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Culture shock: working on foreign shores

This blog was written by James Adonis in his regular post "Work in Progress" published on the Sydney Morning Herald website.


Earlier this month, the Australian government ran events in Athens and Berlin called Skills Australia Needs. It was an attempt to lure Greeks and Germans to fill shortages in industries such as healthcare and engineering.

It's all very well to attract foreign workers, but once they are here and working in Aussie companies, what happens?

According to the annual Department of Immigration and Citizenship Report released a fortnight ago, the number of 457 visas has risen by a third under the Gillard government. While much of the developed world struggles to provide employment for its own people, we’re clocking up the biggest year on record for the number of foreign workers on our shores.

But it's not as easy as shoving them into a job vacancy and hoping for the best. Some foreign workers will assimilate effortlessly. But others will find it difficult, and the consequences include safety issues, communication dilemmas, and stereotyping by co-workers.

There are two general groups of foreign workers. There are those from nations similar to Australia, such as the United States or New Zealand, and there are those from nations very different to our own, such as China or India. Assimilation problems are common in both groups, even though workers from the former are more likely to be culturally similar to Australian employees.

Trisha Carter is an organisational psychologist at Transcultural Careers, a business that specialises in helping people adapt when they’re relocating internationally. She told me that a big risk with workers from Western nations (especially the US and the UK) is the assumption that everything here will be the same as it was back home.

“Because of that assumption, they don't receive training or coaching to assist their adaptation,” she said, “and they aren't working with cultural intelligence.”

So what is ‘cultural intelligence’? Once upon a time there was just IQ, which measured cleverness. Then EQ came along – emotional intelligence – which identified how well we recognise other people’s feelings and motivators. Now there’s CQ, or cultural intelligence, which reflects our knowledge of a person’s cultural background and its influence on their behaviour.

Two of CQ’s pioneers are academics Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski. The culmination of their joint research revealed three main elements of cultural intelligence, and their survey of 2000 managers across 60 countries discovered only a few people were competent in all three:

  • Head: learning the beliefs, customs and taboos of the new culture
  • Body: mirroring the gestures and actions of foreign people
  • Heart: confidence in an individual’s ability to adapt to a foreign culture

As Trisha Carter says, when a foreign worker from the West is employed in Australia, sometimes “they aren't looking for differences and learning about those differences,” and this results in frustration for the foreign workers and their colleagues.

And the differences definitely exist. In the US, for example, employees are accustomed to “using titles, qualifications and referring to powerful connections in ways Aussies would classify as name dropping". The stereotype that arises? The arrogant yank. 

“The problem is that Aussie teammates or managers often don't have enough cultural intelligence to see the newcomers’ adaptation difficulties,” said Carter. Rather than viewing those difficulties as misunderstandings or adjustment issues, they’re frequently perceived in a biased and stereotypical manner.

The problem is even more pronounced when the ‘cultural distance’ is greater, which happens when foreign workers come from places such as Asia or Africa. “Those helping them settle in have to cover so much information,” she said. 

That includes language barriers, social behaviours, management styles, Australian work ethic, and much more, and those topics are “left aside as they learn the more basic aspects of adapting to our society and workplace".

But adapt they must, and it’s a process made either easier or harder depending on their level of cultural intelligence. And that of their new colleagues.

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