Basic cross-cultural survival tips for new Western APAC leaders

Doing business can be risky and challenging for newcomers to Asia where many of the behaviours that made you respected and successful at home can be misunderstood and looked upon as arrogant or rude. While generalizing is always dangerous and there is no one “Asian culture”, just as there is no one “Western culture”, there are some cultural similarities among the countries in Asia.  Knowing the basics can keep you from starting your business relationships on the wrong foot during those first visits. 

1. If you are a man greeting a woman, say hello with a slight nod of your head, unless she extends her hand.

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How to avoid a million dollar mistake - The importance of cross-cultural relocation training

In multinational organizations international assignees – both short- and long-term – play very important and somewhat unique roles. They may be sent abroad for setting up a new operation, for development purposes, sharing best practices and corporate culture, problem solving, filling skill gaps or running projects. In any case, in order to optimize the assignees’ positive impact on the local operations as well as on the whole organization, assignees need to be well prepared.

Practice and research show significant losses, between $250,000 and $1 million for each individual, when assignees fail. This includes direct costs, such as salary and benefits, relocation expenses, and training and development. There are also the indirect costs to consider such as inefficiency and low morale of the local staff, damaged relationships with key clients in the region, future difficulty in recruiting for the location and the negative impact on the expat involved as well as on her/his family.

Technical competence is a must but in the international environment it has to be combined with cross-cultural sensitivity. Cross-cultural relocation training is therefore an important part of setting up assignees and their families for success.

Best practices for expatriate cross-cultural relocation programs

An effective program should have the following components:

  • The training session should have a focus on every-day business situations so that the expatriate is able to use the learnings immediately in her/his work 
  • A blended approach of training and coaching over a 4-6 week time period so the expat and spouse/partner can practice what they have learned while receiving support
  • Allowing the expatriate and spouse to assess their own cultural biases, in addition to learning about the other culture/cultures
  • Providing recommendations for how the expatriate can adjust her/his behavior in order to be most effective
  • Addressing the assignee’s specific concerns and issues
  • Inviting the participation of the spouse since the lack of the spouse’s or the family’s adjustment are the most often quoted reasons for expatriate premature return
Benefits of a Cross-Cultural Relocation Program

Expatriates often quote the following two points as the most important benefits of cross-cultural programs: 1) Becoming aware of how their own cultural perceptions and biases impact the interactions with their colleagues, customers, partners, etc., and 2) The understanding of how cultures influence peoples’ behaviors (e.g. having a different approach to time, using a direct or indirect communication style, respecting or almost ignoring hierarchy).

Other benefits include:

  • Accelerated readiness for effective work performance
  • Realistic expectations and overall better preparation for work and life adjustments required in the new location
  • Effective communication with international colleagues and the local office
  • More fulfilling experience during the assignment

A quality relocation training program gives expatriates a heightened chance for success in their intercultural interactions and a good foundation on which they can further develop their cross-cultural competence. And when the assignee succeeds, so does the organization.

Written by Zsuzsanna Tungli, PhD .


Eight practical tips for house-hunting when moving to Singapore

Entry #5

Choosing housing for your expat assignment can be quite challenging since it’s often done on a very short house hunting trip.  Doing some prep work before you arrive in Singapore for your house hunting trip can make the whole experience more enjoyable and rewarding.


This will come in handy, not only for the house hunt, but for your expat experience.  Your housing options may be quite different from those at home.  Communicate your preferences to your realtor but allow them to use their expertise.  You might be surprised at where you end up. 


Take some time to think about and write down those things that you ‘must have’ versus those that are ‘nice to have’.  It might be essential for you to have three bedrooms and a nearby park so your son can play football, but while you would love a water view and a dishwasher, those are things you could live without. 


Some companies specify to the realtor how many properties they should show.  Since Singaporeans tend to follow instructions, if your company said to show you 8 properties, you may only be shown exactly 8 properties. 


Remember that this is not a forever house.  But your housing choice may help define where you shop, where you dine, where you spend your leisure time and, even with whom you socialize.  Consider commute times, location of schools, what you like to do for recreation, etc. and include those items on your priority list. 


The MRT is not the only public transportation option in Singapore.  Don’t limit your housing search just based on MRT access.  Expats may discount busses, but they are often the most direct, convenient and comfortable way to get to many destinations.  And, they are easy to use with the right smartphone apps!  There are also taxis, some neighbourhood shuttle busses, and the option to purchase or lease a car. 


Unlike in some other countries, in Singapore your relationship with your realtor will likely to continue for the length of your lease.  They will be your champion in disputes with your landlord, so choose wisely.  Your employer may recommend a realtor, but talk to individual employees or other expats about their experiences.  They may have additional suggestions. 


If your landlord lives too close or too far away, they may either be too much in your business or unavailable if something needs fixing.  If you can, have a conversation with the landlord to see his reactions. Many landlords leave the negotiation to the real estate agent. 


