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Feature articles The family as a developmental issue in expatriate assignments

Irene Chiotis-Leskowich

Irene Chiotis-Leskowich is a Lecturer based at Athens University of Economics and Business, Athens, Greece.

he phenomenon now commonly understood as globalization has had a dramatic effect on the way people work and live. Not the least important of these effects is the way it hits home, so to speak; that is, the way it affects working men and women who must deal with globalization effects on a daily basis. In particular, it means that many are expatriates living and working somewhere other than what they call home.

While increasingly necessary and critical, expatriate assignments are not usually successful. Estimates of global expatriate failures range from 16-40 percent resulting in corporate losses estimated between $200,000 and $1.2 million per expatriate failure. Pointedly, much of the literature remains focused on the developmental and training issues and concerns of the expatriate employee (usually managerial personnel) in isolate.

Expatriate failure
Expatriate failure is dened either as the premature return of an expatriate manager to his or her home country, or an expatriate who remains on assignment for the entire duration but is considered ineffective. Early studies and reports of expatriate failure tend to emphasize a set of very broadlylabeled issues:

career blockage; culture shock; lack of pre-departure cross-cultural training; over emphasis on technical qualications (at the expense of human relations or people skills); getting rid of a troublesome employee; and family problems.


More recent reports of expatriate failure, however, identify the following order of contributing factors:

spouse dissatisfaction; family concerns; (employee) inability to adapt;



VOL. 23 NO. 6 2009, pp. 4-7, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1477-7282

DOI 10.1108/14777280910994831


poor job performance; quality of life; poor candidate selection; and security and safety.

Note that more recent examinations and literature have in some ways detailed the former broad categories. Spousal dissatisfaction and family problems, however, have grown into failure factors of prominence. In fact, these top the list of reasons for early return from international assignments (The Globe and Mail, 2005). Importantly, each of the above causes of expatriate failure is valid in and of itself. However, a systemic look at these causes indicates a possible interdependence of issues, not the least of which are expatriate family adjustment/satisfaction issues (EFAS hereafter); it is increasingly accepted that these seeming non-work phenomena have a tremendous impact on the success of the international assignment.

Extant views of EFAS in expatriate failure

It is important to understand that while many companies do try to invest some time, energy and resources in spousal/family satisfaction, corporate attitude toward their relocation is still one of management, rather than preparation, appreciation or interest. In fact, according to a manager at RHR International, companies are loath to talk about a candidates family (The Globe and Mail, 1992, B4). The neglect of the interdependence of family issues compromises the corporate objective right from the start. Punnett (1997), has provided the contours of the issues and concerns facing EFAS, and readers are guided to that work as referenced at the end of this article. Spouses appear to fall into three categories, each of which is affected somewhat differently by the expatriate assignment, and each of which may require different preparation training. The three groups are: (1) female spouses, who do not expect to work in the foreign location; (2) female spouses who do expect to work in the foreign location; and (3) male spouses, who predominantly expect to work in the foreign location. But notice right off that the spousal issue seems an issue exclusive of what otherwise might be called family issues. Indeed, family adjustment, issues and concerns are often understood primarily if not exclusively in terms of spousal adjustment. There exists little if any focused study pertaining to the family understood holistically as an entity that adjusts, rather than simply a collection of individuals that adjusts each in their own way. There are two problems inherent in extant expatriate preparation, both of which neglect the systemic connectedness of the family in the international assignment and both of which affect its outcome negatively. First, failing to view the family holistically neglects the systemic nature of the dyad of employee spouse. Certainly, the dynamics of any couple make the assignment different than if the prospective expat employee was entering the assignment alone. Second, if expat employee spouse also children, then a whole host of other issues arise. Here, not only do we have each entity as a separate system component, but also the issue of family as a system of interdependent components.

Spousal dissatisfaction and family problems have grown into prominent factors in expatriate failure.


Little wonder, then, that family concerns/issues are often listed as both the number one contributor to expatriate success, as well as the number one contributor to expatriate failure. Family adjustment is also listed as the number one reason for early return regardless of success, as well as for declining future opportunities for international assignments.

