Research Reveals That Success Abroad Requires Cultural Empathy

A new research study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has revealed that living abroad will only improve an individual’s creative and professional potential if they actively engage with the cultural behaviours and beliefs of their host country.

The study, which was written by Carmit Tadmor of Tel Aviv University, Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School, and William Maddux of INSEAD, found that simply living overseas is not sufficient to enhance prospects. In order to reap the rewards of exposure to foreign cultures and ways of life, expats must integrate with the people of their host country and embrace the experiences on offer. The authors pointed out that, in order to get the most out of life overseas, expatriates must identify with the culture of a host country while maintaining identification with one’s home culture, something they termed “bicultural identification.”

“The ability to simultaneously identify with both one’s host and home cultures and the resulting capacity for complex thinking may be a key to translating foreign experiences abroad into a tangible toolbox that bolsters one’s creative ability and professional skill to the highest level,” the authors wrote.

Also of note in the research study was the importance of “integrative complexity,” a process by which expatriates process information and assimilate between the perspectives of the people of their home country with the outlook witnessed in their host country. In order to make the most of their experiences abroad expatriates need to be capable of identifying with, and understanding, the views of both cultures: “Although living abroad does help in honing creative abilities compared to not living abroad, not all individuals who have lived abroad will be equally successful in deriving a positive benefit from such experiences. Rather, it seems that only individuals who are able to simultaneously maintain a connection to one’s own cultural heritage while identifying with the new host culture will develop the requisite integrative complexity levels that will ultimately produce greater creative and professional success,” commented the lead author Carmit Tadmor.

As such, it is clear that expats who move overseas with the intention of furthering their careers, experiencing creative enlightenment or finding themselves, need to ensure that they don’t rely on exposure alone but actively attempt to assimilate with and understand the culture and behaviors of the people of their host county.

“Living abroad gives the opportunity for individuals to enhance creativity and integrative complexity, but taking a bicultural approach while abroad may be the key to producing lasting cognitive changes and psychological benefits,” the authors wrote. “Thus it seems that although living abroad matters, it is how one approaches that experience which adds critical explanatory value.”

The study, “Getting the Most out of Living Abroad: Biculturalism and Integrative Complexity as Key Drivers of Creative and Professional Success,” will be published in the forthcoming Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.