Research Paper By Ju Yang
(Life Coach, SWITZERLAND)
In this rapidly changing world, people are increasingly mobile and connected. Multi-national companies increasingly dispatch skilled staff and executives to foreign countries, who form a substantial part of the expatriate community. How to transition coaching could play a positive role to support the expatriate incorporate setting is the focus of this research paper.
Framework on Transition Coaching
According to Sam Hamphrey (2014),
the purpose of Transition Coaching is to support an individual to undertake a change to a well-articulated, if not yet fully known, future state.
The process of the transition includes increasing clarity on the desired future state and the client effectively and gradually moves towards this state despite uncertainty. It is a change management process for the individual and his/her surroundings. There is strong interest to have the individual make the transition effectively and more speedily than would otherwise happen.
Sometimes the end state of the transition is not very well known to the client, although s/he has some basic idea, usually expressed as “I would like… “, “I want….”, “I do not want…..”, etc.. Therefore, the Transition Coaching is not only about moving from the past state (ending) and starting the new state, but also about getting clarity on the desired end state. Normally the key elements of the Transition Coaching will include coaching both the emotional upheavals as well as practical impact the (potential) changes bring to the clients and the surrounding loved ones. It encompasses parameters such as time-limit, value shift, identity change, (lack of) support network, inner default adaptation or change management system and stakeholder management (incl. families, friends and their view of the clients’ change). The ultimate goal is to increase an individual’s resilience in his/her life course.
Within the framework of Transition Coaching, the transition can be applied to career transition as well as life-stage transition. While the framework remains the same, the specific challenges may arise for different cases. For expatriates on assignment for 2-5 years or even longer, with their family, the transition coaching is unique.
Transition Experienced by the Expats
The expatriates face unique transition, in both career and life-wise, which are further compounded by the simultaneous transition by their families, including spouse and children.
The expatriates are normally assigned by the international organizations or multinational companies to take up highly-skilled function and/or quite often leadership positions. It is not uncommon that the international assignment carries out a career promotion or at least considered a career development opportunity, i.e., “good to show on the CV”. It is normally the expectation of the expatriates that job satisfaction is generally higher. This, however, may not be fulfilled.
The expatriates, in fulfilling their new function in a culturally different environment, face some changes in day-to-day life. This, notably, includes challenges in interaction with the local population, sense of insecurity (being “others”), accessibility to the food, etc. In short, a series of things that may be taken for granted in their home country may result in daily hurdles to overcome.
While more support is available these days, the expatriates may face a tentative interruption of friendship and have to establish new friendships in the new places. The impact of this albeit tentative drop-in social activities has often been overlooked on the emotional well-being of the expatriates.
At the same time, the adaptation process of the spouse and children correlates strongly with the effectiveness of transition. It is this strong correlation that makes the expatriates transition more complicated.
The spouse may, in fact, encounter much more difficulty in his/her own career transition in the new setting. The spouse may, in fact, stay in the state of unemployment for the entire duration of the international assignment. His/her dissatisfaction on career interruption could become a source of a barrier to the expatriates’ own transition. In fact, to what extent the spouse’s career transition is successful is one of the determining factors that influence the well-being of the expatriates. According to Katharina Von Knobloch (2019),
companies who are sending employees overseas are more aware of the partner‘s professional situation as a crucial factor for assignment success. An unhappy Expat Partner is still the number one reason for an early return which is not only costly for the company but can also be a severe test to the relationship itself.
The spouse faces the same cultural and language challenges in the new environment and may not be better equipped to deal with the challenges.
On the social support network, the spouse faces an even smaller social circle in the new country. While the expatriate has professional colleagues as the first layer of the social network, the spouse does not have his/her colleagues to rely on.
Moreover, if there are children the spouse will typically spend more energy on the transition experienced by the children. The extent of the difficulty depends on the age of the children, schooling and the children’s adaptation.
It is worth noting at the same time, lack of spouse, in fact, does not necessarily mean the expatriates’ transition is easier. When loneliness flood in a foreign country the expatriates are in fact more vulnerable to an unhealthy relationship, e.g., a one-night stand or troubled short relationship.
