Jul 16

Intercultural Awareness – A Crucial Part Of Caring Leadership

Jennifer Rustige
Jennifer Rustige is a psychologist. Her main areas of interest are people development and intercultural competencies.

Thailand is beautiful and so are its people. They are beautiful for their gentle and kind way to treat each other, for their sensitivity, for their smiles and for their mindfulness not to hurt each other. All these wonderful attitudes on the other hand are frequently causing many challenging situations in the field of leadership whenever the Thai and Western culture are supposed to form an effective unity.

When I came here I already knew some cultural basics, so I thought it should not be too difficult to get along. In my attempt to be constantly conscious of my behavior and to prevent wrong behavior on my part at all cost, I – after careful deliberation – approached my colleague and friend with the following request (which I found particularly foresightful by the way):

“Say, could you please let me know if I do something really impolite? I don’t want to hurt or embarrass people.” My dear friend shook her head frantically: “No, I cannot tell you!” she explained. “That would be very impolite.”

Well, I guess she is right. But then how are we going to find out? Behaving in the right way is a great challenge in a foreign culture like Asia and even more important for leaders who come here to create value and effectively manage people. Caring leadership in Asia therefore is crucial in two respects:

  1. Caring in general implies openness, mindfulness, support and a genuine interest in your people. In Asia it necessarily has to cover intercultural awareness as well.
  2. Caring in the proper meaning of the word is essential in the Thai culture.

Why does caring leadership carry such great weight in Thailand? Geert Hofstede, the famous Dutch organizational sociologist, gives us some insight into the underlying differences of cultures. In his research from 1967 to 1972 he identified four and later in 1984 a fifth dimension which differentiate cultures. While there are nearly no differences in the scores he assigned to Germany and Thailand along the dimension of “Uncertainty Avoidance”, the scores for “Power Distance”, “Individualism”, “Masculinity” and “Long-Term Orientation” are differing a lot. What does this mean in concrete terms?

Germany for example has a much higher score on “Individualism” which indicates that Germans are more likely to live an individual life detached from community while Thai people feel a strong group cohesion and responsibility for each other’s well-being. Caring is one of their most important values in life. Thai people frequently make sure their friends and families are all right and if there are any problems occurring they will do everything to help and solve the problem. This explains their focus on care in business and their expectation to be cared for by their leader as well. To give another example Thailand has a much higher score on “Power Distance”, indicating that the extent to which less powerful members accept and expect that power is distributed unequally is much higher than in Germany. This explains why it is hard to find out about the opinion of your Thai employees. You can easily anticipate the clashes that are hidden here, ready to jump out of the proverbial cake and make life hard for both Thai and Western colleagues.

What are the reasons we have such difficulties becoming intercultural competent? One concept I would like to steal from a friend who has been living here for two years already is the so-called “dictionary approach”. We tend to translate one culture into another like we do it with simple words. Good is dee, yes is chai, and rice is khao. Easy enough! Nevertheless – and not only here in Thailand – expatriates come across encounters and situations when the dictionary approach is doomed to failure.

Here the two main reasons that I found over time:

  1. We don’t see it all. A very vivid and widely used model is the “Iceberg model” (which goes back to many different researchers like Robert Kohls, Sonja Sackmann or Edgar Schein). It draws our attention to the fact, that there are already a lot of things to see above the surface of a culture: Another language, new food, different clothes and traditions. There are actually so many obvious elements that keep us busy to cope with that we don’t even think about having a second, closer look. Let me give you an example: We use our dictionary approach to the topic of greeting and are proud to quickly find out that where we are shaking hands, Thai people fold their hands in front of their body and nod. But under the surface there is more. There are many different ways for them to do the “wai” (this is how they call the bow) depending on whom they are facing and the relationship they have with this person. Enough space for sensitive mistakes as you can imagine.  Actually the aspects under the surface are the crucial elements of culture. You will find values, believes, attitudes, world-views and perceptions down there. The main reason misunderstandings occur is the failure to understand and recognize these parts of culture and the layers that compose them, as well as their influence on each other. We apply our dictionary approach to what we see above the surface, but then tend to interpret what we see with our own values and ideas. Don’t forget: What sank the Titanic was the part of the iceberg below the surface.
  2. The second reason why the dictionary approach often fails is that there are actually things that cannot be translated. Things like feelings, concepts and (very important!) even humor. Did you ever try to explain to someone just WHY you find a joke particularly funny? Well, I did. And here is the result: Mission Impossible. While western humor is often subtle and sarcastic, the Thai humor is more straight and direct. And concerning feelings I just gave up on finding the exact translation for a feeling that was described to me by some Thai friends the other day. It was actually a combination of four different feelings I know, but they have a word for the assembled presence of all these at the same time.

Taking a closer look at the business environment, it is also due to those hidden values and attitudes that western managers frequently fail to establish a productive working relationship with their Thai employees from day one. Executive coach Jean-Francois Cousin conducted profound research in this area, surveying 110 companies interviewing 28 Thai and foreign business leaders in Thailand. He found that although both cultures are ready to work hard and perform at their best, it is the small things that prevent multicultural teams from being successful. While Western managers put their focus on goal orientation, accountability and analytical thinking, Thai employees set their priority on care for each other, saving face and avoiding conflicts. A very suitable sentence that came up in Cousin’s interviews which I would like to quote was:

“In Thailand people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

So to get their loyalty and support you have to be genuinely interested in their lives and show that you care. Actually something that should be taken for granted not only in Thailand in my opinion.

Now with all this room for mistakes and misunderstandings, what can we do to be successful in interpersonal affairs, both private and professional, no matter if we find ourselves on another continent or just amidst a family-celebration of a new friend? Here are some suggestions:

Be an attentive and sensitive observer – If people are not likely to inform you about your mistakes one way is to observe them and spot behaviour that frequently seems to deviate from what you know. If possible find more experienced peers and ask them to share their knowledge.

Be aware and interested – Being aware of the fact that there is much more below the surface than we can see is essential to a smooth integration into the new culture. As soon as you know some people a bit better ask them to explain the background of particular habits and beliefs. Being interested in that culture of course makes it more fun!

Be open and flexible – Openness to new perspectives and values is a first and important step. Second and even more important is the flexibility and willingness to adapt those to your own system of values. Otherwise every interaction will turn out to be a role-play which is exhausting for you and does not improve the situation.

In my case my curiosity helped me a lot. Fortunately I found myself in a team with many great people who are always willing to answer my questions and who are exceptionally patient with me while I am learning to be Thai. I am very grateful for that and am constantly looking for ways to give back to them.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 16th, 2010 at 01:59 and is filed under Human Resources, Leadership. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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  1. May says:

    Dear Jenny,

    Great article! Fun and educational!
    As a colleague, your presence in our team was truly invaluable. We will miss you so much.
    I think in any cross-cultural relationship the most important thing is not to focus on your differences but rather on the traits that you have in common or that lead you to get along well. And beyond everything else in relationship how-to books, use your heart and not your head. Thank you for all the good times and the stories we shared. By the way, I do find your jokes funny :)