Larry S. Persons, PhD
The unique thing about durian (the fruit) is not its hard shell that looks like the back of an ankylosaurus, or its weird pods of yellow custard that taste like nothing else on the planet. THE thing about durian is that you either love it or hate it.
My dad lived in Thailand for over 40 years, and he hated the stuff. He just couldn’t get past the wretched smell. My mom and my nanny, true lovers of durian, snuck it in from the fresh market and devoured it discreetly in our back yard.
Candor—from a Thai point of view—is the durian of all management principles touted by Netflix. Except that this time it’s the other way around. Farangs tend to love it, and Thais can’t get past the smell.
Candor (à la Netflix)
A tsunami of direct, honest communication is one of the backbones of Netflix’s innovative culture. It washes over the organization, surging freely both downward and upward. Everyone in every level of the company is expected to “say what they really think, with positive intent.” The Netflix way is simple: get feelings, opinions, and feedback out on the table where they can be dealt with.
Candor is one of the secrets to the company’s agility, efficiency, and speed. When everyone speaks frankly about behaviors that advance the company and behaviors that don’t, managers have an easier time overseeing direct reports. When giving and receiving feedback is frequent and commonplace, people learn faster and become more effective at what they do. Employees believe that continuous feedback loops make them much better at their jobs.
(Photo by Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images for Netflix)GETTY IMAGES FOR NETFLIX
The Netflix guidelines for open communication are as generous as they are few. Offer feedback freely—anywhere, anytime. Offer feedback in all directions, both upward and downward in the organization. Don’t seek to please the boss. For the sake of the company, be willing to challenge authority. Only say things about others that you would say to their face. Accept feedback as a friend that will help you excel at what you do. And resign yourself to the reality that sometimes feelings may get hurt. (If you’re Thai, I just felt you squirm in your seat.)
It sounds like a free-for-all, but it isn’t. Reed Hastings, founder and CEO, clarifies that “a culture of candor does not mean that you can speak your mind without concern for how it will impact others.”
Everyone in the company practices “Four A’s” for giving and receiving feedback (two for the giver and two for the receiver):
- Aim to assist (all feedback must be given with positive intent)
- Actionable (focus on what the person can do differently)
- Appreciate (when receiving feedback, fight the instinct to protect your ego; listen carefully and show appreciation for the feedback)
- Accept or discard (you are required to take the feedback seriously, but not required to follow it; in the end, make what you consider to be the best decision).
One more thing softens the atmosphere of bold communication at Netflix. The company weeds out (fires) ‘brilliant jerks,’ people who think they are so much smarter than everyone else that they criticize just to show their superiority. The company’s standard is to be ‘selflessly candid.’ In fact, ‘aiming to assist’ (#1 above) means using a calm voice and never giving criticism when you’re still angry.
Candor through a Thai Lens
No matter how much you sugarcoat it—for Thais—candor is a very bitter pill to swallow. In fact, most Thais would rather spit the pill right out.
Deep cultural values anchoring Thai facework dictate that open, forthright communication happens only on rare occasions. Thai face-saving protocols often prevent managers and employees alike from giving and receiving feedback that has real potential to take performance to another level.
And SO many cultural values get in the way. Most Thais practice high-context communication, where indirect speech is preferred over coming right out and saying something. They also have an aversion to direct negative feedback. In addition, most pockets of Thai society are profoundly hierarchical, so feedback almost always flows one way—downward. Because decision making is top-down versus consensual, members of Thai organizations are prone to feel like their feedback isn’t respected or relevant. And last, but not least, most Thais are highly allergic to anything that smacks of disagreement, debate, or confrontation. They want to smooth it over quickly or run for cover as fast as they can.
Can we all just stop for a second and acknowledge something? No Rules Rules was birthed in the soil of American individualism. Look at the culture map (below). Notice how closely Netflix culture shadows American culture, and then how gaping are the chasms between Netflix and Thai culture. The most obvious takeaway is that candor Netflix-style is going to be a massive stretch for most Thais.
Research from Erin Meyer, The Culture Map
Thais Are Not Alone
Note that even Netflixers sometimes refrain from speaking up. Why?
- They think their viewpoint won’t be supported.
- They don’t want to be viewed as ‘difficult.’
- They don’t want to get into an unpleasant argument.
- They don’t want to risk upsetting or angering their colleagues.
- They are wary of being called ‘not a team player.’
All these excuses make immediate sense to most Thais, especially when they are contemplating the frightening thought of offering feedback to bosses, or even to peers.
But let’s be clear. Thais are not alone in this, not by any stretch of the imagination. Most people (including you and me) dislike the experience of taking an unpopular stand or being criticized. We are always alert for danger signs of group rejection. Because survival is one of our most primitive needs, we seek safety in numbers.
Erin Meyer (Reed’s coauthor) explains: “If someone calls out a mistake you are making in front of your tribe, the amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain…sets off a warning: ‘This group is about to reject you.’ Our natural animalistic impulse in the face of this is to flee.”
On the other hand, research shows that receiving positive feedback releases oxytocin, the happy hormone a mother feels while nursing her newborn.
The Conundrum of Candor in All Things Thai
This is the part where I start sounding like I’m seriously doubtful that Netflix-style candor will ever take hold in the Kingdom of Thailand. But if we don’t notice the things getting in the way, how can we ever know?
