Research Identifies Key Personalities For Successful Overseas Assignments

Recently I wrote about a fascinating study by Rice University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina, which highlighted how valuable living abroad was in helping us find our purpose in life.  This coincided with improved performances at work.

Perhaps understandably a growing number of companies are considering deploying staff overseas.  A recent study from Florida Atlantic University suggests that the personality of those employees will go a long way towards determining whether those deployments are successful or not.

“Oftentimes, expatriates have difficulty adjusting to this new environment. They can suffer poor well-being, experience conflict between their work life and family life, perform poorly and turnover,” the authors say. “All expatriates are different. Maybe some are more adept to adjusting effectively where others aren’t. We wanted to understand what characteristics of expatriates make them more or less likely to adjust effectively.”

An expat personality type

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of personality-expatriate adjustment correlations that were framed around the five key personality traits: emotional stability, openness, extraversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness.

Three of those traits played a considerable part in expatriate effectiveness.  The data revealed that those who responded best to overseas assignments tended to be extraverts who were emotionally stable and open to new experiences.  The authors suggest this is because extraverts are better at forming new social networks that help them with both the informational and emotional aspects of adjusting to a new culture.

Emotional stability was also crucially important however, as the whole experience of adapting to a new culture can be incredibly stressful.

“Having strong emotional reactions to these types of stimuli acts as a barrier to effective adjustment,” the authors say. “People who are very emotionally stable, they’re not as affected by the culture shock and the various stressors that are faced on assignment; they are much more even-tempered and this helps them to adjust better in the face of these various stressors.”

Lastly, openness to new experiences was also important as you often fail to understand how to interpret unfamiliar behaviors.  Those with high openness to new experiences would regard such things as novel and enjoyable.

Good return on investment

Sending employees overseas can be a significant investment.  It’s crucial therefore that you only choose people who are well suited to such a task as they will be required to adapt to new environments whilst also maintaining high levels in their day job.  As such, personality tests should be included as part of career development processes to ensure the right people are selected.

Indeed, the authors believe that their findings could also be valuable for individuals who think that an overseas assignment is something they want to try.

“The stakes are very high, and that’s why we think it was so important to go beyond the existing research and look at the dispositions of people on foreign assignment,” they conclude. “Expatriates have their own characteristics that they bring with them, and these characteristics impact how they react to the various stressors faced on assignment and the behaviors they engage in overseas that have implications for adjustments.”