Family system theory as an element in expatriate training

Family Systems Theory (FST hereafter) describes the nature of the relationships among all family members. As Ali (2003, p. 51) writes:
[. . .] An overseas assignment is a change, which requires the family to restructure, develop and adapt in response to the demands of the new situation. If families can adapt adequately to their new environment, then they will maintain continuity and facilitate each members psychological growth and cross-cultural adjustment.

FST resembles or is an outgrowth of the Family Systems work initially developed by Bateson (1972), extended and developed into therapeutic work by Bateson in the Palo Alto group. Consequently, there are some fruitful developmental avenues to pursue in this area in terms of expatriation. There are a few variants of Family Systems Therapy (FSTh hereafter) each dealing with different aspects of family dysfunction. However, an expatriate assignment may not be considered the kind of dysfunction appropriate for many of these theories. One theory that does seem applicable to expatriation, and has implications for developmental practice, is the Communication model developed by Bateson. Here, the focus is on the interaction patterns of families and how they function to either help or hinder effective functioning in times of change, and to help families as interdependent systems develop productive adaptive responses. As a communication model, it can be taught and developed prescriptively and proactively, rather than used solely as an intervention for dysfunction. In fact, in reviewing the work of Punnett (1997) concerning potential and actual spousal/family needs in expatriate relocation, the primary need for all three groups might be called supportive communication. Supportive communication conveys empathy, respect, concern and condence all indicated by Punnett as needed by those in the trailing role for their particular set of concerns. This kind of communication is often assumed as normal but in many healthy families it is not widely practiced; it is especially not practiced in the acute sense in which it must be activated in a dramatic event such as a culture change. Moreover, communication is interaction it is inherently connected, relational and interdependent rather than micro-focused on a specic skill such as currency conversion. It helps families help themselves through times of adaptation, therefore establishing itself as a prime remedy for the leading cause of expat failure: family failure to adjust.

FSTh skills for cultivating supportive communication

There are several techniques by which supportive communication can be either reinforced or cultivated in prospective expat families, as derived from extant practical literature: (1) Ask realistic questions, such as: In a typical day who does what, when? If kids are ghting, what is Mom doing? What is Dad doing? What kinds of things are said? Are they helpful? Why/why not? What could be more helpful? (2) Ask hypothetical questions, such as: Who would be most likely to stay home if mom got sick? Why? (3) Use scaling reports: On a scale of 1-10, compare each other in terms of anger, power, neediness, happiness, helpfulness, supportiveness, (and many other items). Do you agree with the reports about others? Do you agree with reports about yourself? Do you think you can or should change anything about your communication that would change the things you dont like in the report to something you do like? (4) Use tracking: How does a family deal with a problem? What was it like for you when...? This gets at the family connections and relationships that all contribute to a problem.


The focus should be on the interaction patterns of families and how they work to either help or hinder effective functioning in times of change, and to help families as interdependent systems develop productive adaptive responses.

Keywords: Expatriates, Family life, Change management, Developmental psychology, Communication, Adaptability

(5) Use sculpting: Create a still picture of the family that symbolizes relationships by having members position one another physically. This activity helps get through intellectualized defenses, and gets less vocal members to express themselves. These are but a sampling of the communication skills and techniques that can be used to cultivate the family support that enhances the success of the expatriate assignment. And they are not simple tokens of expat preparation for the family; according to both the causes of expat failure as well as the needs of expat families, they seem to be at the core of healthy expatriate adjustment, and thus viable developmental issues for multinational corporations and other organizations dealing with the corporate effects of globalization.

Ali, A.J. (2003), The intercultural adaptation of expatriate spouses and children: an empirical study on the determinants contributing to the success of expatriation, dissertation, University of Groningen, available at: Bateson, G. (1972), Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Balantine, New York, NY, p. 421. The Globe and Mail (1992), Global Relocation Trends, Survey Report, available at: www. Punnett, B.J. (1997), Towards effective management of expatriate spouses, The Journal of World Business, Vol. 32 No. 3, pp. 243-58.

Corresponding author
Irene Chiotis-Leskowich can be contacted at:

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