Expatriates. Success in cross-cultural adaption

Seminar Paper, 2020

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of contents


List of abbreviations

List of figures

1 The expatriate – a risk factor in intercultural cooperation

2 Expatriates and cross-cultural adaption
2.1 Definition and composition of culture
2.2 Expatriates and the necessity of cross-cultural adaption
2.3 Possible conflicts and culture shocks of expatriates
2.4 Selection process and characteristics of expatriates
2.5 Preparation of the expatriate for the assignment abroad

3 Case study: German expatriate in China
3.1 Development and attractiveness of the Chinese market for MNC
3.2 German culture standards
3.3 Chinese culture standards
3.4 Possible cultural conflicts for German expatriates in China
3.5 Measures for success in the cross-cultural adaptation as German expatriate in China

4 Summary, conclusion, and outlook



The strong internationalisation of the world economy has led to many employees that are sent abroad on temporary assignments by multinational companies. These expatriates are sent to transfer knowledge, improve communication, or execute other business tasks that can´t be performed by local employees. The cross-cultural adaption can be very challenging. Different studies show that on average 16-40% of all expatriate managers return home early because of their poor performance and/or their inability to adjust to the foreign culture.

The purpose of this seminar paper is to define success in cross-cultural adaption and present methods that can help to achieve it. Theoretical approaches are given to identify and avoid possible conflicts in intercultural interactions. The theories are tested in a case study in which a German expatriate is sent to China. The culture standards of both countries are presented to detect possible conflicts. Measures are defined that can help to adapt to the new cultural environment and perform the business task successfully.

Keywords: expatriates, cross-cultural adaption, culture standards, intercultural competence, intercultural, culture shock, reintegration process, intercultural training, German expatriate in China

List of abbreviations

- Cf. Compare

- Ed. Editor

- f. Following page

- ff. Following pages

- FDI Foreign Direct Investment

- KPI Key Performance Indicator

- MNC Multinational Company

- p. Page

List of figures

Figure 1: Cultural Levels

Figure 2: W-curve model of adaption

1 The expatriate – a risk factor in intercultural cooperation

The internationalisation of the economy is evident in many areas.1 The exchange of goods services and technologies, as well as the foreign direct investments (FDIs) of multinational companies (MNCs), increased rapidly over the past decades. The increased FDI volume led to an increasing number of expatriates that are sent from MNCs to observe and support the successful implementation of the investment. Expatriates are getting in contact with a new and for them unknown culture, which might cause problems in cross-cultural interaction.

Many different studies show that a significant share of foreign assignments fails.2 In the studies, the share varies between 16-40 % of expatriates that fail to execute their business tasks and/or are not able to adapt to the new culture and environment. This can cause tremendous costs and loss of image for the MNC.

The objective of this scientific paper is to define success and failure in cross-cultural adaption as an expatriate. It should become clear which characteristics and skills are particularly important in the selection process. Different measures should be presented that increase the chance of success for effective implementation of the business task, as well as intercultural integration.

The scientific paper contains four chapters. At the beginning of chapter two, the key terms culture and expatriate are defined before their relation gets explained. Afterwards, possible problems and conflicts during the cross-cultural adaption in the new living and working environment are stated.

In the new culture, many expatriates experience a culture shock. The w-curve model shows the emergence and recovery of a culture shock in the new country and after returning home. Then important skills and criteria for selecting are explained to find the most suitable expatriate. The second chapter ends with pre-departure measures that can enable a faster and better cultural-adaption process for the expatriate.

The third chapter contains a case study based on a German expatriate in China. The cultural standards of the two countries are compared to discover cultural differences. Various measures are given to show how the execution of the business task and the cross-cultural adaption can be successful.

In the last chapter, the key findings of this paper are summarised. The paper ends with a conclusion and an outlook, where further significant research needs are addressed.

2 Expatriates and cross-cultural adaption

2.1 Definition and composition of culture

The term Culture has its origins in the Latin language and describes the intellectual and material achievements that societies create from natural resources.3 In today´s linguistic usage the word has evolved and is used as a synonym for education, art and literature. In cultural studies, culture refers to the collective programming of the mind of a group of people that is different from other groups. The mental programming of every human being consists of three cultural levels, which can be seen in figure 1.

Figure 1: Cultural Levels

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: Based on Kluckhohn, C., Murray, H. [Cultural Layers 1948] p.314f.

The first level is the human nature, which all humans possess equally at birth because we inherit it with our genes. Every human can feel emotions like fear, love, anger, joy, sadness and many more. This cultural level contains all cultural characteristics that distinguish humans from other living beings.

The second level is group-specific culture. This cultural imprint begins in early childhood through the family environment and develops or changes through external influences of social environments such as kindergarten, school, or workplace. Language, values, and norms are learned and differ from other cultural groups. The peculiarities of cultural groups are demarcations of this group from others.

