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Tue 16 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

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Managing culture shock: The difference between failure and success

This series began with one fundamental question: you’ve moved to a new country and a new home but has anybody helped you move your mind?

Managing culture shock: The difference between failure and success
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This series began with one fundamental question: you’ve moved to a new country and a new home but has anybody helped you move your mind?

When taking on a new society and its way of life, it is customary to emotionally and psychologically experience culture shock. The textbook definition of this would be: the stress experienced when confronted with an unknown and ‘foreign’ culture, when expectations fail to coincide with reality.

When we are faced with a culture we cannot relate to, whether it is geographically, ethnically or corporately, it becomes a challenge to achieve success in everyday life. Elisabeth Marx in her book, Breaking through Culture Shock said that “it is our ability to manage culture shock in international business that makes the difference between failure and success.”

There are different degrees of culture shock; from ones that we barely notice to others that can drastically affect our lives. Culture shock can present itself in many including feelings of anxiety, frustration, exhilaration and utter confusion. In more severe cases, we may experience feelings of depression, isolation and criticality, as well as glorification of the home, we may even develop addictions.

Culture shock emerges among us in a series of sequential stages. The first phase, the honeymoon phase, encompasses the actual arrival into the new culture. Initially everything seems to be fresh and exciting, however, we gradually begin to notice the negative aspects of this new environment and the honeymoon feeling quickly wears off.

The second phase is known as the rejection phase, because this is exactly how we feel. This is when culture shock starts to instill in us feelings of confusion and denunciation. This preliminary phase of culture shock may have us questioning the behaviour of others and the environment that we are in. We may have feelings of inadequacy in meeting the demands of the environment, as well as sensing that we are incapable of the desired results.

There comes a time when everyone has to make a choice — no matter how intense culture shock is experienced — to either work through it or head home. Returning home and terminating a contract early can be very costly to any business. Companies incur costs escalating to hundreds of thousands dollars, with up to 30 percent of international senior placements not working out. It has thus become a necessity to assist the employee through culture shock successfully. Transition Management Coaching is an effective way to assist leaders in adjusting to new environments in the shortest time possible.

Moving on, the third phase of culture shock is the adjustment phase, during which people make the decision to stay and make things work. This is by no means an easy path but through gradual adaption to the culture, this up-and-down process is achieved by focusing on ways to bring about balance, direction and familiarity to the new surroundings, with unavoidable slumps along the way.

This adjustment phase is followed by the fourth, recovery phase. This involves the adaptation of a person to the new cultural patterns, enabling them to determine exactly how success is achieved in the new environment. Typically, this too may be inconsistent and frustrating, however, the individual is now on a positive path, learning to live and work in the new environment.

Our lives are undeniably enriched when we are able to successfully align ourselves to our new surroundings. This transition opens up our eyes, providing us with new insights, new wisdom, a broader perspective and an enhanced ability to contribute to the lives of other people.

Finally, the fifth stage in the culture shock cycle is re-entry shock. This occurs when people eventually do return to their home culture and are astounded by the feeling that home is not necessarily home anymore. Again, they may live through the exact culture shock cycle as before: honeymoon, rejection, adjustment and recovery. This comes as an astonishing surprise. It is thus important to prepare for this a few months prior to returning home.

Purposeful development of inter-cultural intelligence is detrimental to executives who operate in the global arena. Successfully managing culture shock is an opportunity to grow individually, as well as to realise our value-added contribution to current and future inter-cultural environments.

Marco Blankenburgh is the CEO of Dubai-based Knowledgeworkx. The opinions expressed are his own.

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