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Adapting to the Land Down Under

January 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
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Your company has just opened its first subsidiary in Australia. You have less than a month to send Judith, your marketing representative to Sydney. You breathe a sigh of relief because this assignment should be a piece of cake. After all, she just returned from three years in Nigeria. At least she won’t have to learn another language.

True, but not so fast, mate! Even though Australia and the United States are both nations of immigrants with roots to Great Britain, follow the Christian religion and believe in democracy -- they have distinct national identities.

In fact, if you look at a map, you’ll be reminded why it’s considered part of the Pacific Rim and why so many Australians increasingly do business with Asia.

“Most Americans going to Australia expect Aussies to be similar to them,” says George W. Renwick, a Carefree, Arizona-based cross-cultural management consultant and author of “A Fair Go for All: Australian/American Interactions.” (Intercultural Press Inc. 1991)

In many ways both countries are similar, but the differences are significant enough to advance or jeopardize American business ventures abroad. Here’s why.

Expect slow changes.
One of the biggest mistakes American expats to Australia make is going over with big dreams of transforming the workplace. Instead of asking how much to change and how fast, American expats should ask, “What can I change and when?” Or more importantly, learn what you can’t change. That Big Brother tendency to impose change is resented in many countries, especially Australia. From the Australian point of view, they already have Australian managers and employees, people who are quite familiar with their own organizations and customs. Try to impose a new idea without buy-in, and you’ll get immediate feedback. “They’ll say what they think and challenge a new idea. The Aussies resent being given orders,” says Renwick. So tell your expat to watch his or her Type A control buttons.

Part of the Australians’ resistance comes from their unique history. They have always struggled for equality. Also, Americans often come from traditional hierarchical organizations in which making and implementing decisions is normal and expected. Whereas Aussies usually expect to be involved and prefer a more collaborative decision-making approach.

Participatory management.
Renwick advises that American expats deal with Australians as partners. Avoid issues orders. Negotiate instead, and come to mutually agreeable conclusions. Make your Aussie colleagues feel that your expats are accessible and can be approached informally. Don’t expect deference. Australians will consider themselves as equals and should be treated as such.

When criticism is called for, don’t beat around the bush. State the point clearly and objectively without making it a personal attack. In discussing business matters, he adds, don’t spend a lot of time on peripheral details, fine points of interpretation, or splitting hairs. If complex technologies or processes need to be explained, avoid a patronizing tone. Chances are, they’ll be able to tell whether or not you’re sincere.

Be genuine.
Australians and Americans also trust (and distrust) individuals for different reasons. Knowing how and why can help your expat develop more effective professional relationships. In Renwick’s book, he explains that Australians base their trust on a person’s capacity for loyalty and commitment and on their own sense and estimation of the person. Americans, on the other hand, tend to base their trust on an individual’s capacity for performance and consistent behavior, and on other people’s recognition, ranking and accreditation of the person. This difference accounts, in part, for the difficulty Australians and Americans have in knowing whether the other is sincere.

Australians sometimes say that the most difficult thing to figure out about Yanks is whether they are fair dinkum (genuine) or not. They wonder, “Are Americans sincere about what they say?” For their part, puzzled Americans ask, “What must I do to impress Australians?” The answer, says Renwick, is to do as little as possible. Just act natural and be patient. Australians won’t be pushed or hurried.

And cut out those American superlatives, such as, “Great job!” “Wow,” and “What a fantastic idea!” Express appreciation and respect briefly and directly -- and without exaggeration. “Aussies respect character, and they’re often interested in the way we cope with life rather than the way we cope with work. If you face life and difficulties head on with courage, candor and humor, they’re going to respect that.”

Quality of life.
Unlike Americans who often work overtime and weekends, and sacrifice vacation days, Aussies are protective of their personal time. They generally expect more time off from work than we do. Family life and family time with friends is a high priority.

Both peoples consider the quality of their lives of central importance; but the Aussies define it differently. For the Americans, says Renwick, quality is found mostly in the private domain (home, spouse, children, education, recreation), plus the sense of being a worthwhile person, which “success” brings.

For the Australian, quality of life has no particular focus: It’s the way one lives every moment. This may seem strange to Americans who are more work-driven -- even to the point of choosing one’s career over marriage. “One’s private life is important to Australians, and they expect to get the same kind of satisfaction from all aspects of their lives, not just from their free time,” he says.

So can American managers change that value system? Not likely. If they push Australian employees too hard and infringe on their personal time, the American manager will hear about it. “The Australian will let his or her opinion be known once. After that, he or she will just quit the job,” says Renwick. “So Americans better listen.”

And finally, don’t forget to set your watch. When traveling to Australia from the Americas, you cross the International Date Line: When flying westward (United States to Australia), you “lose” a day; flying eastward (Australia to United States), you “gain” a day. Once you’ve arrived in Sydney and want to let your boss in Washington, D.C. know you landed safely, remember that Sydney is 20 hours “ahead.” So call home from Sydney at 8 a.m. on Tuesday and it will be 4 p.m. on Monday in Washington, D.C.

Global Workforce, January 1998, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 24-25.

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