The third level includes the personality traits of a single individual. It contains genetic intelligence as well as individually gathered experience and education. The interaction of the three cultural levels is dynamic and changes depending on the situation and external influence. Cultural differences become quickly apparent in interpersonal contact when persons come from different cultures.

2.2 Expatriates and the necessity of cross-cultural adaption

Expatriates are highly qualified professionals who are sent abroad by their employer.4 They work for a limited time in branch offices or on outsourced projects. Not only managers and executives are sent abroad, but increasingly specialists from various divisions are also sent by the MNCs. Despite the physical distance, there is a close relationship with the MNC and home country, because the assignment is temporary, usually one to five years.

Motives for sending an expatriate for MNCs are know-how transfer, improvement of communication, desire for control, and implementing processes or projects.5 From the expatriate´s point of view, professional or personal development is often the focus. For a successful assignment abroad, rapid adaption to the new living and working environment is of great importance.

Cross-cultural adaption is a process that describes the internal changes in the cultural habits of individuals.6 Expatriates must adapt to a certain degree to the new values and norms of the foreign culture to function well in the new, foreign environment. The process of cross-cultural adaption involves the deculturation of some characteristic of the domestic culture and the acculturation of some characteristics of the foreign culture. During long assignments abroad it is likely that the Expatriate completely assimilates into the mainstream culture of the host country.

The expatriate has a clear task from the MNC that needs to be accomplished in a given time frame.7 For the successful implementation of the business task, the skills and support of local employees are usually required. The cross-cultural adaption is key to effective cooperation and communication with the employees. It also helps outside the workplace to adapt to the new environment because the adaption process is mainly driven by communication with foreign contacts.

From the expatriate´s point of view, a cross-cultural adaption is achieved when the integration in the new society was successful. A feeling of well-being has developed and stays over a longer period. Measuring psychological well-being is very difficult. Compared to personal feelings, the success of the expatriate from a business point of view can be measured very well. Usually, there are schedules and key performance indicators (KPIs), which can be used for tracking the business task regularly.

2.3 Possible conflicts and culture shocks of expatriates

As soon as the expatriate encounters the new environment, there are potential conflicts that could jeopardize the successful completion of the assignment abroad. In the following, the possible conflicts in the working and living environment are discussed.

New Working environment

In the new workplace, the expatriate must get used to other work processes and principles.8 Leading employees in a foreign society can also become a problem because certain management styles do not work in the host country. Also, communication with employees can be difficult due to language barriers.

Loyalty conflicts may arise in international cooperation if there are different positions between old and new workplace.9 The expatriate can get caught between two fronts. The work stress can be higher than in previous positions because the task must be completed in time and the expectations of successful completion are high.

New Living Environment

Impairments and changes in private and family life should not be neglected either.10 In the beginning, integration in the new environment can be particularly difficult, as cultural acclimatisation is still in its infancy. A network that has been built up over the years is no longer existent and building up a new network takes time and can be difficult due to language barriers and cultural differences.

If the family does not emigrate, the distance to the partner and children is a great psychological pressure.11 However, even if the family emigrates with the expatriate, there is a risk that there will be problems for some family members in adapting to the new environment. There is a risk that the expatriate may have to break off the foreign assignment due to a family member.

Culture Shock

It is generally assumed that people who move to another culture go through various stages that can be seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2: W-curve model of adaption

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: Based on Gullahorn, J. E., Gullahorn, J. T. [W-curve model 1963] p.33ff.

(1) Honeymoon: This stage is characterised by enthusiasm. The Expatriate is fascinated by the new culture and fellow human beings.
(2) Culture Shock: After some time, differences come apparent. The language barrier and cultural differences lead to felling of frustration, discomfort, self-doubt for the expatriate, which finally results in a culture shock.
(3) Recovery: The crisis is gradually resolved as the expatriate starts to adopt the culture of the host country. The satisfaction level increases and the expatriate recovers from the culture shock.
(4) Adjustment: The expatriate accepts cultural differences and even appreciates some of them. The integration into the new environment has been completed, although there may still be occasional instances of anxiety.
(5) Re-entry shock: The expatriate is excited to be back home in the original environment, but shortly after the return the expatriate recognises that the familiar environment has changed.
(6) Adjustment at home: After some time, the expatriate reintegrates in the society and the satisfaction increases again.

The w-curve model is a schematic representation of the phases an expatriate goes through during a foreign assignment and after returning to the home country. The satisfactory level and the time intervals are individual and can vary a lot. In some cases, there is no culture shock at all because the new environment does not cause any major problems for the expatriate during the stay abroad. Other reasons for no or only a minor culture shock are strong, personal character traits or good preparation for the assignment abroad.12

On the other hand, weak personal characteristics and bad preparation for the assignment can also lead to a strong culture shock.13 Another factor is a large geographical or cultural distance between the two countries. If the culture shock is felt too strong and the expatriate can´t recover from it, the result is an early cancellation of the assignment.

This causes serious problems for the expatriate and the MNC. In most cases, there is no short-term replacement to carry out the business assignment. The costs incurred by the expatriate in the preparation phase and during the stay are not in proportion to the results. Furthermore, the reintegration process gets very difficult, as a cancellation usually happens at short notice and without much preparation.


