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When Living Abroad Pays Career Dividends

travel Credit: Map image via Shutterstock

Employees working and living abroad need to immerse themselves in their new culture in order for the experience to pay dividends, new research shows.

A study by researchers at Tel Aviv and Northwestern universities discovered the simple act of living abroad was not enough to bolster creative and professional success and that the potential benefits of extended international travel depend on an employee's ability to simultaneously identify with both their home and host cultures.

"Although living abroad does help to hone creative abilities, not all individuals who have lived abroad derive an equal benefit from such experiences," said Tel Aviv University's Carmit Tadmor.

The research found that identifying with two cultures simultaneously fosters a more complex thinking style that views things from multiple perspectives and forges conceptual links among them.

"Unlike patterns of cultural identification in which individuals endorse only one of the two cultures, bicultural identification requires individuals to take into account and combine the perspectives of both old and new cultures," Tadmor said. "Over time, this information processing capability, or 'integrative complexity,' becomes a tool for making sense of the world and will help individuals perform better in both creative and professional domains."

As part of the study, the researchers conducted three experiments to determine the impact of biculturalism when living abroad.

In the first experiment, MBA students comprising 26 different nationalities who had once lived abroad were asked to complete a series of tasks, including a creativity task. In the second experiment, a group of MBA students comprising 18 nationalities were asked to describe the new businesses, products and processes they had invented during their careers.

The studies found that those who identified with both their host and home culture consistently demonstrated more fluency, flexibility, novelty and innovation.

The third experiment explored whether the biculturals' advantages also gave them an advantage in the workplace by interviewing 100 Israelis living and working mainly in California's Silicon Valley. The researchers found that Israelis who identified with both their home and host cultures enjoyed higher promotion rates and more positive reputations among their colleagues.

While not an easy task, the researchers said that becoming a true bicultural holds the key to translating foreign experiences abroad into a tangible toolbox that bolsters one's creative ability and professional skill to the highest level.

The study, co-authored by Northwestern University's Adam Galinsky, was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.