Towards a Better Understanding of Global Professionals’ Adjustment

expat adjustmentIt is hard to argue with the claim that adjustment is one of the most prominent topics related to global mobility. Annual industry surveys, such as Cartus or Brookfield surveys, regularly point to a high prevalence of adjustment challenges. This is also reflected in the academic literature, where adjustment has been assumed a critical psychological influence on performance since early expatriation research. Given the increase in the scope and variation of cross-cultural and physically dispersed collaboration within the global business environment, as well as the increasing number of challenging locations for expats, we can assume the topic of adjustment to remain or become even more important.

Although adjustment is widely dealt with and spoken about, the concept might not necessarily be clear. The theoretical conceptualizations of adjustment tend to focus on the traditional corporate expat, who is assigned to a specific host country. In this light, adjustment becomes the matter of getting to know and finding comfort in living in the host country, i.e. the new environment. Indeed, cross-cultural training is one of the most prominent managerial initiatives for supporting adjustment, as reported by industry surveys. Yet, given the increasingly broader spectrum of global professionals, some of whom traverse multiple cultures and/or interact with host nationals of many countries, such narrow conceptualization does not seem to capture all relevant aspects of adjustment.

In line with these notions and relevant academic criticisms, my colleagues and I conducted a research (Shaffer et al. 2015) aimed to better clarify the content of adjustment, as well as conceptualize and develop a multidimensional adjustment scale. Drawing upon role theory, which says that individuals assume different roles as they participate in various social structures, we view adjustment as the process of gaining psychological comfort in these roles. In terms of global professionals we focus on work- and family-role adjustment, which involves adaptation to associated tasks and responsibilities, as well as the relationships inherent within the work and family role, respectively. Geographical and cultural transitions experienced by global professionals are indeed a catalyst for changes in both the work and family contexts. For instance, within the family context, global professionals often have to take on new roles and responsibilities. This may happen when the global assignee becomes the only breadwinner in the family because the spouse has to terminate his or her career due to relocation. In this regard, adaptation would be necessary in terms of fulfilling task expectations given changing family dynamics (e.g. continue to perform household chores), and navigating relationships with other actors in the role (e.g. communication with spouse, who has also taken on a new role).

Our research has several managerial implications. Our study implies that global professionals need to adjust not only to their new sociocultural environment but also to their redefined work and family roles. It becomes evident that adjustment can be as important in the case of relocating employees to a culturally similar host country (or in fact any other role transitions). This understanding may help managers to adequately prepare both global employees and their families.

We suggest that managers can assist global professionals and their families to adjust more effectively by helping them understand the needs and challenges associated with their new roles and supplying them with training and support. Foremost, it is crucial to provide organizational support not only before or after the assignment, but rather throughout the process of global employment. Organizations could provide adjustment workshops, aiming to increase the awareness of the global employee and his or her family towards possible adjustment difficulties. Again, such difficulties should be expected and managed not only in terms of the sociocultural environment, but also in terms of changes within existing work and family roles.

Finally, we hope that our new adjustment scale can become a practical tool for HR managers to diagnose and compare family adjustment across different kinds of global professionals. In fact, our results suggest that work- and family-role adjustment differ in both level and strength of relationship to other relevant assignment factors across different types of global professionals (e.g., corporate expatriates, self-initiated expatriates, international business travelers, domestic employees with global responsibilities).


Further reading:

Shaffer, M. A., Reiche, B. S., Dimitrova, M., Lazarova, M., Chen, S., Westman, M., & Wurtz, O. (2016). Work- and family-role adjustment of different types of global professionals: Scale development and validation. Journal of International Business Studies. doi:10.1057/jibs.2015.26

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