Skip to content

Cultural differences at work

When moving overseas, expats have to adjust to both the cultural differences in the country itself, as well as the cultural differences in their new workplace. I’ve spoken to so many expats over the years who loved the experience of working in another country, but found it harder than expected to find their feet and really land at work, because things were simply so different from what they had experienced before.

I’ve worked for many different types of companies across 3 continents over the past 14 years and I’ve picked up some great ways to adapt along the way. And yes, there were definitely some very challenging experiences in there, but I did choose to learn from them! Whether you have a job secured already or if you are in the process of interviewing, I trust you’ll find these tips very useful.

  1. Get an insight into the organisations key values. More often than not these are available on the website or in the annual report (normally publicly available online depending on the company structure). If it’s not available, make sure to ask management for their input on the organisation’s values. The clarity of business values can of course be slightly different in different countries, but if you’re clear on what the organisational values and mission are (transparency, sales growth, innovation, punctuality are just some common examples) and in what order these are ranked, it becomes easier for you to get a clear picture of what the company is all about. Ideally your personal values should line up on some level with the values of the organisation you work for, or you might find yourself struggling with both inspiration and a strong purpose for your role.
  2. Do some research on public holidays and other key cultural celebrations in the country you now live in. This will give you insight into the culture outside of work and my experience is that this will often spill into the work culture as well.
  3. Seek to understand before you demand to be understood. Early on in my career in the UK, I often struggled with the work culture because I felt that people did not understand my focus at work. I also noticed that my views around business processes and efficiency was very different from some of my colleagues. My key mistake is that I wanted them to understand me, before I had taken the time to really ask questions and understand the background of their approach. Always seek to understand first and you’ll find that a lot more doors to new opportunities and dialogue open.
  4. An individual is not their behaviour. If you struggle to understand a structure, a way of making decisions or a specific person’s actions, remember this. What someone chooses to do (actions) and who they are (identity/personality) is not the same thing. It can cause frustration and misunderstanding at times, but keep an open mind wherever possible and be aware of your personal boundaries. You are well within your right to hold others accountable, despite some cultural confusion or misunderstandings.
  5. You chose to move, but the organisation also made the decision to hire you because of what you would bring. Be respectful and understanding, but don’t hide your strengths. Just choose to be aware of how you present them. When you are clear on the business vision and values you can also come with suggestions on how you can best contribute and help make that happen. Communication styles is a key area here. Be more of an observer at the start and get really curious to find out more. Ask lots of questions and get a true feel for the culture. Once you start to get a better picture of the organisation you can choose to tailor your communication accordingly and avoid most misunderstandings.
  6. Take responsibility of your part in adding things onto the culture. Be mindful of your language when it comes to saying/thinking things like “they always do that” or “they don’t understand where I’m coming from“. When you lump actions and behaviours together like that, it’s very hard to find solutions. Be aware that you are a part of the organisation (even if it’s a big one!) and you matter. How you speak, think and behave does matter.
  7. You’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting. Learn, grow and contribute where you are or make a decision to leave where you are now and allow for another work (and growth) opportunity elsewhere. No organisation really benefits from people being stuck in roles where they don’t want to be and have no further growth opportunities. I firmly believe that as long as you learned something and choose to bring that with you for future adventures, no time in any job is ever wasted. That’s right, even the job that will never make it to your LinkedIn profile taught you something!

What are some of the key cultural challenges you have faced at work in a new country? And how did you choose to approach them?