intentional dressing – suit-able alternatives

When Barney Stinson – one of the corkiest characters on the show “How I Met Your Mother” – says “suit up”, I smile and nod.  The character of Barney would be disastrous as an expat.  It’s really just the lesson we can draw from him that has serious implications for a resilient expat: one aught to dress for one’s intentions.

Dress for decision-making when decision-making is the goal.

Dress for relaxing when relaxing is the main intent.

Whatever happens, if you want to be taken seriously – dress for it.

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Never judge a book by its cover.  The clothes do not make the man.

But let’s get real.  In an intercultural environment where your effectiveness is measured just as much by what you do as by how you do it, dress does matter. Let’s be clear about this, it’s not the suit that will make the difference, but the appropriateness of the delivery mechanism.  And since the delivery mechanism in this case is a person, than how that person is packaged matters.

A group of conservative, hard-working farmers in a remote part of a developing country are unlikely to listen to – let alone appreciate – outside ideas about new techniques to improve agricultural yields if the person delivering the information comes dressed in oversized shorts, a rock band t-shirt and sandals.  Just like doing a powerpoint presentation would be an inappropriate form of delivery to an audience of visually impaired beneficiaries,  or referring to extensive handouts to illiterate audiences, so would dressing like one is going to the beach. Plain and simple.

There are a few different avenues on could select.  We could entirely ignore local conventions and do as we please because it’s the content that matters (hint: it’s not!).  We could go the entire opposite and assimilate to the point of only wearing the local garb (hint: it could backfire).  Somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot where the resilient expat can retain their own sense of self by adapting to the new environments in such a way that creates an effective balance.  And that balance is where “suiting up” might actually mean simply observing a sufficient amount of the local customs and presenting yourself in a manner compatible with your intentions.

Think this just goes without saying?  If only it was, but it isn’t. And that’s way some expats (and visitors from other far away lands) sometimes lose credibility and fail to forge the necessary trust that leads to effective intercultural interactions.  Here are two examples.

I was once speaking with a colleague about his recent trip to Asia with a female colleague of ours.  This woman was incredibly smart, probably had 20 years experience in intercultural environments, oozed confidence and, apparently had failed the “suit up” test.  In meetings with senior government officials, the woman would bend over on the table to emphasize a point or to reach over.  Not too far on the inappropriate scale, except for the fact that it revealed everything about what was under her blouse! (Or rather lack thereof which was my colleague’s great source of embarrassment).

In contrast, I spoke to a resilient expat who said that she chose to explain to her co-workers that the local mode of dress wasn’t comfortable for her, and that while she meant no disrespect by baring her shoulders in public, she hoped they would understand.  And they did – but only insofar as the deviance from locally accepted attire was restricted to the office.  If a local official was expected or a meeting with outside attendees was scheduled, she had to cover up.  It was a deal well brokered that, though her dress had nothing to do with her brains, reflected a respect of local appropriateness and create a more inclusive situation.

When we forget to present ourselves in a way that ensures people can respond in a positive fashion (usually because we want to exude expertise, leadership, understanding), we walk into situations “naked”.  So yes, not everyone is into the whole suit and tie thing.  That may not be necessary.  The idea is to find a suitable alternative (pun intended) that will make it possible to demonstrate your ability to adapt and therefore be meaningfully included within the group you are with.

Think of the last time you walked into a room.  Did you dress for decision-making or to hang out at the local pub?

If a judgment was to be made (right or wrong), did it scream resilient expat or something else?

Get it?  Good. Now suit up!  Today is going to be… wait for it… legendary!  😉

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making mistakes – character attacks

I’ve given several workshops that were either focused on (in whole or in part) giving feedback.  For someone who is terribly sensitive and has a difficult time hearing “the ugly truth” about myself from others, this was actually a blessing.  From preparing to deliver this training, to presenting it to audiences of various cultural and educational backgrounds, to then applying the lessons myself, I became much more perceptive about the variances in giving and receiving feedback.

In any given week, regardless of geographical location, I’ve witnessed dozens of feedback situations with, to be honest, have led to the wildest of outcomes.  Most of them not so pretty. And so many totally avoidable.

Have you every heard the expression “be tough on the issue and soft on the people”?  That’s the secret to effective feedback – positive or negative and, to some extent, in any intercultural situation.  Attack the problem, the action or the result of such an action, but leave the person’s character or personality out of it.  It’s really that simple.

For the most part, in professional environments such as in performance evaluations or in reviewing a colleague’s report, we can manage this quite well.  Not always easy, granted, but it’s pretty straightforward.

