The Cross-Cultural Workplace

     Any workplace in any society in the world is always a very dynamic and complex environment with a host of variables and forces at work that influence social interaction patterns and resultant levels of performance and productivity.  The cross-cultural workplace has an even higher level of dynamic complexity because you have culture-shaped institutional structures and norms interacting with people of different cultures.  In many cases institutions have been shaped by several cultures during the colonial and post-colonial periods and they are a sometimes a competing mix of value, practice and belief patterns.   In the cross-cultural workplace you have people of different cultures with different culturally molded personalities and motives interacting with each other.  It can be exciting, dynamic, creative and productive, but it can also be stressful, confusing, frustrating and nonproductive.  You can have a combination of aggressive, non-aggressive and passive-aggressive people all thrown into the mix.  We can see the chaos theory at work in any organization or institutional setting and sometimes we can really see it at work in the cross-cultural setting.

     It is helpful to look at the nature of expatriates and try to develop a typology of expatriate psychology with an emphasis on motives and personality.   Why is the expatriate there to begin with?  What is their motive for working overseas -- travel and adventure, exploring new societies and cultures, commitment to development work, tired of their home society and culture, canít make it in their home society and culture, donít want to make it in their home society and culture, on the rebound from a broken relationship, running away from something, running toward something, or just thought theyíd like to try something different?

     What is their personality like?  Is it typical or atypical of their home culture?  How is their personality naturally in conflict with or in harmony with the typical host culture personality type?  Are they suffering from culture shock and if so what effect is this having on their personality, their patterns of interaction with people and their job performance?  How quickly are they moving on the continuum of cross-cultural understanding?  How ethnocentric are they?  What personal emotional baggage are they carrying with them and what effect is this having on their interpersonal interactions and performance?  Are they happy and productive?  Are they unhappy and unproductive?

     One factor that has had a big influence on the structure and operational norms of many institutions and organizations in societies with a colonial past and post-colonial or neocolonial present is the transient nature of the expatriate contract worker.    It has had and continues to have a considerable effect on the attitudes of host country people.  On balance, even though expatriates made and continue to make significant contributions to developing Pacific island nations, the transient nature of expatriate workers has also had negative effects on the workings of organizations, institutions and bureaucracies.  And, although there are many positive exceptions, it has also had negative effects on the interpersonal relationships of locals and expatriates and their perceptions of each other.

     These outsiders come and stay for a short time and then leave again.   Many of them go through an initial period of culture shock and adjustment and related family problems, and by the time they and their family finally get adjusted and learn to understand and work within the host culture itís time for them to go home again.  Because of their planned brief stay they sometimes try to accomplish too much in a short time.  They may feel rushed to achieve something in a hurry.  They may get easily frustrated at the pace of their achievement and tend to force themselves on people and step on toes trying to accomplish something in a short time.  Islanders know that they wonít be staying long and some might try to get as much out of the expat contract worker as they can while they are there.  Sometimes this appears to the expatriate as exploitative and insincere and sometimes it is but often itís not.   Sometimes the expatriate feels that the host country people donít appreciate their hard work and are ungrateful.  Islanders have seen expatriates come and go.   They have seen them come with big ideas that turn into considerable accomplishments that often crumble as soon as they leave.  Many times the locals tolerate the expatriate ideas and help them or allow them to make significant operational changes knowing that soon they will leave and things will be back to their previous state.  There are also, of course, many other cases where host country people genuinely appreciate the work of expats and do all they can to continue and build upon their good work after they leave. 

     When I worked in Fiji I built up a thriving vocational training program in the area of welding and metal fabrication and, in conjunction with the local Red Cross, produced wheelchairs, walkers and hospital furniture.   I also developed a poultry-farm training unit that was profitable and self-sustaining.  Within six months of my departure both of these operations were no longer in existence.  I was a bit disappointed, but I knew I had gotten a lot out of the experience and I knew that the boys that I had trained had benefited and perhaps that was all I could ask for.  This is the ultimate fate of many Peace Corps Volunteers and development workers in general, but also the fate of many contract workers as well.

      Many expatriate contract workers who couldnít accomplish much or whose projects folded soon after they left have criticized islander commitment and motivation, but the islanders are not entirely to blame for the failure to carry on with projects initiated by expatriates.  Often the expatriates have done everything themselves in an effort to have their ego-stroking achievement and they have failed to include locals in the planning and implementation processes thereby not giving them any stake in continuing after the expatriate leaves.  So many projects are just glory buttons for the expatriates, which is why good, solid, sustainable development projects are always those that build in local stakeholders from their inception.  I am certain that this is partly to blame for the discontinuation of my own Peace Corps projects.  I did most everything myself, thus not giving my local counterparts a stake in the operation and its success.  But there are also cases where local counterparts have been included and stakeholding has been a major consideration of planning but the project still falls flat after the expatriate leaves.

     Expatriates need to understand these dynamics, but so do island people.  It is very helpful if host-country people understand the motives, perceptions, frustrations and anxieties of the expatriate workers.  In the final analysis, however, the initial and sustained success of projects requires local commitment and this requires that host-country people sincerely value the project and its goals.  If this is lacking, then nothing can make a success out of even the best planned and implemented projects.

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