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Adventures of an Expat: Defining Basic Needs

By Debbie Nicol (1154 words)
Posted in International Management on October 7, 2012

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By Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, 'business en motion" 

I often reflect on one of my earliest overseas postings, when I moved from my native Australia to Malaysia, a move I now see as simply ‘next door’, yet at the time literally turned my life upside down.  I was invited to join an international hotel chain and hence live in the hotel whilst also working in it.


As it really was my first expatriate position, I look back now in awe at the level of curiosity and precision of every single move I made. Amazingly, it was a ‘text book’ example of how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can truly be applied to, and benefit, international management assignments.


For those who may be unaware of Maslow, his theory states certain categories of needs are needed to be satisfied before a person is willing to move to the next stage of motivation and /or development.


Physiological Needs


Food, air, water  - the first level of need! They were my priorities the very moment I was on the ground. My driver gave me a water bottle (tick!), yet could I still drink it without getting sick?  The air was thick with the tremendous forest fire overflow in Indonesia – was I going to be able to walk around the streets without a mask? Why leave a clean-aired country to come to this?  The food was amazing, yet how could I remove all those thousands of tiny strong-tasting fish from everything I was offered, as I’m a non-seafood eater?


Somehow I managed – my water intake increased thankfully, the forest fire effect dwindled away as the wind changed direction and the menu choices increased as my knowledge of the village stalls did so in parallel!


I could physically survive – yes, another tick!


Safety, Security


My passport was my ticket to freedom. I needed to know where it was at any given moment.  Did I really need to carry it around with me every minute of the day? After discovering the large safety boxes, I felt a lot happier knowing that it was on-hand at any particular moment. Gee, how different this experience already was – I was feeling both empowered yet a sense of increased awareness.  At home, I would never think to worry about my passport!


This awareness extended greatly.  After recently viewing a fatal hotel fire in Bangkok, I was checking out all the fire stairs every 2nd day. Had anyone locked them? Oh dear, my trust was still on the low side – why would anyone wish to lock themselves in as well. The chair at work was old and rickety and I couldn’t reach the floor – was I to endure that for the next few years? Surely not….as the new chair was delivered! (Tick)


Social Belonging and Friendship


I was slowly starting to feel at home.  I welcomed my new next-door neighbor with open arms, one who would be living in-house too.   After the first night’s formalities, I knew I had a companion to turn to (tick)! Yet what about all those other people in my life – the staff, the suppliers, my colleagues, all with names that I could neither spell nor pronounce.  I felt embarrassed that I was only literate with names like Tom or Sue, and struggled with Reni and Sukiyak. It was so wonderful to have people forgiving me when I struggled over pronunciation. Ahh, trust and belonging was starting to flow – hence flowing over into ‘Esteem’, the 4th level of Maslow’s theory.


Self Esteem

My basic foundations were now in place – it wasn’t that bad was it?  How time had flown and I found myself feeling good. Ticks were no longer a necessity of life – things just started to feel right, aligned and better. Was it the new culture that I was happy with? Or was it the ability to converse even without a common language?  Perhaps it was the unknown new life literacies I had absorbed?  Or was it the two-way contribution – with minds open from both sides we started enhancing each other’s lives in tandem.   Not aware of whether that was satisfying the 4th level need of Self Esteem or the 5th level need of Self Actualization, I really never knew – yet the memories of home were now in the background and the experience was really an exciting interaction every single day – on both good and bad days!


What’s the relevance of this to International Management?  Do we really know what we need and if not, should we identify this before embarking the shores.  Can we lead others without knowing and leading ourselves? I once had a General Manager say his greatest need was to ensure that his wife was settled in the international destination as quickly as possible – he classified that as part of his job!


Insights that Maslow may bring to an expatriate community on international assignments:


  1. Before a change enters your life that has possibility to uproot the very core, identify what matters most to you and ensure it will be able to be satisfied in the international destination.
  2. Remind yourself constantly that incremental adaptation will work.  Adjust your expectations to the famous words ‘Rome wasn't built in a day’ and hence be ready for more inconsistency and challenge in the initial phases.
  3. Have an open mind – just because someone looks different doesn’t mean his or her intention is bad.  They feel you are different too!  Remember the power of a smile to break all barriers!


What experiences have you had as an Expat, working with one, for one or managing one?

Please join the conversation in 'This Week's Discussion'


Written by Debbie Nicol,

International Management Expert for ManagingAmericans.com & Managing Director, 'business en motion'

Ask our Expert Panel a question in the International Ask an Expert Forum.


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Comments (1)

K Razzaq posted on: November 20, 2012

OMG! I cannot believe the tone and content of this article, how very shallow and deeply condescending and patronising.

As for this gem 'just because someone looks different doesn’t mean his or her intention is bad.', I am just speechless!

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