Leading Through Crisis as an Expat: Three Key Intercultural Mistakes Expat Leaders Make in Crisis

Following is part one of the series Leading Through Crisis as an Expat.  In this series we will explore the cultural implications of working and living abroad through national crises.  My family and I lived in Japan through a 5 month personal health crisis, the H1N1 Pandemic, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and in Korea during the ascension and subsequent unrest of Kim Jung Eun’s first days.  No crisis is easy.  But a crisis in a foreign land is even more difficult and exhausting.  Click here for more studies in leading through crisis.



As we all move through the uncertainty of COVID-19 globally, I am reminded of the lessons learned during that time.  Many of those lessons are applicable today.  By far the most important experience was understanding the implications of crisis and stress on the chain of information in a global, multicultural organization.  It was here we made most of our mistakes.  We all have preferences and habits in how we work.  Under stress those preferences change.  In addition, fundamental cultural differences become hurdles between foreign managers and local teams.These are the lessons my teams and I learned.


On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, I was on the 13th floor of my office in the Ochanomizu district of Tokyo with vendors listening tohearing a proposal.  I was relatively new in my position as an expat leader.  The shaking started slowly and was a common thing…so we kept the meeting going.  After about 30 seconds, the building began to rock back and forth more than a meter in each direction.  Soon the building’s movement became circular, like a top that was losing steam.  A printer fell off of a shelf.  A drinking water tower toppled to the floor.  Sirens began wailing outside.  The world descended into the chaos of The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

I had never felt an earthquake until I moved to Tokyo.  It was uncomfortable.  However, the Japanese are very nonchalant about earthquakes, typically just glancing about then going right back to work.  When I saw panic in their eyes as the shaking increased in time and magnitude, it was clear that this was not the usual Tokyo Tremblor.

Instead of diving below tables as we were taught, we all stared at each other as the rocking of the building intensified to a level that caused the building to creak and moan.  Inexplicable tearing sounds came from the walls of our sturdy, yet older, building.

The world saw the video of buildings collapsing, waves washing towns out to sea, the Fukushima nuclear plant exploding, and immense human suffering.  It was a terrifying time. The weeks and months that followed were anything but normal.

As an essential healthcare business we had to operate.  However, all work places were closed for a few weeks.  There was no history of “working from home” in our business so teams didn’t know how to get the work done.

As we worked from home/remotely, the language barrier became a critical problem. Work was at a standstill at times because I don’t speak Japanese and my team had good but limited English skills. Things weren’t getting communicated and my team – out of frustration and the need to keep moving forward – would move on in Japanese without including me. I needed to adjust. I needed to be clearer, consise, and easy to understand. If I didn’t, my team (and my job) were at risk.

We found our “crisis recovery mode”, eventually.  But we lost a lot of precious time and  productivity in the middle of a national emergency.  Our team took home a lot of lessons during that time.  In a nutshell here is what we learned:

  1. You may underestimate the intercultural effects of your team’s performance during crisis.
    Cultural lenses distort and blur our viewpoints.  You may be surprised with the reactions of your team.  They may become highly emotional, or just the opposite.  They may assume a stiff upper lip, or tend to gather in small groups to check on each other and provide emotional support.  For them, the crisis may be deeply personal as they worry about the implications to their homeland, their families and their wellbeing.  Or they may focus solely on the business.   Focus on communicating with your team and trying to see the crisis through their eyes.  Ask just enough questions to gain understanding of their mindset.  Be there for them and ask the team to have patience as you all figure out next steps together. “Seek to understand” is critical in leading through a crisis.
  2. Language barriers hinder communication differently during crisis.  Complications may arise if different primary languages are spoken by your teams.  The communication comfort level you may have achieved with your team will change with the introduction of stress.  We are less likely to monitor our thoughts and words carefully.  Our direction may become curt or less detailed.  Language may become more direct and tones change.  If using a secondary language, word finding may become more difficult and exchange of information is hindered.  This change can be confusing to a multicultural team.  Be mindful of your words and ask directly if the team understands.  Be deliberate in the use of simple, easy to understand language.
  3. Priorities may differ during crisis in multicultural settings.
    In the immediate aftermath of a crisis you may find that priorities differ.  For me, when the shaking subsided, the first thing I could think of was my family at home. I had an overwhelming need to know they were safe.  I quickly found out that my colleagues were busy implementing the emergency plan (all in Japanese which I couldn’t read) and my questions about their families’ well-being were falling on deaf ears.  I was dumbfounded.  Have you called your wife?  Have you checked on your son?  Your team’s immediate focus may be on something completely different than your own.Remember, it’s all based in culture.  Breathe deep in the immediate aftermath and be mindful.  Focus on understanding.  Listen. Have grace with your team and with yourself.

In my case, during the aftermath of the earthquake I wanted (needed) to talk through my own feelings and to see how the team was responding to the events.  I couldn’t get the team to talk much about it. I become more vocal in trying to get information.  They became even more quiet. From a cultural context, in some East Asian countries, there is a silent strength that comes during times of crisis.  It is a time to listen, not talk.  My team was following the direction of the government, their elders and others.  They were looking for specific direction, not the processing of feelings.  After all, they had spent their lives in the shadow of the impending “big one” that could come.  For me, it was the first time I had given serious thought to an earthquake of this size.  The more I tried to impress my own cultural responses into the mix, the more the team shut me out.  It was certainly not with ill intent.  We were all processing at a different rate and focusing on different things.

Nine years later my team and I reviewed the events of that day over a beer we laughed about how we all processed everything that day.  They said things like “Tom-san, I cannot understand why you kept asking me about my wife…” or “Tom-san, we were all worried but we just didn’t talk about our every worry.”  With nine years more experience I could clearly see how these professionals had been processing.  They were working through it at a speed, intensity and rate that was the product of their upbringing, education and cultural norms.

It’s ok that our cultural lenses are different.  But in times of crisis we have to take the extra moment and be deliberate in how we assess and address those lenses.  Taking a deep breath and reflecting, you can get on the same page with your teams quickly.

Cranberry Leadership helps expat executives find success, faster.  Using the latest in cultural assessment tools + our experience living and working overseas + a bespoke approach to solving your intercultural leadership difficulties, Cranberry helps you find your footing on your way to quicker successes and fewer critical errors. 

Schedule a free discovery call today!



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