SMITH BUSINESS Magazine
Volume 11 No. 1 SPRING 2010

Cross Cultural Motivation and Expatriate Effectiveness

Multi-national companies rely on expatriate managers sent for long-term overseas assignments to set up new operations abroad, drum up new business, or help run their subsidiaries around the world. About one out of three of these managers will fail in their assignments—either they come home prematurely, or they fail to accomplish what their organization had hoped for. There is a high personal and career cost for an expatriate employee who fails, and such failures are very costly for his or her company, as well.

So there is great interest in understanding the challenges inherent in overseas assignments that may prevent expatriate managers from succeeding. Much of the existing research dealt with stress-related factors. But Gilad Chen, associate professor of management and organization, examined the motivation of expatriate managers, which may better explain the drivers behind success and failure.

Chen’s study looked at the overseas assignments of managers in a large U.S. energy company. Overseas assignments typically lasted about two years. While some managers chose to take an overseas assignment and regarded it as a positive career step, others were assigned to their overseas job. Chen measured the managers’ willingness to adapt cross-culturally and their belief in their ability to succeed in their assignments. Motivated managers were those people willing to try harder and work harder to overcome cultural challenges, and willing to give up the need to do things the American way.

The assignments were classified into the relative levels of challenge they presented to the manager based on two key factors. First was the amount of support provided by the home company in the overseas subsidiary. This support included everything from language training, financial assistance, support for families, career mentoring, local resources, and the like. Expatriates often find it more challenging to adapt when their firm does not provide such support mechanisms.

The other factor was cultural distance, which encompasses differences in language, religions, governmental systems, worldviews and social mores. An American manager working in Canada will have a much less challenging experience than an American working in China—or Nigeria, or Dubai, or any country where the cultural differences are very great. Many of the countries where cultural differences were greatest were also “high-stress” places in the developing world, where violence and civil unrest were common.

“Cross cultural motivation in expatriates helped them overcome some challenges but not others,” say Chen. “Motivation helped make up for a lack of support in their foreign subsidiaries. But motivation alone wasn’t enough to help them overcome the challenge of cultural distance.”

When an expatriate was sent to a local subsidiary without much support, more motivation helped them succeed despite their lack of resources. But motivation wasn’t enough to lessen the difficulties that came with a very different culture. That was something only time could fix, Chen found. Length of time living abroad did help alleviate the effects of cultural distance—since the longer an expatriate has lived in the culture, and the more local knowledge they acquire, the less they must contend with the challenges of cultural distance.

A key practical implication of this study is that cultural training and preparation is especially important when expatriates are sent to more culturally different environments.

“This is a key reason why we now include cross-cultural management classes in our part-time MBA and executive MBA programs,” says Chen. “Managers need to understand some of the issues that come with working across cultures in order to be effective.”

“When does cross-cultural motivation enhance expatriate effectiveness? A multilevel investigation of the moderating roles of subsidiary support and cultural distance” was co-authored by Chen and Bradley Kirkman, Texas A&M University; Kwanghyun Kim, California State University East Bay; Subrahmaniam Tangirala, Smith School assistant professor of management and organization; and Crystal I Chien Farh, Smith doctoral student. The article received the Best International Paper Award at the 2009 Academy of Management Conference. For more information about this research, contact Gilad Chen.

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