Latest Research: Effective Personality Traits of Expats

‘Research’ by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

One of the traditional and still common purposes of expatriation is managing a foreign subsidiary, hence, traditional expatriate roles are to be found in senior executive levels and senior management teams. Given the responsibilities attached to these positions, and the costs of expatriation for the organization, the importance of success for such international assignments can hardly be overestimated. This points to the importance of identifying which expatriate factors would predict positive performance.

Recent research by Jakob Lauring, Jan Selmer and Annamaria Kubovcikova (2017) looks at this question through the lens of personality traits, focusing on how personality traits affect expats’ performance in the context of different management levels. Specifically, Lauring and colleagues focus on the effects of proactive personality and dispositional self-control, comparing the effects for expats in CEO positions and lower level managerial positions. Both proactive personality, which means taking initiative in changing the organizational environment, and self-control, which stands for inward orientation and adjustment to the organizational environment, have been found as important expatriate dispositions in previous research. Expanding previous work, the current study also adds the important variable of context, namely managerial position, assuming that the managerial level might influence the way these personality traits affect expatriate outcomes.

In line with previous research, the scholars hypothesised that both proactive personality and self-control would have a positive association with job performance (the accomplishment of the job tasks) and effectiveness (the fit with the job role), and a negative association with expats’ time to proficiency (the time it takes to reach a proficient level). As for managerial level, the researchers proposed that expatriate CEOs would benefit more from proactive personality (hence, there would be stronger associations with outcomes), while non-CEO expatriate managers would benefit relatively more from self-control. The assumed difference in managerial level for associations between personality traits and outcomes stems from the concept of ‘managerial discretion’. As the authors reason, expatriate CEOs have bigger latitude of action than non-CEO expatriates, which allows the former greater possibilities to influence the environment and change existing norms. In contrast, lower level expatriate managers have less latitude of managerial action, and therefore it is more effective to adjust to the existing organizational environment, rather than trying to change it.

Results of a web-based survey of 307 expatriate managers residing in China showed that both personality traits were indeed relevant and had their effects for expatriates. Specifically, results indicated that proactive personality and self-control had positive effects on job performance, for both CEO and non-CEO expatriates. Yet, as hypothesised, proactive personality had a stronger positive relationship with job performance for expatriate CEOs than for non-CEOs. On the contrary, self-control had a stronger positive association with job performance for expatriate non-CEOs, compared to CEOs. As such, management level proved to have moderating effect on the relationship between personality traits and job performance. Personality traits didn’t have significant effects on job effectiveness and time to proficiency, when controlling for other variables.

The results of the study can be useful to practitioners in several ways. First, knowledge about positive effects of proactive personality and self-control enrich expat selection and training procedures. As for the moderating effects of managerial level, knowing the differences may help practitioners to further adapt the procedures to a given expatriate level, tailoring both selection and training to emphasize the needed skills.


Further reading:

Lauring, J., Selmer, J., & Kubovcikova, A. (2017). Personality in context: Effective traits for expatriate managers at different levels. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1-26.

One thought on “Latest Research: Effective Personality Traits of Expats

  1. For the HR department, it is an arduous task to find people who adapt themselves to an expatriate position, since there are many variables outside the intrinsic professional, and value reconciliation aspect.

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