Industry April / May 2010

Expatriate Cross-Cultural Training

What is cross-cultural training and what will I learn from it? This is often the first question newly arrived expatriates and their spouses ask me. As a corporate cross-cultural trainer, I welcome many newcomers to Tokyo, so I’d like to explain why training is valuable for expatriates to maximize the learning potential and success of an international assignment on both a professional and personal level.

Accepting an international assignment can present a variety of challenges. Beyond food, housing, and social etiquette, there are deeper intangible differences in the way people perceive situations, confront problems, and make decisions. Expatriates face different communication styles, interpersonal dynamics, and attitudes toward work-life balance. At the core of this are cultural values shaped by history. Understanding cultural undercurrents and behavioral nuances can often make the difference between success and failure, and cross-cultural training explores how and why culture and norms have developed.

Such training programs speed the transition and make participants more comfortable and productive from their arrival, making them more effective at work, while reducing stress and saving time.

Training programs, often part of an expatriate international relocation package, are generally offered either pre-departure or post-arrival. Most programs I facilitate are post-arrival with expatriates arriving in Tokyo from all over the world including the UK, US, France, Brazil, Germany, Finland, South Africa, Singapore, China, and South Korea. Multinational corporations also typically offer cross-cultural training programs and support for Japanese employees going abroad.

The programs are for one or two full days and cover a wide range of topics customized for the background and business objectives of each participant. Individualized training sessions take place at the participant’s office or in the family’s home. A typical program, “Living and Working Effectively in Japan”, covers culture including history, core values and beliefs, traditions, communication styles, and political and social issues. The business part covers leadership styles, making a good first impression, building relationships, protocol, and developing Japanese global leaders. There are also practical tips for daily life with useful resources for the spouse and family. Guest presenters may talk on history, business, or expatriate family life in Tokyo. Finally, the training covers the adjustment cycle, cultural adaptation, and strategies to build effective intercultural knowledge and competence. As every expatriate’s situation is unique, so is each program.

The standard program is for both employee and spouse or partner. It is valuable for both to join the program together to become more aware of the challenges each faces. This often helps the spouse understand the longer working hours needed to succeed here and the pressure to join after-work events. Likewise, the working partner will understand the many challenges the spouse or partner faces and that it can mean sacrificing an important career and social network. Youth programs, for ages six to 18, introduce the culture and typical issues faced when adjusting to a new school and environment.

The goals of cross-cultural training are to make global leaders even stronger by deepening their cultural awareness and for their families to smoothly adjust and find meaningful ways to enjoy Japan.

Cross-cultural training is an essential component of every organization’s strategic planning, since culture shapes the way people conduct business and interact. When participants finish the program, they are armed with information and solutions—a great way to maximize the success of an international assignment.