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When Culture Needs to be Challenged
21-Sep-05 [ by Larry Chao ] 13679 Read and 1 Comment

While understanding and adapting to Thai culture is important‚ it is even more important for expatriate managers to know when and how to go against the grain to achieve results‚ write Larry Chao.

Expatriate executives arriving in Thailand face a dilemma: Just how much do you need to blend into Thai culture to manage effectively? On one hand‚ a certain degree of assimilation is required to facilitate change and achieve results. On the other hand‚ too much assimilation and you fit in and become part of the status quo.

Take‚ for example‚ Don Watson [pseudo-name] a 42?year-old U.S. expatriate executive sent to Thailand by his multinational employer to lead its local subsidiary. As part of his orientation‚ Watson received a two-day immersion course on how to work within Thai culture. He learned about all the ?dos and don?ts? and the importance of harmony‚ hierarchy and relationships.

This training served Watson well. He promoted good will and avoided conflict wherever possible. His popularity grew and his direct reports were eager to work with him. Yet despite his good relationships‚ Watson had difficulty cajoling his staff to execute and deliver on promises. He was inconsistent meeting budget for six consecutive quarters‚ citing the laid back Thai culture as his primary excuse. But by the middle of the following year‚ his company terminated his contract unexpectedly and he was sent packing.

?Expatriate executives often complain that traditional western management practices like challenging the boss or giving constructive feedback do not work in Thailand‚? says Busba Virochpoka‚ Customer Management Director for True Corporation. ?What they fail to realize is that they can be accomplished‚ but not in the same way as in the West.?

Understanding local culture is essential for creating effective communication and interpersonal relationships. It allows expatriates to achieve results within acceptable norms.

Adds Busba‚ ?expatriate managers‚ for example‚ are used to giving subordinates direct feedback on performance‚ but here a more subtle method is required so that the Thai subordinate understands the message‚ but does not lose face.?

But what if staff do not respond? Do you acquiesce and patiently wait for results? In the case of Don Watson‚ most multinationals do not tolerate slow burn performance. Success is measured quarter by quarter. There are no exceptions for poor local economic situations or cultural constraints.

?Adapting Thai management style does not always work‚? admits Busba. ?Sometimes you?ve got to ruffle a few feathers to achieve results. You?ve got to create the right amount of discomfort to effect change‚ without wrecking havoc.?

Whatever the style‚ a universal set of values should govern how executives work with other people‚ chief among them being respect and dignity. Practicing these values enables even gritty management approaches‚ such as challenging the boss‚ managing poor performance and even implementing painful layoffs‚ to be implemented succesfully.

A case in point is Carlos Ghosn‚ who rescued Nissan Motors in Japan from the brink of bankruptcy six years ago. Today‚ Nissan enjoys a 10% operating profit margin and a line-up of popular new model cars‚ including Altima and the Z-car series.

Granted‚ Nissan was in dire straits at the time Ghosn took over in 1999. While the entrenched Japanese management was open to change‚ achieving it was not easy. Along the way‚ Ghosn challenged the ingrained Japanese work culture.

For example‚ Ghosn replaced tedious‚ consensus-based decision-making with fact-based performance indicators that prescribed what needed to be done. He defied the chain of command and opened up two-way communication throughout the organization. He mixed management layers and functions in group problem-solving. Rather than letting personal relationship dictate performance‚ he demanded individual accountability.

In the process‚ Ghosn rubbed many people the wrong way. He was also forced to make personnel changes to long-time favorites. But without making these tough decisions‚ Nissan would not have had enough traction for change.

Such a clash with culture would often spell disaster. But through it all‚ Ghosn was fair and treated people with respect. As a result‚ he side-stepped cultural backlash and revitalized the once beleaguered automobile company. By the time he was through‚ he had set the company on a new course and instilled in it a new passion for performance and intolerance for mediocrity. The luster associated with the Nissan brand name had been restored.

Expatriate managers here in Thailand can learn a lot from Ghosn?s experience. While it is important to understand the local culture‚ it is equally important not to assimilate into it at the expense of producing results. ?You cannot tolerate mediocrity,? says Busba. ?You cannot replace achieving results with being popular.?

Larry Chao is managing director of Chao Group Limited, an organization change and training consultancy based in Bangkok and New York (

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