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For many people, adapting to another culture and lifestyle and way of doing business is often a challenge. And yet for the fortunate few, the ability to perform well in an international or multicultural role seems to come naturally.

Why is this? Why do some people struggle with adapting to situations where their tried and tested ways of operating do not have the same outcomes as at home? Why do many top performers in their home markets fail to be so effective in international markets?

This is a vital question – both for those entering the Asia marketplace for the first time, and for those that have been there for a while but have failed to make the necessary cultural adjustment.


Some surveys suggest that as many as 50% of expatriate managers in Asia do not reach an acceptable level of management effectiveness after a year or more in the Asia Pacific region.

One of the reasons given is that their companies gave them very little cultural training or preparation. Many of those interviewed talked about ‘going at alone’ in markets like Japan and South Korea, or Indonesia and Thailand.

Others talked about researching their country by surfing the internet. Others said they had some cultural training for their posts but it was very minimal.

This lack of preparation has ongoing negative effects for many companies, and can lead to serious financial losses in failed deals or broken relationships.

But it is even more serious if the expatriate manager continues in the position regardless, rather than returning home, thereby inflicting long-term damage on the company’s brand or reputation.

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Operating in the rich and very diverse cultures of Asia can sometimes seem like wandering in a forest without a map. You can’t read the usual signs. You don’t recognize any signposts or markers. You don’t understand the rules of survival or how to be a self-sufficient ‘trekker’. You’re lost.

But is is precisely when people feel most lost that some of them show a surprising aptitude for finding the right way.

It could be instinct. It could be curiosity. It could be a natural disposition to read signs and listen and empathize – not talk all the time. It could be some combination or all of these, along with what seems to be the most common characteristic of those who succeed in Asian business: resilience.

The ability to pick your self up and bounce back from social or cultural mistakes, to learn from failure, and to continue to grow in your Asia role, is the determining factor for the success of Western businesspeople in Asia Pacific.


This emotional resilience is usually connected to adaptability and flexibility in the workplace, an ability to connect with people in teams with different cultural backgrounds, and previous experience of travel or other cultures.

It is natural to feel frustration or puzzlement or even anger and fear when experiencing another culture for the first time. You’re being pulled out of your comfort zone.

You’re being asked to look at yourself more, overcome discomfort and try to fit into a new environment without losing your authenticity.

For many people, the process without guidance or training can be painful. But even for those with training and guidance, the transition to full confidence in a new cultural setting can take time and patience, and will not be in a straight line.

However, for the lucky few who have an innate disposition to say yes to other cultures, who perhaps love languages, or who are endlessly inquisitive and excited by the unfamiliar, a posting to new markets like those of Asia can seem like a rich opportunity for learning.

That’s a powerful recipe for success.

Do you have what it takes to be successful in Asia? Are you one of the lucky ones or do you have to work hard at it?

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