Tailored Transition Coaching for Expats
For the more complex situation elaborated in Section 3, transition coaching needs to be tailored to this unique group of people.
1. Spouse and family
It is essential for the Transition Coaching for Expats to cover the subject of a spouse, not in the sense of “dealing with strains arising from relocation”, but to put equal emphasis on the spouse transition. Coaching session leading to improved awareness of the spouse’s expectation from this relocation experience vis-à-vis the spouse’s perspective on/reaction to the reality can empower the clients to better deal with the transition. It does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the clients need to find the spouse a job, but better prepared emotionally as a family unit to deal with the gap in terms of job satisfaction level. Reframing and redefining spouse’s own professional identity is critical to this transition of the spouse. What role could the client play in their spouses’ transition? In reality, the clients actually manage their own transition better than dealing with the spouse’s perceived unsuccessful transition. This is an area that the Transition Coach needs to raise the clients’ awareness.
2. Value and identity shift
The Transition Coaching for expatriates, especially those with longer-term experience in living abroad, need to explore more on the value shift and identity change experienced by the clients, and whether what the clients experienced are synchronized with that experienced by the spouse. The awareness on the value shift and identity change, and the subsequent acknowledgement, acceptance or rejection of this shift, could help the expatriates be more grounded and ready to make life choice most suitable to them and their family.
The first signal of value shift will become explicit when the interaction between the clients and their family or friends in the home country is no longer as smooth, or when the clients react differently from their fellow countrymen on certain policies or news. This may create family strains, cause emotional upheavals, while the clients are bewildered “why my friends no longer think the same way as I do”, they may resent or even reject this observation. The Transition Coach, at this moment, should help the clients explore more the emotions and the underlying reasons, working together with the clients to find out who and what have changed. One cannot underestimate the unsettling impact of this identity or value shift, because this normally takes place after 5-7 years abroad when career satisfaction is not as impactful as the beginning of the expatriate life.
During this period, the client becomes more aware of his/her own difference from the other fellow family and friends from the same country but without the expatriate experience. It is quite common to observe this sense of unease and even a sense of loss – loss of identity. Transition Coaching is a power tool at this moment to reframe the perspective. Is the identity lost or enriched? What new perspective have you gained through all these expatriate years? What importance have you given to your original country friends or relatives to your identity? Is their validation so critical to you? During the course of self-reflection, the Transition Coaching normally helps the clients this journey of self-discovery, and help the clients settle with the new or enriched identity.
3. Emotion: negative and positive
It is not uncommon to observe emotional upheavals during transition coaching. The fear led by knowing the unknowns may serve as a stumbling block to inhibit actions. The sense of loss of identity sometimes overwhelms the sense of gains in financial and career aspect. Human beings need to have a sense of belonging. That is why there is more and more emphasis on community engagement, the value on family and friendship. Within this context, the sense of my own identity is being uprooted could be fatal. This awareness alone may create negative emotions to the extent that the expatriates may choose to interrupt the assignment and return to the home country, a decision that may not be fully thought through.
The Transition Coaching process may apply a variety of power tools to shift the clients’ perspectives, from self-doubt to self-confidence, from a sense of loss to sense of enrichment, from fear to courage. The transition coaching may help the clients discover and embrace the new identity, acquired via new experience.
Each individual has his/her own life course, with different stages. Expatriates have unique opportunities to have part of their lives enriched more than others by living abroad and interacting with different cultures. Opportunities are also associated with unique challenges. Transition Coaching could play a critical role in supporting the clients to get the most from the expatriate experience. The coach supports the client to explore the new experience, experiment new things, engage and fully thrive in the new country.
Sam HUMPHREY, 2014, A practical framework for exploring the purpose of individual coaching, https://www.mollerinstitute.com/insights/practical-framework-exploring-purpose-individual-coaching/
Antoine TIROIR, 2018, The 4Es of career transitions https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/the-4-es-of-successful-career-transitions-9076
Katharina VON KNOBLOCH, 2019, Supporting Expat Partners Redefining Their Identity Abroadhttps://forum.icoachacademy.com/discussion/146101/research-paper-expat-partner-support#latest