Enjoying Your Work
Overseas assignments promote personal growth
After a two-year assignment in Germany, Michelle Parton was greeted enthusiastically by her coworkers in her company's home office in Chicago.
Always a well-liked boss and colleague, Michelle had kept in touch with people in Chicago during her overseas assignment. After a few weeks during which colleagues observed her at meetings, lunches, and company sponsored social events, many commented that "Michelle seems to have changed." This was not a negative judgment but rather a comment on her work, her interaction style, and the topics she brought up during conversations.
However, Michelle's colleagues could not be precise when describing the changes that they observed.
Michelle and her colleagues are dealing with the changes that often occur as a result of overseas assignments. The people who undertook the assignments, called sojourners, know that they think and feel differently about many aspects of their lives, and their friends and colleagues sense these changes.
However, people have a difficult time describing the changes that they either have experienced or have observed.
One change is that returnees from overseas assignments often experience an increase in self- confidence and sense of personal achievement. They inevitably faced challenges during their assignments, and so they were forced to meet them and to overcome difficulties. In addition, the sojourners were far away from their home offices and so had to solve problems using their own initiative and creativity. Returnees often develop a "can do" attitude that they bring back to their companies.
Returnees develop a broader perspective on current events and develop a greater sense of world mindedness. They see first hand how developments in one part of the world affect policies in other parts. They inevitably find themselves in discussions where people express very different opinions and introduce arguments with which they are unfamiliar. These experiences lead sojourners to see issues and problems from the point of view of people in other countries. This leads to an expansion of their thinking and the possibility of innovative and creative contributions to discussions back in their companies' home offices.
This interest in world events extends beyond specific issues in any one country. Michelle is likely to become more sophisticated in her thinking about events in many parts of the world. This will be especially true in her case since world politics and international events are favorite topics of conversation when Germans socialize. Michelle is also likely to become interested in other issues related to overseas assignments such as adjustment to other cultures, overcoming difficulties, and the content of training programs meant to ease the stresses brought on by movement across cultural boundaries.
Sojourners often develop greater insights into the contributions of coworkers and how different people bring different talents to workplace tasks. In their own countries, people who have been on the job for several years learn to deal with the same coworkers.
It becomes easy for people to take each other for granted. On overseas assignments, people have to meet and interact with a new group of coworkers. They have to figure out what people's skills are and how to use these skills to achieve company goals. They have to think carefully about their coworkers and cannot rely on facile assumptions based on superficial characteristics. They can call upon this same careful thinking during work assignments after their return.
Returnees often find that their job descriptions expand. In their home offices, they are asked to contribute to tasks that have an international component. In Michelle's case, she would likely be included in company meetings that involve visitors from Germany. After these meetings, she would likely be asked for her perspective and predictions for the future.
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The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office: firstname.lastname@example.org