The Culturally Humble Expat

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International assignments are costly, which is why both researchers and practitioners are in constant search for the right formula of successful expatriation. Given that international assignments are meant to be ‘bridging the gaps’, be it in terms of knowledge sharing or the transfer of other resources, good relationships and cooperation between expats and locals seem to be one of the main ingredients to this formula. For example, research data indicates that expatriates, who seek advice from host country nationals (HCNs), report better adjustment, and that social support and feedback provided by HCNs can facilitate expats’ performance on the assignment (e.g. Malek, Budhwar, & Reiche, 2015; Toh & DeNisi, 2007). As brought up in one of my earlier posts though, the productive relationship between expatriates and host country nationals is not always a given. In simple terms, it requires ability and motivation to do so on both sides.

Resent research by Caligiuri, Baytalskaya and Lazarova (2016) looks further into the processes between expatriates and the host national environment from the expat’s perspective. More specifically, the researchers were interested whether expats’ individual differences such as cultural humility and ethnocentrism interact with how HCNs’ feedback and support affect expatriate outcomes.

Drawing on previous research, the scholars defined ethnocentrism as ‘the general belief or attitude in the superiority of one’ s own country or ethnic identity group’. Ethnocentrism can translate into negative perceptions of the out-group culture, ideas that customs, norms and traditions of my country are ‘better’ or ‘more correct’ than yours, and negative stereotyping. As a result, expatriates with high levels of an ethnocentric orientation will be less likely to interact with HCNs, who might be deemed less competent or less credible. On the contrary, the concept of cultural humility is defined as ‘an interpersonal characteristic that emerges in social contexts that connotes (a) a manifested willingness to view oneself accurately, (b) a displayed appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, and (c) teachability”. In other words, expatriates with high levels of cultural humility demonstrate self-awareness, respect towards other cultures, openness and willingness to learn from other cultures.

Given that benefiting from local support does not happen automatically, Caligiuri and colleagues hypothesized that a) expatriates’ perceptions of support in the host national environment will be positively related to their assignment performance, and b) expatriates’ ethnocentrism and cultural humility will moderate their perceptions of support and feedback in the host national environment.

To test the hypotheses, the researchers surveyed a matched sample of 62 expatriates and their supervisors. Results indicated that perceived support in the host national work environment was indeed a significant predictor of expat performance. Moreover, the researchers found that the performance of expatriates with higher levels of cultural humility benefited from this support more than the performance of expats with lower levels of humility. Finally, the study results indicate that ethnocentrism has a direct negative influence on expat performance.

Practical implications

In simple terms, the researchers suggest that a supportive work environment can positively benefit expatriates, especially when they are humble, and that expatriates with lower ethnocentric attitudes tend to perform more successfully on their assignments. Hence, the first practical implication seems to relate to the expat selection processes. Specifically, along with other personal characteristics and previous experiences, global mobility managers may also consider  cultural humility and ethnocentrism metrics of prospective assignees.

A second implication goes along the lines of viewing cultural humility and ethnocentrism not only as individual dispositions, but as teachable skills (think about cultural intelligence for example). Indeed, linking it back to some issues discussed previously in my blog, ethnocentric orientation and a lack of cultural humility  seem to resemble the automatic mode of categorizing, stereotyping and disliking differences, which we can all too easily fall into. Thus, self-awareness skills, as well as appropriate behaviors can be taught to expatriates.

Finally, returning to the notion of ability and motivation from both sides, managers should not forget to involve host country nationals, encouraging and teaching them to provide support and feedback.

Further reading:

Caligiuri, P., Baytalskaya, N., & Lazarova, M. B. (2016). Cultural humility and low ethnocentrism as facilitators of expatriate performance. Journal of Global Mobility: the Home of Expatriate Management Research, 4(1), pp. 4-17.

Malek, M.A., Budhwar, P., & Reiche, B.S. (2015). Sources of support and expatriation: A multiple stakeholder perspective of expatriate adjustment and performance in Malaysia. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26(2), pp. 258-276.

Toh, S.M. & DeNisi, A.S. (2007). Host country nationals as socializing agents: A social identity approach. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 28(3), pp. 281-301.

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