argue that one is more important than the other? Or that there are some must-have’s and some nice-to-have’s in an ideal expatriate?

Starting from the assumption that behavior is a function of an individual’s personality and the situation, the link between the expatriate’s personality and expatriation outcomes seems a matter of common sense. Moreover, given the notion that personality traits are stable factors of an individual, it is logical that expatriate selection could be based on the ‘either you have it or not’ principle. Hence, specific personality traits seem to be must-have’s of a successful international assignee. However, the importance of learned capabilities should not be underestimated. The indicated role of situational factors implies that expatriates should possess certain skills or competencies to alter and adjust the behavior that one’s personality induces to the cross-cultural reality. Luckily, this can be trained. The possible question here is whether everyone is equally trainable? And here we once again return to the notion of differences in personality traits. Could it be that people with greater levels of emotional stability are better in acquiring self-management and interpersonal skills? Are stable traits a prerequisite to acquire dynamic competencies?

Hence, some questions remain to be answered. However, given the current theoretical and empirical evidence, we can identify several managerial implications. Selecting expatriate candidates based solely on technical knowledge or their willingness to travel is not enough. Shaffer et al. (2006, p. 122) argue that ‘selecting future expatriates with the “natural” disposition to succeed on an international assignment and training them in effective, specific cross-cultural competencies will become even more critical’. The results of studies suggest that international human resource managers could benefit from assessing individual differences of expatriate candidates, looking for more adaptable, socially competent and committed individuals for international assignments. All competencies beyond personality dispositions can potentially be developed by cross-cultural training. However, to ensure cost savings in training, the appropriate competencies should also be included in selection criteria upfront.

Further reading:

Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). NEO PI-R professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.

Downes, M., Varner, I.I., & Hemmasi, M. (2010). Individual profiles as predictors of expatriate effectiveness. Competitiveness Review: An International Business Journal incorporating Journal of Global Competitiveness, 20, 3, 235 – 247.

Littrell, L., Salas, E., Hess, K., Paley, M., & Riedel, S. (2006). Expatriate Preparation: A Critical Analysis of 25 Years of Cross-Cultural Training Research. Human Resource Development Review, 5, 3, 355-388.

Shaffer, M. A., Harrison, D. A., Gregersen, H. B., Black, J. S., & Ferzandi, L. A. (2006). You can take it with you: Individual differences and expatriate effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 1, 109-125.

Waxin,  M-F., & Panaccio, A. (2005) . Cross-cultural training to facilitate expatriate adjustment: It works! Personnel Review, 34, 1, 51-67.

One thought on “The key to successful expatriation lies more in developing appropriate skills than in possessing favorable personality traits? Some evidence.

  1. Dear Dr Sebastian
    My name is David Quansah. I am a lecturer and a PhD student in the United Arab Emirates. I have found your article “The key to successful expatriation lies more in developing appropriate skills….” very interesting. My thesis topic revolves around the same topic. My thesis topic is “Developing a training framework for improving cross cultural adjustment of expatriate lecturers in the UAE.” Part of the study will be devoted to developing an ideal expatriate profile (as a candidate selection criteria). The other part of the study will be to identify what should be in a Cross Cultural Training Program.

    Please I would be very grateful if you could kindly provide me with references to help support my literature review and qualitative meta-analysis. My study will follow a explanatory sequential design – “quantitative-first” model, so I will have a survey and them in-depth interviews.

    Please could you also provide me advice on quantitative instruments to use or interview questions.

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