Adapting to a Foreign Work Culture
Over the last ten years, I have gone from a comfortable kiwi working environment where everyone speaks the same heavily accented New Zealand English, to working in a foreign government where offices are prohibited from using air conditioning under 31 degrees and the only common English phrase is ‘this is a pen’, to working in what one might think would be an easy to understand work place but turns out to be even more exotic to me than my government experience.
New Zealand, Japan and the UK each have their own unique styles. Their own unwritten office rules, social norms and expectations. All countries problems have the same themes but entirely different ways of dealing with them. And each time I started a new job in one of these countries I found myself encountering a new company culture, office dynamic and ever-changing people and politics.
Adapting to these cultures is the ultimate goal. But no one tells you the number of pitfalls and brick walls you’ll come across before getting to the sacred ‘A’ word.
Step One: Enthusiasm
Without fail, every time I start a new job I enter it with a mix of excitement and nervousness. It’s overwhelming to begin with; meeting new people, settling in to the role, making your workspace home again. But there’s a giddiness to it all. Who do I need to get to know first? How will I approach this person? What fancy new HR tool do they have? Can I get away with wearing my brightest red lipstick? (Trust me, it’s a real question in a Japanese workplace.)
Moving to a new country is much the same. Everything’s new and stimulating. You constantly discover interesting places, great food and friendly people. You feel comfortable falling into this new place, letting it show you things and opening your mind to a new world. It’s also motivating and fills you with ideas and goals for the future.
In my most recent role I felt like I’d been a part of the furniture for years by day three. By day four I had a 9-month attack plan to deal with the most challenging of issues facing the business. I wrote an extensive timeline with targets to achieve in that time and broke it all down into a feasible project plan to implement.
But, I had only really spoken directly to 5 people. I only had an inkling of the office politics, I hadn’t established relationships with key stakeholders and, most importantly of all, I hadn’t taken the time to discuss the company with any of the non-management level staff.
This is my enthusiastic period. I feel confident. I feel invincible. I’m filled with a thousand hopes and dreams for my magnificent revolution of the challenges I perceive to be the most urgent.
It lasts about two to four weeks. Then…
Step Two: Frustration
Why don’t they just send it directly? Why do I have to be the middle man? Why are there so many approvals to go through? Could this security system be any more difficult?
This is the time your hopes and dreams start to crash and burn. You feel tired. Overwhelmed. You can’t understand their reasoning and inability to see what you see as their biggest challenges.
Step two is exhausting. Step two is a great platform to just accept cynicism as your new religious conviction and give up entirely. Your previous enthusiasm has burnt you out and you start to question everything.
I was stuck in this negative place for a long time in Japan. I couldn’t find it in myself to step outside the situation and see it from a wider perspective. I couldn’t critically evaluate why I was feeling this way. I’ll I could do was ask loaded questions and criticise everything that felt foreign to me. My colleagues were patient and kind. They tried their best to guide me. Lend me a hand. But they also couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand. It drove me down into a very dark place.
It drove me so far down that it actually flew me across land and sea to another country.
That gives you one option; escaping. But there’s another road you can walk down…
Step Three: Evaluating
If you chose the other path it will eventually lead you to this; taking a step back, questioning your own questions, and finding the true source of frustration.
It is impossible to jump straight from ‘Frustration’ to ‘Adapting’. You can go from ‘Frustration’ to ‘Acceptance’ which I would equate to becoming jaded.
In order to be able to adapt to your new environment you need to be able to understand it. In order to understand it you need to be able to evaluate your personal issues with it. The goal is not to agree or even disagree with the outcome of the evaluation but instead to have a better understanding of how the culture works, why it works that way and where that leaves you.
For example, I didn’t expect living and working in the UK to be quite the shock to the system that it was. It was probably due to the fact that after Japan my expectations for a western society were quite high. I was hoping to return to my imagined ‘normality’. A place where I didn’t struggle every day to understand my colleague motivations and my office’s processes. I thought I could easily slip into this country without my brain even realising.
I immediately was told by various sources that I was an ‘immigrant’, that there were ‘too many Australasians in this city’. When I provided my British passport of evidence of my right to be in the country I was told I wasn’t a ‘real’ British citizen. My road to adapting to the UK was off to a very negative start.
I also arrived at the beginning of the Brexit fiasco. Racism and xenophobia were a factor of everyday life whether it was in person or on the news.
In the workplace, I had joined a Japanese company where 80% of the employees were expats. The issues I had experience in Japan had followed me to the UK but this time I had a choice.
With a clearer head and borrowing some of the Enthusiasm I was still experiencing from phase 1 I started to look at the decisions my colleagues were making and discussing them with others in similar situations. It turns out I wasn’t the only one struggling and not the only one making these observations.
I read articles, bought books and joined a few free lectures. Colleagues, both Japanese and local staff alike, were more than open to discuss the pitfalls of various procedures. They weren’t always willing to change but there were always willing to talk about why things were as they were.
These people started to become my support system and community. They helped me navigate the labyrinth of cultural misunderstanding.
I was finally about to start moving forward to…
Step Four: Adapting
For me adapting is all about choosing my battles.
I’ll handwrite this document because it’s ‘how they’ve been doing it for years’ if it means payroll goes smoother. I’ll quietly stop sending the required weekly updates but if I’m called out on it I’ll explain my reasoning and ask for theirs (although it’s often the case that no one notices!). If I find a roadblock where I have no influence, I’ll reorganise my internal processes to more efficiently match external processes.
I’ve learnt I can’t control other people but I can control me. I’ve also learnt to speak up and be heard even if it gets me knocked down. As the wise lyricists of the past have taught us ‘I get back up again. You ain’t never gonna keep me down.’
Adapting isn’t you fully integrating into the culture, although it can be, it’s about keeping your identity and knowing yourself well enough to decide what you can budge on and what you hold more important than anything else.
I’m cheating you a little by laying these items out in nice clear steps. It’s not always that way. Sometimes, as I mentioned previously people jump to ‘Acceptance’ which often leads them down the road to jaded-ness. More often than not, I bounce back and forth between Step 1-4 and not always in a linear fashion.
It’s a constant maze of unexpected hurdles and unpleasant turns. But, if you let yourself get lost in it, it’s all the more fun for it.