The Singapore market, while still hot, has softened somewhat over the last couple of years.  The landlord may not want to lower the rent that you’ll be paying, but it may be possible to have other valuable things included in the rent.  Consider asking for use of some furniture, money toward utilities, weekly cleaning or air conditioning maintenance.

Written by Risa Heywood .


Best practice guidelines for developing cross-cultural competence in organizations

Cross-cultural competence or cross-cultural intelligence is the ability to effectively interact with other cultures. It is an essential requirement for anybody working in an international environment. Becoming cross-culturally competent is a process, which starts with developing cultural self-awareness, continues with learning about other cultures, and culminates in being able to build bridges between cultural differences. The following are best practice guidelines as to how organizations can develop their people's cross-cultural competence.

Best practice guidelines

1) Developing self-awareness and raising general awareness of different cultures

  • Complete assessments to measure employees' cultural awareness and orientation
  • The Global Mindset Inventory: An assessment of openness and general cross-cultural competence
  • Globesmart: A web-based assessment of cultural orientation
  • Globesmart Team Assessment: An online assessment of multicultural teams' effectiveness
  • Include information about national cultures as part of the new employee induction program

2) Creating exposure to different cultures

  • Send employees on short- and long-term international assignments
  • Send employees to international conferences and meetings
  • Assign emerging leaders to multinational teams
  • Organize cross-cultural team building events

3) Helping individuals learn about other cultures and creating best practices for building cultural bridges

  • Make expatriate relocation programs mandatory
  • Offer regular 'Working effectively across cultures' programs for all employees interacting with different nationalities
  • Offer 'Working effectively in multicultural virtual teams' programs 2-3 times a year, and rotate all employees working virtually through this program
  • Introduce cross-cultural coaching and mentoring
  • Gain access to a database of cultural information about different countries of the world
  • Let people know about free apps available on cultures

4) Creating support for embracing cross-cultural diversity and competence

  • Establish a social network of 'cultural ambassadors' in different parts of the organization
  • Arrange competitions, hand out 'cultural awards' for initiatives that help different cultures working together, then follow through and execute these initiatives

Potential quick wins for leveraging cultural diversity

Potential quick results may be achieved by identifying international projects, expatriates, and/or international virtual team leaders who seem to have challenges with getting things done across cultures. Individuals who have first-hand experience with cultural diversity's challenges are the most likely to be receptive to the concept of developing cross-cultural competence.

Written by Zsuzsanna Tungli, PhD.


Don't forget the locals!

Entry #3

At a recent networking event, I was speaking to a Singaporean entrepreneur. She had recently been in China for business and had been surprised at how different the culture was. "I am of Chinese heritage, my family follows many Chinese customs and I speak Mandarin," she said, "I never expected to feel so foreign there."

When I mention that Cultural Training Asia does cross-cultural training, many people automatically assume that the training is just for expats. Yes, cross-cultural training is important for both Western and Asian expatriates when they are moving to a new location. But, cross-cultural training is also important for the locals. Here are three reasons why:

1) Multi-national companies (MNCs)

Many Singaporeans work for multinational companies which are headquartered outside of Singapore. The values, processes and upper management at these companies are usually from the home culture, whether it be British, Chinese, American, Japanese, German, etc. Companies may train their local employees in the company culture, but it's rare that a company recognizes the challenges that the company's home country culture will have on the local employees. Here is a very simple everyday example: going out to lunch with colleagues is very important in Singapore. Since that is not considered at all important in Germany, Singaporeans who are working for German companies may find that their company culture or German manager makes this difficult.

2) Foreign workers

According to the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore has about 300,000 foreign workers on Employment Passes or S Passes. Most of these expats work in offices with Singaporean colleagues. While the foreigners might receive some cross-cultural training on working in Singapore, the Singaporeans typically do not receive training on how to work with their new colleagues. How would a local know that there could be very big differences in how their British co-worker communicates compared to their Dutch co-worker? The first time a Singaporean is given feedback from their very direct Dutch colleague, they may be shocked and feel that their colleague was extremely rude.

3) Prevalence of regional roles

The jobs of many Singaporeans include regional roles for which they have to travel, or at least to communicate, with foreign colleagues from other Asian countries. As the entrepreneur at the beginning of this article found out the hard way, there isn't one Asian culture. There may be some similar tendencies, such as those in Asian cultures tend to be more indirect speakers than their Western counterparts. But, there are important differences among Asian cultures. What is the best way for a regional manager in Singapore, who works for an American company, to give an appraisal over the telephone to his employee in Indonesia? The answer is probably not in the employee handbook.

Singapore's multicultural history has made people aware of the multitude of cultures living together. Often however this awareness is limited to the surface and is based on what we can see, hear, smell, touch, etc. We don't necessarily know the deeper values and assumptions of these cultures, or even the reasons why they use such different communication and leadership styles. Providing cross-cultural training can teach not only how these cultures are different but also how to build bridges and communicate effectively and in harmony with each other. For anybody who wants to work more effectively with their foreign colleagues or excel at their regional roles, this training is essential.

Written by Risa Heywood.


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