7 Difficult People You’ll Work With Abroad (and How to Deal)

8 years, 7 months ago - November 17, 2013
Whether you’re working for a global NGO or your company is looking to expand in an emerging market, leading a group on a project abroad can be difficult. You have to help your team members navigate a new culture, understand new business practices, and deal with a different sense of time.

And the challenges grow when you’re not in a major city but in a village or rural area, where you might find yourself working in tough conditions and dealing with issues of poverty, public health, and human rights. Even with the right preparation, your colleagues’ reactions to being out of their comfort zone can be unpredictable—and sometimes problematic.

After leading many global volunteer and business trips, I’ve seen many people in this situation and learned how to manage them when they aren’t conducting themselves properly. Here are some difficult colleagues I’ve encountered in the field—and how to deal so that you can get your team back on track.

1. The Pity Partier

Traveling the world, you’re bound to see different levels of poverty and development, and for some people, seeing this kind of hardship is new (and not easy to cope with). I had a colleague who would run around field sites bursting into tears and saying to people, “You poor thing!” and “How can you live like this? You’re so brave!” Meanwhile, people in the local community—who were perfectly happy with their lives—were wondering about her emotional well-being.

How to Deal

When people witness hardship for the first time, it can be an emotional experience, however, pitying the situation can add an extra hurdle to your work. Take your colleague aside and explain that, while a strong reaction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in the field it’s important to carry yourself professionally. Emphasize that many people are proud of what they have, even if it is very little, and that pity is not what’s needed. It may also be helpful to debrief with the colleague after hours to talk about the structural reasons for what’s going on in the community, and how he or she might be able to encourage change on a broader level.

2. The Revolutionary

You’re traveling in a village or field site, and the revolutionary colleague sees this as the chance to subvert the system. He talks loudly about the injustice of the situation, how wrong it is, and how he will start an uprising and lead the people to victory. Your local partners, though humoring the first few attempts at revolution, are now a little tired of having an outsider tell them how it should be.

How to Deal

In a private moment away from the group, explain to your colleague that it’s great to want to see things change, but it’s often hard to make that judgment call as an outsider, and our understanding of what is right may not always be what makes sense on the ground.

What’s more, being so vocal about it brings attention you don’t want and could even put community members at risk. In places where freedom of speech and government censorship still exist, local people could be questioned—or even imprisoned—for being around such open criticism. Especially in areas where human rights are an issue, remind your colleague that your delegation will likely have the freedom to leave, but the colleagues and communities you leave behind will not, and you don’t want anyone to face repercussions because of what is being said.

3. The Diva

This colleague is creating a scene in the field and making it all about herself. She complains about the standards of living in the field (loudly), demands better food and accommodations (even when your local partners went to great lengths to set them up), and throws a major fit when things don’t go her way (in front of everyone else). It’s causing embarrassment to the whole team and making your local colleagues go out of their way to please this colleague, instead of focusing on the work at hand.

How to Deal

It’s important to have a serious conversation and explain to your colleague that her behavior is complicating your work on the ground. It’s also key to acknowledge that you understand things are new and challenging, but that you’re asking everyone to be adaptable and flexible for the short amount of time you are in the field. If the situation gets really serious, you may want to offer the option of allowing her to leave (on her own dime, of course). This usually makes people think twice about their behavior—as most people would rather stay than have to go back home.

4. The Shutterbug

This colleague is thrilled to be abroad for work, but simply can’t stop snapping photos of everything (often without asking). While general shots of the team can be good for PR, snapping photos of every stray dog and small child really isn’t. Not to mention, taking in your business meetings and field visits only through the lens can make the community and local clients uncomfortable.

How to Deal

Have an open conversation about when it’s appropriate to use photography and when it might be intrusive or disrespectful. One strategy I’ve used is to ask what the person would feel like if a tourist started snapping photos of his home or mundane things back in the U.S.—it’d feel pretty intrusive, right? It’s also important to acknowledge that some cultures have different beliefs around photography (like believing your soul gets stolen). To be safe and respectful, encourage your colleague to always “ask before snapping.”

5. The Politician

Handshakes, smiles, and promises all around—this colleague is not only working on behalf of your company, but definitely networking for herself as well, and she’s not subtle about it. She’s snapping a classic “handshake” photo with every official you meet and posting on Instagram that they are “old friends. (One of my colleagues used to stake out high-level leaders we were meeting and jump in the photo with them before they’d realize what was happening.) Worse, though, she’s running around the field making promises to bring about change, start a business, or implement new programs to make herself look great—when there is no guarantee of it ever happening once she leaves.

How to Deal

Explain to her that, while working abroad can be a great time for networking, it’s not an opportunity for personal gain. Ask your colleague to keep your team’s mission and goals in mind, and take care of personal business on her personal time. Especially make sure she knows that making promises to get quick likeability now may actually make it more difficult to get work done on the ground. You don’t want your local colleagues disappointed, and it actually might make it more difficult for your team to return and follow up if local partners feel like you don’t deliver.

6. The Social Media Butterfly

With the rise of social media, this type of colleague has become all too common. Imagine your colleague puts up pictures of your field visit to a slum where you’re working on a microfinance project. In the field, he’s snapping pictures at random, taking selfies against the backdrop of a shanty town, and posting the photos on Facebook with captions like “destitute children” and “Have you ever seen such poverty?” Turns out, though, this is one of your local clients’ neighborhood, and she is likely to see his social media blitz.

How to Deal

Your company should have a social media code of conduct stating what’s OK (and not OK) to put out there in the world, and colleagues should be reminded of that policy. It’s important to emphasize that what you put on social media is usually guaranteed to be discovered (even if you delete it) and could have professional repercussions. Of course, social media’s not a bad thing—and you should work with your PR person or department to craft tweets and posts that share moments from the trip and that raise awareness in a creative, respectful way. Definitely encourage your team member to be a part of that process. 

7. The Bohemian Explorer

Your colleague has really warmed to the culture—so much so that she’s adopted traditional dress. And not just an accessory, but a full-on traditional outfit for a meeting with your local community leaders for the first time. Your local partners are wearing business casual button-downs, or more formal business dress. The meeting is awkward, to say the least. 

How to Deal

This is a tricky one. At some receptions and events, local dress can be encouraged and even celebrated if you wear it well, but on an initial meeting or field visit, traditional dress can come off as mocking or aloof.

In these everyday meetings, explain to your colleague that since you are representing your company or organization, it is important to dress professionally according to universal business standards. You can encourage, as an alternative to the full ensemble, wearing a local piece of local jewelry or a tie with a local print, but it shouldn’t go further that than during an important meeting.


I’ve witnessed all of these colleagues in the field and often had to mediate between a team member and the community we are visiting. Most of the time, you’ll find that people mean well and will take mistakes with a light heart, but sometimes the situations can be challenging. As the one leading the team, you shouldn’t stress out or lose your cool. There will always be unexpected reactions and difficult colleagues, and but there are ways to manage it and still have a great experience in the field.


Text by The Daily Muse

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