“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything,” writes Bill Bryson in Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe. “You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
From my own experience working abroad, I too have found that to be the case—that ignorance can be a powerful catalyst for personal growth and can lead to an enhanced set of highly transferable skills. Now that hiring managers, and employers are placing a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence (EQ) and soft skills—and are recognizing the importance of evaluating these skill sets during the hiring process—it’s just as imperative for workers to develop and improve their positive personality traits as it is for them to hone technical skills. In fact, a study from OfficeTeam at the staffing service company Robert Half found that “More than one in five employees (21 percent) believe EQ is more valuable in the workplace than IQ. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) said the two are equally important.”
Before we can begin to examine how living abroad acts as an accelerated lesson in productivity-inducing office behavior, we need to identify the most crucial soft skills. A lesson created by the Department of Labor for Youth in Transition highlights Communication, Enthusiasm & Attitude, Teamwork, Networking, Problem Solving & Critical Thinking, and Professionalism as necessary soft skills for the modern workplace. And according to an article from Business Insider, insights from LinkedIn revealed that hiring managers look for adaptability, culture fit, collaboration, leadership, growth potential, and prioritization.
Now how exactly does working and traveling abroad generate improvement in these soft skills? Let’s revisit Bryson’s statement about the value of ignorance. When abroad, you’re immediately thrust into the unknown and depending on the situation, have little time to find a toehold before you’re expected to perform at your best. But in a way, that’s precisely the environment you need to adopt these skills; a PowerPoint on how to collaborate with your team or a workbook on effective leadership can only do so much. What you really need to build your soft skills toolbox is to have no other choice but to learn. That brings me to…
In a survey conducted by Northwestern University, successful expats considered open-mindedness and flexibility to be the most important qualities for anyone transferring to a position abroad, and it’s easy to see why. New cultural customs, whether it be the timing of meals, greeting etiquette, even preferred modes of transportation require some getting used to, and refusing to comply with local standards of living is unlikely to win you any favors or demonstrate your ability to become a long term member of the team. In the home-office, adaptability and flexibility are equally necessary. Being open to reconfiguring previously assigned roles and responsibilities, making room for new team members, even doing something as insignificant as agreeing to switch desks, these are all examples of how being open minded and refraining from rigidity can prove beneficial.
When abroad and at home, your ability to match company culture and remain aware and respectful of your peers’ idiosyncrasies and values plays a large role in how well you’re received, and potentially, it can have widespread effects on the energy and even the productivity within the space. While living abroad, culture fit becomes synonymous with sensitivity and respect. Not only must you observe local traditions and abide by a set of social mores that may not come naturally, you also must learn where your place is as an American in another country. What I mean is that you must understand how to be inquisitive and curious without overstepping boundaries and appearing condescending. Those skills can be applied in any office, regardless of location. Working in another country may present a clearer set of boundaries and cultural norms for you to navigate, but every office is going to have a social component that requires some amount of emotional intelligence to thrive in, even if it’s as simple as abiding by the dress code or participating in the interoffice softball league.
Both hiring managers and job candidates are placing a greater emphasis on whether the office culture seems like the right fit, so much so that in a study out of John Hopkins University, 95% of job candidates polled said that company culture was more important to them than compensation. This makes learning how to be an involved member of the team rather than an outsider who just happens to have a desk in the office all the more necessary.
Research shows that happier, less stressed employees are more engaged, and even physically healthier than their anxiety-ridden and overworked peers, and part of what it takes to maintain an environment conducive to higher levels of productivity is eliminating unnecessary aggravations. When working in another country, the key to reducing excess stressors can be through collaboration and being open to taking a back seat role even if you’re usually the one sitting at the head of the table. Again, to go back to Bryson, it’s about owning up to your ignorance and allowing others, in this case, locals to take charge. Being amenable to relinquishing control over the entirety of a project and instead focusing on your specific responsibilities also shows respect for your co-workers—it demonstrates your trust in their capabilities.
Of course, collaboration is important anywhere you go regardless of whether you have home field advantage or are in need of a translator and a tour guide. There’s a reason why team building exercises are still part of most company retreats—you can’t be a fully functional office if every staff member wants to do something their way and won’t compromise with one another.
While the majority of Americans—with the exception of those in the 21-30 age bracket—eschew working abroad in favor of staying stateside, it might be time for all of us to reconsider our reluctance to leave our comfort zones and find a new desk overseas.