11 June 2018

Assignment Failure: What Is Behind It and How to Fix It

Global Mobility / Globalization
Assignment failure



Organizations looking to expand globally often maintain the view that there is a universal approach to how employees work, regardless of their location, personality, or level of cultural awareness.  More often than not international assignment failure is often due to the organization not investing enough up front and not realizing the complexities that an international assignment entails.

Global Mobility professionals are not alone in falling into the trap of making some basic incorrect assumptions about global assignments; so are HR and talent management teams.

Two of the most common myths are:

1.  There is a universal approach to management
2.  International assignees will eventually adopt the local culture

Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce
Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce

Myth 1: There is a universal approach to management

A simple definition of culture is “the way we do things round here” (J. Mole), and the way you do things in your country may be different to the way I do things in mine.

Organizations that do not take cultural factors into account when considering suitable candidates for an international assignment are setting up a situation where both the employee and the assignment could fail.

Implicit communication vs explicit communication

Imagine an explicit, task-focused American manager who is relocating to Japan to revitalize an underperforming Japanese team.

The Japanese – being far more implicit in their communication style and placing greater importance on relationship–building, would no doubt find this American trouble-shooter rude and aggressive if the American manager continued to operate in the same style used at home.

Japanese approach to management:

  • Implicit communication
  • Tasks are completed by first building a relationship
  • Managers maintain distance, and direct
  • Harmony first, truth second
  • Discrete feedback to the group

US approach to management:

  • Explicit communication
  • Relationships are made by completing tasks together
  • Managers are hands-on, and facilitate
  • Truth first, truth second…harmony is not important
  • Demonstrative feedback to an individual

Such conflicting approaches are in danger of leading to a breakdown in work performance.

Unless the American manager can adapt their style and the Japanese team gain some understanding of how American management styles work, it will be impossible for the team to function effectively.

Setting up to fail

The likely result is assignment failure, and rather than turning the team around, performance will decrease further. Another employee has been added to the failed expatriate statistics.

An even worse outcome is that the expat manager remains in place: relationships and morale are damaged, key local talent leaves and the department’s performance drops.

Further reading

Perhaps this could have been avoided if Global Mobility was involved earlier.

Having sent many assignees around the world, they have an insight into the non-technical skills an assignee needs. They have tools to help them assess what potential cultural challenges the assignees might face. A cultural awareness course on Japanese business culture would also be a wise investment.

Rather than writing off the American manager as a failure, support can be provided to help them develop greater self-awareness and skills to adapt their style.

Myth 2: It’s not a question of adopting the new culture

Expecting an assignee to adopt the behavior of a new culture is neither possible nor desirable.

Culture and cultural differences are profound and develop through life experience and external influences.

It’s not a question of picking up a travel guide on your way to an assignment in Tokyo and learning a few quick tips. This superficial experience does not completely immerse an assignee into Japanese culture.

Successful expatriates are not expected to shed their identity or to replace it with a new culture.

“Going native,” negates the valuable global mindset that organizations need to nurture. Those who attempt this approach are seen as shallow, inauthentic, and patronizing.

A successful assignment for both the assignee and the host country is built on developing cultural awareness, empathy, and finding a middle ground. Explicit, achievable expectations must be set for all parties through open communication.

Cultural differences are too often seen as a negative influence. Organizations have many reasons to value the diversity of international business.

Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce
Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity
The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce

Different perspectives, heightened creativity and more robust market strategies characterize organizations that prioritize the promotion of cultural diversity. Conforming to local culture would negate that benefit.

Expatriate failure

Peter Dowling of La Trobe University raises some interesting questions about assignment failure in his research paper: Recruiting and selecting staff for international assignments:

  • What do we mean by assignment failure?
  • What are the costs of failure?

Dowling cites expatriate failure as a return home before the period of assignment is completed.

He explains that an expatriate failure represents a selection error, “often compounded by ineffective expatriate management policies.”

He highlights the narrowness of the way many companies definite expatriate failure;

“An expatriate may transpire to be ineffectual and poorly acclimatized; but if not recalled, the assignment is still considered a success. Nevertheless, if the expatriate remains abroad for the duration of the assignment, it is considered a success.”

This is not an adequate definition of a successful mobility placement.

Counting the cost of failure

Dowling explains that the cost of assignment failure can be both direct and indirect. The direct cost is easy to calculate and includes airfare and associated relocation costs as well as salary and training expenses.

The indirect cost is harder to quantify but can have a big financial impact on the company.

Indirect costs include:

  • Productivity – the disruption to the assignee’s host country office
  • Efficiency – the costs associated with a premature return home
  • Loss of a skill set – in some instances the cost of an employee leaving the company altogether

This means that in many cases the business is worse off than before the assignment started.

Dowling also points out that failure will most likely have a psychological effect on the assignee and on colleagues in the host office.

The assignee may well lose self-esteem, self-confidence, and a measure of prestige among their peers.

This could have a significant impact on future performance and motivation, creating an additional cost to the organization.

The host office similarly is left disillusioned and stressed as they attempt to repair relationships and morale. It may also make future potential assignees reluctant to accept an assignment abroad, especially if they feel they could make the same mistakes or perceive they would not get the support they might need.

Avoid assignment failure at all costs

Many organizations sending employees aboard maintain the view that there is a universal approach to how employees work, regardless of their location, personality, or level of cultural awareness.

To increase the success rate of international assignments, Global Mobility professionals must avoid falling into this trap. They must provide relevant training, support and coaching to assignees and promote cultural diversity as an asset to an organization.

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