How to Be a Good Expat Leader in Thailand: Part 1

Larry S. Persons, PhD

It All Starts with Trust

Think back. Remember your feelings the first time you saw the boundless horizon of an ocean?

Moving abroad to work in an unfamiliar culture is a lot like standing on a virgin beach and gazing at a delightful expanse of water. The views are unique and spectacular. Many of us seem content to walk a stretch of sand, dip our toes in the surf, snap a few photos, and leave. Others charge into the surf, getting fully wet but ignoring things below the surface of the water. And then there’s a rare few who dive down to explore the limitless beauty of the underwater world.

It’s not easy to fully appreciate the magic of a country and its people. To understand a place is to resonate with its undercurrents, to get a visceral sense of the many layers of what is going on. Achieving a robust understanding of a secondary culture can take a lifetime. It means teasing apart history, values, and cultural frameworks in all their textures and nuance.

But for many foreigners in Thailand’s business community, cultural intelligence has a decidedly practical aim.

They simply want to be better leaders.

This is the first in a series of articles that will break down some common frustrations many expats encounter in Thailand—even some who’ve lived here for decades. I will highlight insights and explain behaviors that should serve you well when interacting with Thais. You will discover that if you forge better relationships with those around you, you’ll be happier and more effective in your role at work. So, come along as we dive down beneath the surface of Thai society.

Trust is Currency

You have many personnel problems that need attention. Your Thai colleagues need to be more assertive. They need to benefit from the constructive feedback you give them. You’ve struggled to establish clear and open communication with your team. Deadlines come and go, with your colleagues producing excuses rather than results.

These issues are all serious, but please hear my next sentence. To address any one of these challenges, you must first build a foundation of trust with your Thai team members. All healthful progress in teambuilding depends on this rock-solid foundation of trust. And that means understanding what you’ve likely been doing wrong up to this point.

Begin by examining your assumptions. In much of Europe and North America, professional relationships thrive around the ideal of shared competence. It’s called ‘cognitive trust.’ It comes from knowing that you can rely upon the other person’s capability and work ethic. Efficiency and results take center stage, and people rigidly compartmentalize personal life from corporate life because it’s bad form to mix those two worlds in the workplace.

For most Thais, trust comes about differently. Things like personal information, reputation, status, and ‘face’ are really important when setting the table for trust. Relationships are built on personal comfort and proven allyship. A powerful emotional component grounds each partnership.

And all of this takes TIME. A popular saying captures this: “The length of a racetrack is what proves the horse. Time is what proves what a person is like” (ระยะทางพิสูจน์ม้า กาลเวลาพิสูจน์คน).

If you want to build trust with Thais, you cannot skip over the X factor of time. Thais lend trust to you little by little, and only as you give them good reason to do so. And they’re not focusing primarily on your competence. They are taking time to judge your character. They are looking for signs of empathy and kindness (nam jai, or ‘water from the heart’). Professional trust simply takes longer to achieve in a Thai context, but it also tends to create bonds much closer than the relationships you see in the cognitive trust camp.

Which approach to building trust is superior? It depends entirely upon context. The better method will always be the one that more people in the group subscribe to. Just as a rowing crew glides smoothly through waters when they work in unison, so team members in a professional setting will always perform better when they buy into a similar approach to building trust. If your team is rowing in one direction but you prefer another, you’re still the odd one out. And it’s you who needs to get with the program.

You’ll find it easier if you learn to see trust as a process, rather than a destination. It takes time to build, and it always needs to be honored and nurtured.

A word of caution. Don’t be misled by surface displays of politeness. Although you receive smiles and warm welcomes from your Thai team members, try not to view these displays as confirmation that you have won their trust. These forms of polite behavior are a truly charming part of Thai culture, but they are little more than simple formalities in a setting where the rules of ‘face’ encourage deference to status. To be fair, your colleagues may actually be giving you signals to engage with them on a friendlier level. But you need to reciprocate appropriately for the exchange to spin a thread of trust.

So, take a personal interest in people around you. Start conversations with your N-1s on topics that aren’t related to work. Make time for lunches with them, or even the occasional evening at a karaoke bar. Share your personal side, and ask about their lives away from the office. Let them know that you aren’t all business—that you also care about them, you’re on their side, and you place high value on harmony in the workplace.

At first this approach will feel weird: There’s work to be done! Why waste time making small talk? Conversations of a personal nature will almost certainly violate your own sacred rules about never mixing personal life with work.

But work—something you say you care deeply about—is best accomplished by building a highly functioning team, and in Thailand this is how we do the dance. When Thais have a foreign colleague or manager who takes a sincere interest in them, it can make a world of difference in how they approach their work.

Once you achieve a modicum of ‘affective’ trust with your Thai team, you will find your working relationships with them to be much more satisfying. Your colleagues will be noticeably more open with you, more willing to speak up, and more amenable to your influence as leader of the group.

Trust is the wellspring that feeds all sustainable progress in the workplace. Only by drawing from the waters of that well will you achieve the high standards you are shooting for. A buzz of affective trust on a work team will give integrity to your attempts to encourage initiative, boost motivation, or provide constructive feedback. Without affective trust, those very same efforts will flounder, as if you were trying to withdraw money from an empty account.

To achieve the highest forms of productivity when working with Thais, you have to win their hearts. Dai jai, as they say. And that pathway meanders far from the stiff, emotionless, constraining approach of cognitive trust.

In Thailand, trust is currency. Like everything else of genuine value, this currency takes time to accumulate. Business leaders often claim that their most valuable asset is their people. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the urgency of the present moment and act like we mean that.

This series is intended as a practical guide to better leadership for expats in Thailand. For more on the cultural background of the issues I raise here see my book,  The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital.