Do I need to change my management style?


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Working abroad

Do I need to change my management style?

If you work abroad, the simple answer is ‘almost certainly yes’! Prepare for your international career by adapting your management style to the culture of where you’ll work abroad.

We all have a particular management style or way of working that we find easy and is successful for us.

Our management style includes how we form work relationships, motivate staff, make decisions and solve problems. Our style may be formal or informal, people or task orientated, individualistic or collective, hierarchical or empowering.

When our natural management style matches the company culture we tend to be happy and do well. When it is radically different, life can be a constant struggle and it is often better for everyone if the employee finds a new job.

But what happens when a misfit is due to an expatriation assignment?

A British manager in Belgium

Let’s start with a true story: Trevor, a British engineer moved to Brussels on a three-year expat assignment to gain experience in working at the European headquarters of a global car company.

After some initial teething troubles, he felt he had settled well into his new department.

He was therefore very shocked to discover at a team away-day that some of his Belgian colleagues considered him ‘hypocritical’, i.e. agreed one thing with the team but then did another.

This was the first time in his life that he had ever been accused of being hypocritical and was very upset.

He had the sense (and courage) to sit down with his team members to understand why they thought this of him and discovered that the problem lay in how an Englishman says ‘no’ compared to a more direct Belgian.

For example, to be polite an English person may say: “It is an interesting idea, but has more of a medium-long term application”.

  • English Interpretation: “I hate your idea – we will never do it”.
  • Belgium interpretation: “He likes my idea and it is a possible contender”.


International meetings with native and non-native English speakers are often prone to these mis-interpretations and can be compounded (as was the case here) when the native speaker always wrote the meeting minutes.

Once the team understood why the problem was occurring they agreed new rules about how meetings were conducted including double-checking decisions and actions made.

Trevor and his colleagues learned a lot from this experience and had a stronger, higher performing team because of it.

The challenge of adapting your style

One of the biggest dangers confronting an expatriate is being uninformed, or worse, unaware of the different work practices of the new country.

The initial settling-in period is busy and stressful as you cope with a new job, house, bank, car, children’s schooling and all the other essential paraphernalia of modern life.

It can be some time before you realise that your management style is not as effective as it was at home. Communication difficulties and the new role are often blamed. When it eventually dawns that the problem is one of management style, it can be a huge shock.

Many expats have been high achievers all their lives and find it difficult to acknowledge, even to themselves, that they are having problems. They are reluctant to change (perhaps dramatically) the way they like to operate. It’s not surprising that expatriation world-wide has a success rate as low as 40 percent.

Working abroad

So what happens next?

Expatriates typically use one or all of the following strategies when faced with a new working culture:

1. The ostrich strategy
This very popular strategy involves complete denial by the expat of any need to adapt their way of working to local conditions and they continue to manage as if still at home. The more senior the expat the easier this is to maintain.

Entire empires were run on this principle for centuries. A quick glance at the languages spoken in India, Africa, Ireland and South America (to name but a few) illustrates how the locals adapted to the foreigners rather than the other way around. Modern expats, without armies at their disposal, are of course in a completely different position.

2. Abandon all
Much more rarely, some people embrace their new working environment so completely that  they abandon their normal style and lose those elements that work best for them.

This over-reaction tends to be short lived and is usually met by extreme distrust by the local workforce.

3. Look, learn and adapt
The strategy usually works well and is more sustainable. It requires an openness and tolerance on both sides and some risk taking by the expat to leave the comfort zone of their familiar style and adapt to new surroundings. At its most successful, it combines the best of both home and local working cultures.

It is, of course, easier said than done. Identifying the precise behaviours that are causing problems requires dedicating time to understanding the local working culture and how it differs from back home.

It is tempting for a boss, under pressure, to retreat to his office but this is the worst thing you could do. Talking with and being approachable to the local staff is a good start.

One successful expat called his approach ‘management by walking around’ which entailed taking a regular stroll around the building to chat to the staff.

Another expat swears by ‘leadership from the coffee machine’ which meant frequent coffees and a quick chat with whoever was there (irrespective of their organisational status).

Initially, it felt awkward, but soon people got used to the expat and gradually formed a more open and relaxed relationship. The expat also has the chance to practice the local language.

Getting the locals on your side

One of the most fulfilling and enriching parts of expatriation is forming good work and social relationships with people from a new culture. Both sides grow from the experience and the company gains a more international workforce.

A good relationship with the local staff is essential to managing successfully in the new environment. It is worth remembering that local staff are on home territory and enjoy superiority of numbers and probably speak both local and corporate languages. They have long-established networks, which allow them to get things done quickly.

Troublesome expats can easily be left out of the loop. Stories abound of one subsidiary that wrote their project status reports in Spanish (instead of English) so that head office and their linguistically challenged UK boss couldn’t ‘interfere’.

So getting the local management and staff on your side is critical. Most expats are given a settling-in period when mistakes are expected and even tolerated with amusement.

But the honeymoon only lasts so long and it is critical that the expat uses his or her time well to observe, understand and experiment. Adaptation is the key.

Watch your appearance

Peter was a highflying UK manager who was transferred to Italy to run the marketing operation. In his first week, he called a site meeting and outlined an exciting new business strategy.

He thought that the presentation had gone well, but completely failed to realise that many of the discussions after his presentation were not about his new strategy, but about how scruffily dressed he had been.

What you wear might seem a trivial point, but in Italy dressing well and being competent are synonymous. After all, if the boss doesn’t look like a successful leader, how can one believe his new strategy?

Two months later, Peter had upgraded his wardrobe. He had missed his chance to make a great first impression but he had learned and adapted, and was ready for the next time.


Helen Burgess / Expatica

Helen Burgess is the founder and managing director of Insight Italy. She can be reached at or via 

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