Much has been written about long-term expatriate assignments, but for many of us, a more common “assignment” is the short-term business trip — that four-day jaunt to Dubai or the there-and-back trip to Buenos Aires. Too often, these whirlwind treks leave us numb. As we move from one hotel chain to another and order the same Starbucks drink in London that we do in Shanghai or Tokyo, it can feel like just another business trip as opposed to a personally meaningful cross-cultural adventure.
Despite the inherent fatigue and the surface appearance of monotony, business travel can be more than just getting work done in a new location. Yes, it can be exhausting — both physically and emotionally. But it can also be stimulating — so much so that some people return from business trips energized with a new set of knowledge and a different perspective on their work. Through our own experiences as well as those we’ve interviewed, coached, and worked with, we’ve identified some of the top benefits of short-term business travel.
First, traveling abroad can build your confidence. Traveling anywhere — especially across cultures — is an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone. Sometimes this means having to behave in a way that’s unnatural or awkward to you, but you know is required in the new setting, like being more deferential or using small talk. Stretching your comfort zone might also mean doing something that scares you a bit, like going to a country you never imagined visiting — or where you don’t know the language at all — and successfully navigating the experience. There are many challenges of international short-term travel and successfully conquering them can be a great confidence-booster.
Spending time in a foreign country can also expand your creativity. In fact, research studies have shown that people are often at their most creative and “cognitively flexible” when spending time in a different setting. Encountering difference in a new place — even in the simplest objects like traffic signs — can expand your mind and open you up to more possibilities. Not only that, but when you are forced to solve problems (like how to place an order when every item on the menu looks the same, or how to get to a critical meeting on time when transit workers are on strike), your brain can’t rely on what it already knows. It must experiment and innovate. The most immediate benefit to your company may simply be that you will see innovations and ways of operating that you’ve never thought of before, and you can then bring that knowledge back home.
What’s more, international travel can also enhance your capacity to handle unexpected and potentially uncomfortable situations, a life skill that will come in handy even after you return home. On a short-term trip, you’re likely going to find yourself in a challenging or unanticipated situation or two. Perhaps you’re at a dinner meeting and encounter unfamiliar protocols in eating, gift-giving, or choosing the right place to sit. Or maybe you have to give a presentation and must quickly learn what to do — and not do — to fit in with the local communication style. It’s one thing to read about these differences in a book or an article, but something else entirely to navigate them in person and in real time.
In fact, short-term travel can often test people more than long-term assignments. Consider that companies don’t usually offer the support that comes with expat gigs, such as cultural coaching and language training — but employees may still have very specific objectives they must accomplish in a short amount of time. With so little room for a learning curve, employees can feel like they’ve been thrown into the deep end and must immediately learn to sink or swim. Though business trips may be shorter, they can show you very quickly what you’re made of.
As a result, international travel can also instill a sense of empathy for your foreign-born colleagues and employees. You may not have noticed the struggles they’ve experienced in adapting to your culture, but when the tables are turned and you’re the one adapting — even on a short-term basis — you begin to relate to their experience and therefore better understand and feel more compassion for what they’re going through. Because empathy is such an important component to building cross-cultural relationships, even a short business trip can help lay the groundwork for future success leading global teams.
Finally, traveling abroad can whet your appetite for future international experience, particularly if you haven’t had the opportunity before. Think of it as a low-stakes trial: You can meet new people, learn about and experience new food and customs, and maybe even practice a new language — without the long-term commitment and major life disruption that an expat assignment brings.
Business travel is often anything but glamorous, but by focusing on the potential benefits, you can get more out of your time abroad. Not only will you have a much more meaningful personal experience than is immediately apparent, but you can also use it to build resilience, harness your inner creativity, and deepen your awareness and understanding of the rest of the world.
This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was coauthored with Melissa Hahn
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of the book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process (HBR Press, 2013) and is currently writing a new book about how to stretch outside your comfort zone – at work and in your everyday life.
Follow Andy on Twitter at @andymolinsky.
Melissa Hahn helps people navigate cultural differences in relocation, education, and family life. She is the author of the intercultural children’s book Luminarias Light the Way (2014).
Follow Melissa on Twitter @SonoranHanbok.