Unless of course, we happen to have made a mistake.  The kind of mistake (or bad decision, carelessness, forgetfulness – you get the idea) the affected party has decided wasn’t a action, but a character flaw.

Then the gloves come off.

All of a sudden, YOU are the most despicable, wretched and contemptible, sorry excuse of a human being.

Nothing excuses, nothing apologizes, nothing can repair, nothing can amend.  What you did is inconsequential because the problem is who YOU are not what you did (OK, it’s what you did too, but you are a miserable person anyway, so that’s hardly the point!).

The resilient expat – by virtue of the constantly changing environments and challenges – has invariably spend quite some time developing a definition of themselves.  The way they see themselves – their character, their personality –  is the only true constant in their lives.  It’s carefully crafted, painstakingly protected and thoroughly impregnated in their views of the world.

Unless of course, they made a mistake.

Attack the character, you attack everything they have done that has been deemed “good”.  Attack the character, you attack the very nature of the relationship, essentially destroying, partially or entirely, the possibility of further positive interaction. Attack the character, you attack what (unless they actually believe they are, in fact, wretched) they cannot or will not change.

Not that a resilient expat will change their world view based on the choice angry words of a person who feels they have been wronged.  Some would argue that one builds more resiliency by being faced with challenges.  As a personal opinion, I’d say it stings regardless and rarely makes a huge amount of difference.

When we forget our effective feedback skills – when we attack a person’s character rather than their actions – we essentially ensure an end to the possibility of a mutually agreeable (read: positive) outcome.  We may think we need to address a person’s flaws in order for them to change or to express our deep disappointment (read: anger), but we in fact, close the door to resolution.

The two way street of feedback – giving and receiving – is a tricky navigation.  It does, in fact require both parties to be using the same playbook.  If we’re using different rules, then the best way to avoid further negative consequences is to be aware and responsive to the variances.

Just say no to “ugly truths”.  They aren’t true anyway.

When we recognize that the feedback we are given is focused on our character rather than our actions, we can seek ways to reopen that door towards a positive outcome.  We can avoid delving into the character debate (likely best to not look to political debates for a how-to on this one), and we can address the actions instead.  Remove our own perceptions of our character and the other person’s, and perhaps we can carve out an avenue for resolution.

Learning from these situation (our own and those of the people around us) as any resilient expat must, sure beats galavanting around the world with a big ol’ chip on your shoulder!

And better yet, it makes us a better feedback givers – a very welcomed resilient expat skill!

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homestruck – reverse wonderment

One of the most glorious aspects of being a resilient expat is that even when not specifically playing the expat role, one still has the ability to observe unique differences within the different worlds.
The incurable desire to explore new worlds and experience different cultures sometimes comes with the desire to escape certain things.  If you despise consumerism, go somewhere where people generally can’t afford to even know the word.  Hate the cold and snow?  Then ride out into the sunset somewhere near the equator.  If you prefer to work from your heart instead of your pocketbook, challenge yourself to working in a developing country.  Whatever you crave in your life, if it is “elsewhere” then blow with the wind, follow your path and reach for the stars.
And in this new world, you will notice new and different things: the slower pace of life, the inconsistent availability of goods at the market, the way rain stops all activities, etc.  Every day there is something new to contemplate.  Something different you just hadn’t quite realized was there.  Sometimes it comes in waves, other times all at once causing an overwhelming feeling of awe or, even, sometimes fear.
As a resilient expat, this is part of that we crave and what helps us build our resiliency.  Constant change and amazement.  And it’s also what can cause a sense of loss when it is gone.  It leaves us when we leave that foreign place and we go “home”.
Rather than succumbing to the deflating sense of loss when we go home, the resilient expat can dig deep into their observational toolbox and pull out the differences lens once again.  It is the same one we use when we first arrive in a new country – the one that fills us with amazement and amusement.  Except that this time, it’s turned back on us.  On what was familiar at one time.  On what we had chosen to leave behind.
There is a wealth of different, quirky and sometimes outright incomprehensible observations to be made when we look on this more familiar place with a developed sense of curiosity.  And if we let ourselves consciously re-adapt to this world from a place of wonder, then perhaps we can see even more than we could before.
Having been “home” for a while, I had begun to look back on my most recent expat experience with longing.  I began to miss what only a few months before I couldn’t wait to shed.  I needed a new adventure and a new world to explore.  WIthout seeing the constantly puzzling environment that characterized my expat life, I thought that I might have forgotten the sources of inspiration I constantly seek.  After all, this is what being a resilient expat means to me.  See new things, experience new cultures, learn and share.
Then it came to me.   Three days ago, I put up holiday decorations with my sister.  I was cheered up by the lovely ornaments and amused by the historical British royalty set which adorns the tree.  It was fun and reminded me of other times we had done this together.  However, it wasn’t until this morning, when doing my regular yoga routine, that I realized I was actually presently in a different world.  Like an expat looking out into a foreign land, I was looking at something entirely outside my expat comfort zone.  The holidays are coming, there is a decorated artificial tree in the living room and, yeah… I am doing sun salutes to Henry the VIII and all of his wives!
Call it reverse culture shock if you wish, but I will call it “homestruck”.  When it hits you that “home” can actually be a very exciting place, which, if you let it, will appear just as foreign as all those other places you crave all the time.  It hits you like a thunderbolt.  And if you let it, the feeling can come back again and again, each time requiring you to use your gifts of observation, wonderment and amusement.  And then from there, as a newly returned resilient expat, you can spend days, weeks, or even months adapting to this new and different culture.
It’s not a bad way to see the world.

