Let’s say you are a multinational corporation with headquarters in Canada and plan to send an expatriate to your subsidiary in China. Who would you most likely send, a French Canadian manager, or an ethnic Chinese manager? I suspect you would pick the latter as we quite naturally assume that expatriates, who share similarities with local employees, will be more successful in their assignments.
Indeed, similarities such as ethnicity, cultural background, race, languages spoken etc., are among the many factors both practitioners and researchers have looked at in their search for the secrets behind successful expatriation. In particular, ethnicity is a salient feature because we can easily recognize it (e.g. from physical appearance). Moreover, ethnicity is also part of everyone’s social identity, which is often a criteria for group categorization… After all, ‘birds of a feather flock together’, don’t they?
However, while similar ethnicity may decrease many possible adjustment challenges (e.g. lack of language skills), it is not the ‘magic stick’ and may not necessarily work. Recent research by Fan, Cregan, Harzing and Köhler (2016) looks into the role of ethnic (dis)similarity in expatriate-local employee interactions, arguing that apart from objective ethnicity, we need to look into subjective perceptions of ethnicity as well.
The researchers introduce the concept of ethnic identity confirmation (EIC), which refers to ‘the level of agreement between how expatriates view the importance of their own ethnic identity and how local employees view the importance of expatriates’ ethnic identity’. In other words, it captures the congruence between perceptions of importance level of identity. For example, if both an expat and a local employee believe that ethnicity is an important factor in social interactions—high EIC—they would have similar expectations of showing it (e.g. following ethnic cultural norms, favoring in-group members) and feel attitudinal congruence. On the other hand, this attitudinal congruence of high EIC may also show as sharing an attitude that ethnicity is not an important or highlighted part of one’s social identity, hence there would be no expectation linked to it on both sides. One way or the other, high EIC indicates that both parties agree on the attributed level of importance of ethnic identity. Low EIC implies conflicting views on the importance of ethnic identity. For example, an ethnic Chinese manager from multicultural Canada may attribute little importance to his ethnicity, and rather identify with global citizens, while a local Chinese employee expects ethnicity to be central to her social identity. Hence, while expected to join a Chinese group over lunch, the expat instead joins the group of other expats, which creates a ‘conflict’.
Fan and colleagues hypothesized that the level of EIC will play a role in expat knowledge acquisition, and administered a survey to a sample of 128 expatriate-local employee dyads working in China to test this idea.
The study results revealed that both ethnically similar and ethnically different expatriates acquire more local knowledge when EIC is high. In other words, when there was congruence in ethnic attitudes between expats and local employees, expats perceived greater knowledge acquisition, irrespective of ethnic similarity or difference with locals.
Other results reveal that for ethnically similar employees a higher level of EIC also translated into a higher level of perceived local employee trustworthiness. That is, in the case of high EIC, an ethnic Chinese expat from Canada would build trusting and positive relationships with local employees in China more easily. As a result, the researchers concluded that ethnically similar expats in conditions of high EIC perceive higher knowledge acquisition via perception of local employee trustworthiness. As EIC didn’t generate higher levels of perceived trustworthiness for ethnically different expats, the authors suggested that the link between high EIC and knowledge acquisition in this group is direct. It may be that high EIC gives ethnically different expats the perception that they are respected or understood by local colleagues, which can encourage communication with and knowledge seeking from local colleagues.
For me, one important practical implication stemming from this research is that ethnic similarity is not helpful per se. Rather, it is important to consider congruence of attitudes towards ethnic identity, which seems to play a bigger role than having similar or different ethnicity in itself. As the authors put it, ‘similar identity can be a double-edged sword’, as when there is low EIC, there might be conflicting expectations, which inhibit building relationships and, hence, knowledge sharing.
Hereof, MNCs are advised to provide identity management training to both expatriates and local employees. I believe that the core of such training could be about building awareness of one’s own attitudes towards ethnic identity (how important is it among one’s other social identities), developing skills of expressing one’s identity and noticing the expectations of others, and finally developing skills of negotiating one’s identity in the case of low congruence with important others.
Fan, S., Cregan, C., Harzing, A-W., & Koehler, T. (2016). The benefits of being understood: the role of ethnic identity confirmation in expatriate-local employee interactions, in press for Human Resource Management. Available online…