Families on expatriate assignment can greatly influence the quality of the experience by choosing to embrace the assignment. An internationally mobile lifestyle offers both significant challenges and opportunities for tremendous reward. Whether the challenges or rewards predominate depends in very large measure on the ability of an expatriate family to practice personal leadership of its own experience.
What this means fundamentally is that expatriate families live from the "inside out" rather than the "outside in;" that they distinguish their internal experience from external circumstance, recognizing that they are the creators of the former, and never the victims of the latter. Indeed practicing personal leadership means using external circumstances, even the most challenging, to deepen self-understanding and enhance creative expression. Consider the particular dynamics of the expatriate family experience.
Eight Principles Guiding Expatriate Family Success
The eight principles that follow introduce the practice of personal leadership as a guiding framework for expatriate family success. The first two, consciousness and creativity, are specific to the individual and to his or her capacity to function optimally across cultures. The next five principles pertain to the interaction between family members: communication, continuity, collaboration, closure, and cultural confirmation. These five principles suggest specific practices for expatriate families. The eighth and last principle addresses the context: corporate commitment. It speaks directly to the expatriate family's sponsor organization.
It is easy to live life from habit. Many of us operate extensively on "automatic pilot." We drive the same route to work every day, shop at the same grocery stores, and engage in the same exercise program. We become habituated to making decisions, solving problems, and resolving conflicts with a repertoire of skills and strategies that has served us well in familiar environments. Such habitual behavior, however, may not be adaptive when living internationally.Engaging the expatriate experience with consciousness means "waking up" to our habitual behaviors, committing to the necessary self-reflection that allows us to broaden the ways in which we interpret events. Culture-shock experiences become opportunities to ask ourselves, "How can this intercultural interaction and especially my judgments about it function for me as a mirror, showing me aspects of myself and of my own cultural understanding?" From such an increased self-awareness comes an increased ability to respond creatively.
Creativity is thought to be a core competency for any individual who works and lives effectively in a different cultural milieu. In this sense, creativity implies that an individual has the ability to adaptively respond to each unique situation. Such a person reacts not from habit, but by calling on a wide variety of skills and strategies, and tailoring a response to the particular context and people involved.Creativity also refers to a person's joy and connection to passion. Creative living does not refer to an innate ability to dance or draw, but rather to aligning one's life with a personal vision, connected to what has deeply held meaning.
Intentional communication allows the expatriate family to become conscious of its lived experience. It encourages the family to respond creatively, to turn itself into a "living laboratory." Through regular family discussion, every experience, no matter how frustrating or confusing, can become a learning opportunity, one that helps the family more successfully adjust.Information about the host country culture, about the process of transition, and about family dynamics supports the living laboratory. Knowledge brings consciousness and with consciousness comes the opportunity for a creative response.
The expatriate experience is fraught with change; a conscious and creative stance toward that change is critical. Family routines and rituals can provide a measure of continuity, as can a "touchstone" or homebase, a place on the planet to which the expatriate family returns on a regular basis.A portable career or interest gives a non-salaried spouse an important measure of continuity. Resources exist to help spouses identify and develop careers that travel well and select volunteer work to further their professional development. A central task for the non-salaried spouse is to find vocational and avocational activities that not only nurture the spirit, but are free from constraints imposed by geographic mobility, work permit restrictions, nation-specific licensure, and language differences.
Non-salaried spouses and adult children often speak about having felt powerless in the face of their expatriate experience. A family can help its members by providing opportunities for collaborative participation and decision-making. Having a voice in subjects as important as what goods to ship and when to leave can help the unhappiest of family members feel more like co-creators of their own experience.It is common among expatriate families for the employee to travel extensively. The non-salaried spouse is left to act as a "virtual" single parent. Couples can plan ahead, discussing in advance whether and how to make joint decisions and in what ways to make up for missed anniversaries, birthdays, and other special events.
Expatriate communities around the world are notoriously mobile, as families come and go on a continuous basis. Expatriate families inevitably experience significant loss.It is important to honor the simple act of saying "good-bye." While friends may plan to stay in touch given e-mail and other modern technologies, the relationship as it was changes with distance. It is better to say "good-bye" now, than to risk never being able to say it at all. Making the closure process a conscious one, giving it creative attention, is crucial to the family's future adjustment.
7. Cultural confirmation.
The experience of moving, living, and working abroad changes a person and causes values and identities to be questioned and redefined. The expatriate family must confirm this process and accept it as valid and valued.Fundamental changes to cultural identity may only become noticeable once family members have settled again in their country of origin. Long-time sojourners and multi-movers are especially likely to find themselves feeling a great confusion of cultural identity. It becomes critically important for repatriated families to find others with whom they can express the whole of their now-international selves.
8. Corporate commitment.
The final principle for expatriate family success addresses the context of the sponsoring organization: the company, agency, federal, or diplomatic service that sponsors the family abroad. Spurred by experience, accumulated research and the forceful encouragement of expatriates themselves, these organizations are exploring what services "best practices" dictate should be made available throughout the expatriate lifecycle.The principles and practices of personal leadership emphasize, however, that expatriate services must help the family take leadership of its own experience. No matter the number of services on hand, it is only by choosing to engage the expatriate experience with consciousness and creativity, from the inside-out, that an expatriate family will truly maximize the potential rewards of its international sojourn. This, then, can become the corporate commitment.SummaryExpatriate families can attentively craft the shape and flavor of their internationally mobile lives. They can choose to practice personal leadership. Sponsoring organizations can help them to do so. The most challenging and the most joyful of expatriate experiences alike can become an avenue for ever more purposeful living.