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bad attitude – sapping mental energy

Nothing saps more energy in a day than a bad attitude.

Except perhaps if it’s a bad attitude in a foreign land with its usual mix of intercultural mis-navigations.  But it still remains a bad attitude and it’s just as difficult to simply snap out of.

There are several factors that affect a person’s performance – at work, at home and at play – but they all boil down to one’s emotional and mental engagement in activities.  Once one of these is off kilter, the ability to be the quintessential resilient expat starts to morph into the dreaded foreign grump syndrome.

And let’s face it.  Sometimes the problem really is you.

So what’s the recipe for banishing the bad attitude and making way for positive and focused mental energy?

A break.

There are several break options depending on the severity of the bad attitude.  A walk around the block clears the head.  A night out with friends eases the mind.  A mini-getaway rejuvenates.

As the saying goes, you have to know which battle you are fighting and therefore which ammunition is needed.  A walk won’t clear an ethics problem.  A night out will not ease the workload.  A mini-getaway will not change the fundamental way an office operates or people behave.

How to know what break to employ?  First you need to not only be self-aware and cognizant of the plunge into bad attitude waters, but also be able to recognize the root cause.  It requires being willing to look at the situation through the “one-inch wide and one-mile deep” lens of analysis.  Whether that comes through coaching, mentoring, a heart-to-heart with a trusted friend or partner, it nonetheless demands uncensored honesty:  what’s really going on?  What other implications does the situation bring to the surface?  What are the undeniable facts? What are our perceptions?

Once we get to the crux of the issue – the root cause of our own bad attitude – the resilient expat can start to examine which “break” would ease the way forward.

Take this example:  A project I was working on was fundamentally changed mid-course.  This already challenging work had sucked up hours of my time and a very large amount of my energy and goodwill.  When the parameters changed, I was incensed to say the least.  Not one positive word was to come out of my mouth.  Everything and everyone related to the project was now on my blacklist.

An over-reaction?  Absolutely.  It was an unmistakable bad attitude if you’d ever seen one.

Going an inch-wide in examining this, I realized that I was justified for being annoyed at fundamental changes in the project after so many hours devoted to it.  Going a mile deep into it, however, the root cause of my now increasingly growing semi-permanent bad attitude is that it was one more piece of work (in a series of projects) where the fruits of my efforts would be dismissed or abandoned.  I felt disposable, unappreciated and useless.  Hence, I now know, that event sapped my mental energy to the point that nothing of a positive hue could come in.  I had a bad attitude for days…

So which type of break fits the crime?  For me, it spending a bit of time on something with significant potential for gaining a sense of accomplishment.  I needed something with an end result.  I could have gotten the feeling from baking a cake for friends (and eating!) or hiking to the top of a mountain or completing a crossword puzzle.  This time I read a whole book (minus about 20 pages) in a day.  It’s a rare occurrence for me and it felt awesome!

Breaking out of a bad attitude sometimes just involves getting a chance to recharge the batteries just enough to deal with the core issues. Taking a break that is proportionate and appropriate gives the resilient expat the ways and means to ensure wellbeing – emotionally, mentally and physically.  The more the mental energy is sapped by one’s attitude, the less one can maintain a positive outlook and manage changing environments.

