Expats Who Overcome ‘Experiential Blindness’ is Key to their Adaptability

“Experiential blindness.”  It’s a phrase that is mostly known to neuroscientists, psychologists, and nerds. A Google search will lead to only a few results, with many of them dated back a few years and published in actual books and industry reference materials. However, it’s about time that global mobility managers learn the concept, use it to their advantage if possible, and weed out their disastrous consequences on their assignees. Make no mistake about it:  experiential blindness may be little-known among the mainstream businesses, but their influence is considerable.

Sounding the alarm is Jon Harman, CORT global account manager, who wrote about its impact on assignees, especially when it comes to their adjustment period in their new place of employment. Harman did not originate the concept but listened first-hand to another expert, Lisa Feldman Barrett, who gave a TED Talk that practically revolutionized our understanding of our emotional processes. 

To put it simply, Barrett’s research showed that emotions such as anger, joy, and sadness are not automatic responses that are released by the brain because it has been triggered by an external stimulus. She argues that emotions come from a very complicated process: the brain analyzes the trigger or the event, comparing it with a hundred other experiences that it has processed, and understands the new event in line with the summary of that analysis.

Let’s use a dating scenario as an example. David gives Rose a bouquet of roses on their first date. Rose’s reaction within the first few seconds is one of happiness. She thanks David profusely and places the roses on her flower pot.

The normal analysis to this scenario would have been as follows:  “Flowers make Rose (or any woman) happy.” Barrett’s research goes deeper than that simplistic analysis. It says instead that Rose’s brain would have compiled the following concepts in a few seconds:

1)  Rose has dated men before.

2) Generally, the guys who give her roses on the first date turned out to be charming, smart, and financially capable gentlemen who are a good match for her.

3) Therefore, David is one of those good guys, and chances are he will give Rose a good time. It’s point no. 3 that actually makes Rose actually excited for the night — bottomline, she has good experiences with rose-bearing guys, and David just happened to one of them.

Relevant experience

In short, our emotional reactions are a response that is based on past and relevant experience. But what happens when we are thrown into the unknown, and are in a situation that has no precedent? That’s when we experience experiential blindness.

As Harman explains it, “So what happens when we find ourselves in a situation for which we have no relevant experience that might help us form an accurate prediction? The brain will continue to search for relevant experience but it is truly in the dark. We either settle on a poor prediction or find ourselves in the unsettling circumstance of not being able to generate a prediction.”

It is hard to think of an experience which we have not undergone before, especially as we grow older. Hamar does point out that generally, only toddlers are long-term residents in this particular cave of learning because they are just learning to get to know the world around them. They are encountering, for the first time, a mother’s touch, a drop of milk, the rough exterior of a wooden toy, or the sound of nursery music being played on YouTube. Their “blindness” compels them to learn.

Assignees may be adults—and educated, highly skilled, properly credentialed professionals at that. However, they may be among the rare few who can be subjected to experiential blindness, one tough situation at a time.

They relocate to a foreign country or region, and the cultural nuances, language, and office protocols might be far different from theirs. Their ability to draw upon relevant experience has a limit, and after they hit that spot, they have to start learning new things and possibly unlearning old paradigms and practices.

Asking questions

For example, some Asian cultures still value corporate hierarchy over a flat, egalitarian organization. They have been trained to let their elders or senior executives speak first in any meeting. They might deem it impolite to volunteer an opinion, unless directly asked. If they do have an issue with what a senior manager said, their recourse of action is to approach them privately. Objecting publicly or open confrontation would probably shock everyone in the room, and lead to their subtle ostracism from any decision-making group.

Now transfer an assignee from that kind of culture to one that is as openly collaborative and inclusive like some of the tech hubs in Silicon Valley. Everyone is asked to pitch their ideas in every meeting. The CEO might even have an open-door policy, which allows any staff to approach him with an idea or a complaint, regardless of their ranking, position, or length of tenure. Even if they were properly briefed, the Asian assignee would undergo “experiential blindness” for some time in that environment, precisely because it is radically different from the work culture in their own country. 

Their brain would constantly be processing situations they find themselves in, asking questions like:  “Hey, my colleague Jim raised his voice at the manager during the meeting, and it seems to be acceptable But how come it wasn’t acceptable when Jim did it again in the corridor when it was just the two of them talking?”

“Everybody’s throwing ideas during the group exercise. So, do I just speak my mind or let everybody finish before I say anything?”  “It looks like everyone is on equal footing here, even the managers. But the silver-haired founder does get special treatment. They don’t joke around him or question him openly about his decisions. Where do I draw the line?”

The extent to which an assignee overcomes their experiential blindness is key to their adaptability in their new workplace. Their adaptability and agility, in turn, are essential factors to their achieving success in their job. It behooves the global mobility manager to understand that the assignee may not have sufficient relevant experience to cope in their new workplace. They must be able to fill the gap and navigate their way from darkness to light. More of that in another article.