Let’s consider, point by point, the pure tincture of candor à la Netflix and my response as someone who for decades has been studying ‘face’ in Thai leader-follower dynamics.
- Point: “Say What You Really Think (with Positive Intent). Just get feelings, opinions, and feedback out on the table where they can be dealt with.”
Good luck with that! This guideline is almost impossible to follow if you’re playing by the traditional rules of Thai facework. In most Thai circles, people who consistently say what they really think are commonly pushed out to the edges of the ‘ingroup’ and isolated. Seventy million Thais don’t know how to talk openly about their fears because being vulnerable with others is not safe behavior.
To truly innovate in future days, we Thais—collectively speaking—must find ways to remove the shame of speaking up. We must challenge and overcome the endemic assumption that to speak up is to suck up. When coworkers do speak up, we must refrain from judging them as shamelessly ‘promoting their own face’ (เสนอหน้า), ‘grabbing face’ (เอาหน้า), or ‘wanting to gain face’ (อยากได้หน้า). These pejorative labels emerged over past centuries because leaders were in the habit of rewarding privilege to fawning sycophants. Modern attempts to shame expressive colleagues are merely the spoiled fruit of autocratic leadership.
But effective leaders in the Digital Age haven’t the slightest interest in autocracies. They want to build meritocracies.
- Point: “Only say things about others that you would say to their face.”
What, the death of khwam krengjai? When frustrated by a leader or a colleague at work, Thais will—more often than not—stuff their feelings of dissatisfaction or disagreement. That is, until they find catharsis in gossiping sideways with peers. (Free tip: gossip is the language of the disempowered.)
But this raises an intriguing question: if innovative Thai organizations with nouveau approaches to management begin to truly empower people to speak up and exercise authority to make decisions, will gossip possibly trend downward? Just a thought.
- Point: “Most people intuitively understand that a simple feedback loop can help them get better at their jobs.”
Yeah, but I think countless Thai employees lack that perspective because they’re okay with the idea of being just “good enough.” Their goal is preservation, not development. As we noted in a previous blog, hiring and firing practices continue to reinforce such attitudes.
- Point: “The goal at Netflix is to help each other succeed, even if that means feelings occasionally get hurt… I find the best comments for my growth are unfortunately the most painful.”
Is it just me, or does this collide with a Buddhist worldview that regards suffering as a great enemy to be avoided at all costs? Just wondering.
In most Thai settings, if you offer valid feedback to someone (even with good intention) but it hurts his feelings, YOU are the villain. How exactly do we move beyond that? We must somehow untether our ideas and our arguments and our performance from our sense of self-worth (saksi). We must embrace the humility that says, “No one gets it right all the time.” And that includes top leaders. Especially leaders.
- Point: “When giving and receiving feedback is common, people learn fast and are more effective at work.”
Let’s embrace this one. But if it is true, what does it say about business environments where constructive feedback is scarce, or where it only flows downward in organizations? I think it says two things: our people are learning much more slowly than they could, and our leaders are chronically misinformed. Day after day, they continue to miss generous opportunities to keep learning.
- Point: “Don’t seek to please your boss.”
But so many Thai employees are pros at this! (เอาอกเอาใจเจ้านาย) They know that if you make a superior unhappy you can fall out of favor with him. It can be political death.
- Point: “Challenge authority.”
First of all, WHO DOES THAT?! And how well does it go when they try? In most Thai organizations feedback flows in one direction—downward. Ideas that are outside of the box are often buried, especially if they come from someone below in the hierarchy. The assumption is that the leader always knows best. To challenge that sacred rule is to ‘rip (ฉีกหน้า) the leader’s face,’ an almost unthinkable act that Thais swiftly judge with strong feelings of repugnance and distaste.
So, let’s cut to the chase. If the leader is always right, there are no better ideas below him. Plain and simple. This prominent charade is a clear and present danger to many Thai organizations in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment. It keeps them hopelessly hierarchical—top-heavy with authority to make decisions, but absent of diverse, fresh ideas that will help their organizations survive and thrive.
- Point: “Feedback anywhere, anytime.”
Netflix may need to ‘Netflex’ on this one. Anytime, anywhere throws all rules of Thai facework completely out the window. Instead, feedback sessions need to become frequent but formalized, casual but planned out, and open but guided.
There is no doubt that Thai values must shift toward greater candor if we want to boost creativity and innovation in organizations. But how?
Leaders must show the way forward. They must do more than just ask for feedback. They must clearly state that giving regular feedback across the organization is mandatory. It is expected behavior.
Leaders must also demonstrate to employees that it is safe—even desirable—to give feedback upwards in the organization. They can do this by receiving feedback from others with gratitude and belonging cues (‘Your feedback makes you a valuable member of this company’). This will help answer one of our most primal questions as human beings: ‘Are we safe here?’
Everyone will need to be coached about right and wrong ways to give feedback. Not everything goes. This is extremely important for the Thai scene, where giving open feedback gives everyone the heebie-jeebies.
We must take a long look in the mirror and realize that in the name of saving face we are often failing to do what is in the best interests of the business.
And we must passionately challenge a nugget of conventional wisdom: that group harmony is preserved by avoiding all difficult conversations. Here’s a new thought. What if ‘true harmony’ can only be attained by courageously working our way through valid disagreements?
Am I dreaming? Maybe. But sometimes the unthinkable comes to pass. In my father’s last year in Thailand, he finally tasted durian.
He loved it!