Taking a break is not a sign of weakness but a demonstration of strength.  Take a moment for a nice cup of tea.  Spend an hour reading a great (fun) book.  Schedule a day to explore touristy sights.  Have a no-work-allowed weekend with your loved ones.  Whisk yourself away for a week to rejuvenate and energize someplace different!

Whatever the cause, find the right break AND TAKE IT!  Your attitude will thank you.

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the elephant called blame – dealing with the unmentionnable

There’s a very large elephant in the room.  It’s destructive and distracting.  And it’s making it terribly difficult to work.  Yet somehow, everyone seems to be more than willing to manoeuvre around it instead of calling it out and dealing with it.

Such was my dilemma over the past few weeks.  Should I call it out?   Should I force others to tackle the problem?  And if I did, what consequences would I be willing to live with?

The elephant in this case:  blame.

No one really likes to admit that they are wrong.  That’s entirely natural.  We might like to be proven wrong when we think something won’t work, and it does.  That’s more like a welcomed surprise – astonishment really – but to be proven wrong, delinquent, inefficient or otherwise not up to snuff?  Never.

The resilient expat oftens hear about “the blame culture” when working overseas – a way to justify actions, behaviours and responses as outside of ourselves and out of our own control.  Sometimes it’s something so engrained in people’s attitudes and behaviours that we’re tempted to define it as cultural.  And anything that sounds negatively stereotypical about a culture is where the resilient expat has to learn to manoeuvre even more carefully.

The elephant I tried to tackle was a big ball of blame-based justifications for inaction and inefficiency.  My response, after many attempts to point to it, describe it, define it and deal with it, was – ultimately – to let the elephant be.

If only one person sees the elephant – is there really a great behemoth there?

Yes!

Even when we don’t see the elephant, or we think it’s a giraffe instead, we must accept that perceptions of issues, difficulties or challenges profoundly impact team structures.  However, when the issues are at the core of a “culture” that seemingly runs away from personal responsibility and accountability, we have a huge pile of elephant poop that is very messy to deal with.

Interesting and engaging intercultural experiences that the resilient expat craves are based on being able to navigate effectively and being able to deal directly with challenges.  In the absence of an environment where issues can be addressed to the benefit of all, then greater challenges arise.

Blame is a tricky one to deal with because it means the absence of responsibility which, even when an issue is pointed out, it can be easily dismissed – so much so, in fact, that deflecting even responsibility for issuing blame is very likely as well.

I wish I could say that there is a magic pill for calling out the blame culture as a destructive agent, surmounting the challenges and creating change.  A formidable resilient expat  – or even just one in training – builds skills to slowly deal with the root causes and hopefully make a few inroads here and there.

There can be many strategies to work through calling out the blame elephant.  But if the consequences of attempting to address the blame culture, or any similar circumstances, are not ones the resilient expat will want to face, then a different type of choice can be made:  accept, reject or negotiate.

Each of these choices is fine to make.  A person is not a quitter for rejecting to engage in a fight they do not wish to win.  Nor is a person a winner for accepting situations that they fundamentally disagree with.  The difference is that the resilient expat consciously evaluates the choices and decides how much of their adaptive effectiveness they are willing to put into it

Suffice it to say that in this latest exercise in building resiliency – and after many weeks of negotiation – I decided to reject the situation and move on to wrestling other challenging – and perhaps even blameless – elephants.

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fearing success – developing accountability

If you ask someone what it will take to be successful, they will likely provide a nice long list of things that must be done and which ones are within their power to make a reality.  Ask them how they will make themselves accountable for these actions, or follow-up with them on their progress, and, sadly, you likely find a disconnect.

It’s universal.  And it’s terribly unfortunate.

Most of us are too afraid of being successful to fully engage in taking the actions we need to take to reach our end goals.  We abound with excuses, explanations, justifications and contradictory statements.

Some might even call this self-sabotage.

And if the goal is resiliency, then any mention of release from accountability towards realizing success is like descending a slippery slope into inaction.

For example, I have been working with an organization for a few months that somehow seems to frequently exude fear of their own success.  So much so, that at each opportunity to move a project or an idea forward, reasons to stall or halt the progress is utilized.  Trips are scheduled.  Conferences and outside meetings spring up.  Other “priorities” take precedence.  Emergencies of various natures flare.  And what was agreed to as necessary for success is seemingly placed on the back burner.  To be so close and yet so far out of reach seems inconceivable.

To calibrate my own observations and thoughts on this, I asked others what they thought was happening.  We discussed the individual capacities to implement activities, motivation to engage on the level needed and various aspects of resistance to change altogether.  Some suggested that perhaps the very idea of success can be so intimidating that people put on the breaks once in a while just to not reach the end goals too fast.