Reintegration is a process that describes the resettlement of employees into their home country after an assignment abroad. On returning home, the expatriates have to reintegrate in the culture and working environment they have been absent for years.14 In Figure 2, the cultural problems that can arise after the return have already been discussed. Besides the cultural level, there can also be problems with reintegration at the professional level.

Often it is not clear which position can be taken in the organisation after the return. This problem is particularly acute if the foreign assignment fails and is cancelled prematurely. Additionally, the reputation of the employee might decline, and an uncomfortable feeling may arise.

After a successful assignment abroad a return to the position occupied before the deployment is usually unsatisfactory because the employee has made significant personal and professional progress.15 The newly acquired skills of the employee are not used and a feeling of low esteem can arise.

2.4 Selection process and characteristics of expatriates

The selection of candidates is an important task for the MNC. It is essential to find or recruit the most suitable employee to maximize the chance of success of the stay abroad. In the selection process, the personality, skills, and experience of the expatriate are particularly important.16

In addition to personal skills and expertise, social skills or, in an international context, intercultural skills are very important to survive as an expatriate abroad and successfully execute the business task.17

Social skills describe abilities that promote interpersonal contact in private and professional life.18 Leaders need very high social competence because they interact with a wide variety of people. For example, with external persons in negotiations, own employees in daily collaboration, or discussions with the top-level management. Every social contact must be individually adapted to achieve the best result. Characteristics that describe a socially competent manager are empathy, communication- and teamwork skills.

Intercultural skills are a form of social skills that add the cultural aspect of management to it.19 This refers to the ability to communicate and find solutions in interactions with people from other cultures. Expatriates need a very high intercultural competence because they interact with a wide variety of people in a foreign working and living environment. Characteristics that describe an intercultural competent expatriate are adaptability, tolerance, willingness to change and integrate.

Intercultural communication, which is a part of intercultural skills is a very important skill for expatriates.20 Cultural adaptability and knowledge will only help if the expatriate can express it in the right way. Communication with people from other cultures has a considerable risk of misunderstandings. Empathy, respect, role flexibility and the willingness to listen to others are communicative skills that contribute to a good understanding. Of course, it is an advantage to speak the language of the country the expatriate is sent to.

The family situation of the candidates is another key factor in the selection process.21 This refers to cultural adaptability and the willingness of the partner and children to live abroad. Therefore, younger expatriates without extensive family responsibilities usually have it easier.


1 Cf. Holtbrügge, D., Puck, J., Rausch, E. [Internationalisation of the world economy 2008] p.10.

2 Cf. Lin, C., Lin, H., Lu, T. [Expatriate Management 2012] p.189.

3 Cf. Kim, M. [Definition of Culture 2014] p.95f.

4 Cf. Mnich, K. [Reintegration of Expatriates 2017] p.6.

5 Cf. Gelbrich, K., Müller, S. [International Management 2011] p.403.

6 Cf. Kim, Y. [Cross-Cultural Adaption 2012] p.623.

7 Cf. Bochner, S., Furnham, A., Ward, C. [Psychology of Culture 2001] p.168.

8 Cf. Doye, F. [Optimisation of foreign assignments 2015] p.53.

9 Cf. Puck, J., Rygl, D. [Cultural Adaptation 2008] p.36f.

10 Cf. Kittler, M., Holtbrügge, D., Ungar, M. [Cultural Adjustment 2008] p.62f.

11 Cf. Erogul, M., Rahman, A. [Expatriate Success Factors 2017] p.17.

12 See Chapter 2.5.

13 Cf. Gertsen, M. [Intercultural Competence 1990] p.342.

14 Cf. Bochner, S., Furnham, A., Ward, C. [Psychology of Culture 2001] p.169.

15 Cf. Gelbrich, K., Müller, S. [International Management 2011] p.332.

16 See Figure 1.

17 Cf. Doye, F. [Optimisation of foreign assignments 2015] p.56.

18 Cf. Bochner, S., Furnham, A., Ward, C. [Psychology of Culture 2001] p.86.

19 Cf. Gelbrich, K., Müller, S. [International Management 2011] p.769f.

20 Cf. Gertsen, M. [Intercultural Competence 1990] p.345f.

21 Cf. Erogul, M., Rahman, A. [Expatriate Success Factors 2017] p.5f.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Expatriates. Success in cross-cultural adaption
Hochschule Ostwestfalen-Lippe - University of Applied Sciences
International Aspects of Managment
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Expatriates, Cross-cultural adaption, Foreign Direct Investments, FDI, Multinational Companies, MNC, Culture, Cultural Levels, Culture Shock, W-curve model, Reintegration, Social skills, Intercultural skills, Intercultural training, Culture standards, German culture, Chinese culture, Cultural conflicts, International assignment
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Anonymous, 2020, Expatriates. Success in cross-cultural adaption, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1010331


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