Then someone suggested self-sabotage was actually cultural with this organization.

Ouch.

Makes the head spin just to think that even when one knows exactly how to achieve success – that it’s within their capacity and ability to reach it –that actually walking purposefully down this path would be dictated by culture and not personal or organizational will!

My resilient expat genes are screaming to reject, dismiss and repudiate this very idea that drive towards success is cultural.

Whether my genes are right or not, it’s important to recognize that if some people feel or think this way, then it needs to be worked through. No matter how different from our own values it may be.  If there is any reason this might possibly be true then becoming efficient in that environment will depend on how the resilient expat adapts to it.

Once we come to terms with the various reasons to fear success, we will also have to find ways to prevent ourselves from falling into it as well!

The resilient expat needs to build immunity to the fear of success or else risk losing the adaptive effectiveness they need to thrive in different environments.  Fear would suspend the drive to build even further resiliency.  Fear would prevent learning experiences from taking place.  Fear would lead to exclusion and disconnection from the intercultural environment the resilient expat operates in.

The best tool for confronting this is to identify the ways in which personal (or organizational) accountability is observed in different situations.   Bringing these out in the open can expand the space for change and lessen the fear of success.

Questions the resilient expat could ask include:

– When are actions taken towards a goal, versus when they seem to stall?

– What is the response to change?

– How much space is there for change?

– In what ways are personal or organizational accountability encouraged?

Constantly asking why things don’t get done, or why it seems some people disengage from the path they have chosen for success isn’t likely to really yield results.  It may even increase the amount of disenchantment and lead to further inaction.

It’s all about finding ways to create greater accountability towards success – whether it comes from creating more motivation to do what needs to be done, or to increase the determination to achieve success even when it requires change.  Change can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be if the rewards are what we sought out in the first place.

Finally, hardening resolution and pursuing a single-minded focus towards a goal is the best cure for eradicating fear!  After all, success is a great reward.

 

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Collecting “why”s – building strong self-awareness

One of the great things about most people working overseas is that the positions, like yogurt, comes with an expiry date.  The work is to take place in a defined period – with a beginning and an end.  It helps to plan out what can be done, what you want to experience and what you are working towards.

The difficulties arising from this defined time comes when, early in the game – or even in the middle – something happens that shakes the plan.  When an unexpected event comes and put everything in an uproar, the whole plan with it’s measurable timetable can get skewed.

Speaking with a colleague about their decision to throw in the towel, I was struck by one of their comments that reminded me of how only being honestly and wholeheartedly self-aware can make getting through a negative experience possible.  My colleague, in struggling with the decision to stay or go, said:  “the security incident that threw me happened at a time when I hadn’t yet collected enough positive experiences to outweigh the negative.”

Collecting positives is what we do in any situation.  We amass reasons why we would stick out in a particular situation:  why I would accept the challenge, why I would want to see it through, why I would put my own life at risk.  If the answer is because there is something worthwhile, worthy or worth fighting for, then the work goes on.

When there isn’t is where the problems really begin and the yogurt spoils earlier than the best before date.

Building self-awareness is about creating this databank of positive experiences and measurable goals that will tip the scales in favour of the work – as opposed to a one-way express ticket “home”.  Self-awareness is what is needed to persevere.  It’s what ensures that we can distinguish between just another fleeting bad experience and the writing on the wall that precedes an early departure.

Normally I ask people in this situation if they think they are in the dip of their experiences – that magical, yet entirely normal place where, no matter what, people don’t feel that great about what’s going on.  Often, it’s that 1/3 of the way into a set time frame where “it’s just not that romantic anymore” thoughts kick in and everything is a little off.

What my colleague said in response to this was clear:  the positive experiences – the “whys” – weren’t deep enough or strong enough.  And they consciously saw that the yogurt had turned and there wasn’t any saving it.  Their plan had changed and had come to a natural end instead of the official stated end-date.

While it is sad to think of colleagues “leaving early”, it is also important not to think of departures like these as failures.  When the collected reasons that make it worthwhile to stay and fight aren’t there, the resilient expat knows that moving on is a viable option.  We can only be truly effective when our hearts and mind are in it.

If we only check the expiry date and never do a taste-test, we might prolong the time the product stays on the shelf (or in the fridge), but it’s useful life might have long ago passed. However, if we continually take stock of where we are with our “whys”, then at least we’ll be better able to work productively while keeping an eye on the expiry date.

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