How to Be a Good Expat Leader in Thailand: Part 2

Larry S. Persons, PhD


A Delicate Balance: Giving Performance Feedback to Thais

This is Part 2 of our series on How to Be a Good Ex-pat Leader in Thailand. To read Part 1, where we focus on establishing a foundation of trust, click here.

Years ago, I was grabbing dinner at a food court when I spotted a large stainless-steel drinking water dispenser. I thought, “Free water, I’ll take it!” I snatched up a nice, clean glass, held it under a spigot, and pressed the button for water. Just a few drops came out.

I tried it again, pressing even harder. Nothing. I tried a second spigot. Same thing. It was a mystery because right in front of me I could see beads of condensation telling me there was cold water in that container.

Frustrated, I turned to a food court employee and said, “Hey, do you need to refill the drinking water?” He looked at me like I was a brick short of a full load, picked up a glass, pressed the dispenser button, and out gushed beautiful, cool water.

“How did you do that?” I asked in wonder.

“Like this,” he said. “Gently push the button in half-way.”

Technicians in some little-known water dispenser factory had drilled holes off-center in such a way that a gentle touch availed much, but a forceful push availed nothing.

For me, that was simply counterintuitive. My personal style is to give 100% of my effort to everything I do (just ask my wife). If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing full throttle. Maintain clarity and don’t hold back. “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.”

Unfortunately, intuition sometimes betrays us. Badly. In fact, at times it does little more than to mark the boundaries of a “box” that is limiting our success.

The Problem with Performance Evaluations

All cultures believe in the value of constructive criticism. It’s just that they disagree significantly on what is constructive versus destructive.

I am often asked by business leaders, “How are you supposed to give negative feedback to Thai employees?” The question is often followed by frustrated descriptions of typical employee responses to the bad news. Awkward silence. Loss of eye contact. No acknowledgement. Quietly slinking away. And then a general frosty sense that things are not okay.

Is that as good as it gets? What’s going on?

First, let’s agree together that every employer, manager, or supervisor has a legitimate right to set and enforce performance standards. No company—not even companies 100% Thai in composition—can stay competitive without exercising the right to expose underperformance and challenge their people to do better. So even if all Thai employees were to act inexorably allergic to negative feedback (a ridiculous thought), that would not stop managers from having to deliver the bad news when necessary. No one gets a complete “pass.” Culture or no culture, companies need employees to be accountable, to recognize their mistakes and work hard to improve.

But now let’s set the cultural context. Reliable cross-cultural research tells us that most Thais—when compared with dozens of other nationalities from around the globe—despise confrontation and will do almost anything to sidestep or run from it. In fact, Thais are some of the least confrontive people in the whole, wide world. (Let’s save that for another blog.)

Tap into your empathy here. Pretend for a moment that you are Thai. Here’s the reality: whenever you find yourself in a confrontive situation, it pretty much throws you headlong into powerful feelings of anxiety. Not a good place to be. You are on instant high alert, grasping for your coping mechanisms. Like that feeling when you’re waking up from a bad dream, and you’re just hoping that somehow, some way, the situation will resolve itself and homeostasis will soon be restored. Why?

Confrontation is bad. Harmony is good. Period.

Now imagine that the focus of that confrontation is you and your failure to deliver in some way. Can you see how that ups the ante?

I think that people in general dislike the experience of having their shortcomings thrown into the bright rays of a spotlight. But many, many Thais—for reasons I will not attempt to fully explain here—are extremely embarrassed when their failures are called out. When criticized, they find it almost impossible to practice the objectivity of separating who they are from what they have done. In other words, when you say, “What you did was not enough,” they hear something quite different: “YOU are not enough.” You say, “That was not good.” They hear, “YOU are not good.” Under these lousy ground rules for interpreting criticism, if they suggest an idea and it gets shot down, guess what? It’s not just the idea that’s problematic. It’s THEM.

These are classic responses of anyone who has been socialized from an early age with unhealthy doses of shame. And it’s not just Thais who know that feeling. Shame makes you want to hide.

Less is More

None of what I just described is likely to change anytime soon, so one of the smartest business decisions you can make when giving your Thai employees negative feedback is to meet your them where they are. But how?

In short, when giving negative feedback, less is generally more. Thais prefer indirect messages. The more you can soften the message and deliver it with empathy, the more you will achieve your desired results.

Many foreign business leaders come from an environment where time is money and being frank is a virtue. They have trouble adjusting to a more delicate, indirect approach expected in countries like Thailand.

When these leaders give one of their Thai employees plain feedback and then fail to see the improvement they were hoping for, many assume either that the original message was lost in translation due to a language barrier, or the employee simply doesn’t care enough to produce better results. At that point they reason that a more forceful delivery of feedback should settle the issue. It’s time to deliver the message loud and clear and let the chips fall where they may. That way they can determine once and for all whether the employee has what it takes.

The logic is sound, but it is based on the same faulty assumption I made at that water dispenser. We must keep in mind a key principle: sometimes force gets in the way of content. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon—even those of us who come from European or North American countries where direct feedback is the norm.

Consider this scenario. A customer complains about a product or service you provide and sends you a one-paragraph email explaining what your company needs to do better. The customer may have a legitimate beef, but let’s now change one variable. Imagine the same email sent to you, but with EVERY WORD OF IT IN CAPS. The content is precisely the same, but your mind processes it very differently. You instantly conclude that this is a person who cannot be reasoned with, someone who is not worth trying to please.

Issuing a command or a criticism too forcefully with Thais is like writing to them in all-caps. Their failure to respond is not a reflection of their true ability. It’s more an indication that they are no longer motivated to give you their best effort. Remember, if you want to work with Thais, you’ve got to win their hearts.

The Long and Winding Road to Success

Which means its time to ask yourself a crucial question. What is your “end game?” What are you really trying to achieve by giving negative feedback?

I’m going to take a wild guess here that your ultimate goal in giving negative feedback is to stir a positive response—a call to action—in that employee. You would like to entice them to change, for their own good and for the good of your organization. If this is true, you must keep a laser focus on that ultimate goal.

Let’s be honest, sometimes when you are direct and forceful it’s your frustration and anger spilling over. You’re just pissed at a lot of things that aren’t going right, and today ‘somebody’s gonna pay!’ That approach is cathartic for you, but it loses sight of your end game.

Take your emotional needs out of the equation. Revisit the basic rules of communication. Your message is not the words coming out of your mouth. Your message is how those words are processed and received. When giving negative feedback, we must be receiver oriented.

If you are aware of the high value most Thais place on saving face, it’s easier to understand why being too straightforward is counterproductive. Criticism of a person’s performance, however well-intentioned, often feels like an attack on their reputation, or even their very identity (ศักดิ์ศรี).

This may be invisible to you in the moment. Thai employees often respond to ‘constructive criticism’ with silence. They may sit quietly with their heads down, offering little resistance because it would mean challenging your ‘face’ as their leader. But after all is said and done, employees will nurse their reputational injury and resent the person who delivered it. The actual content of the message, whatever it might have been, is lost beneath the groundswell of negative emotions. And that falls short of your ultimate goal.

When working with Thais, a culturally sound approach to delivering feedback will always have the preservation of harmony as a central goal. First and foremost, always ensure that your negative feedback is given in a private setting. If you speak words of dissatisfaction or disapproval in the presence of peers, you will almost certainly embarrass your struggling employee and conjure up a sense of burning shame that accompanies a loss of face. Strangely, you should apply the exact same rule when giving compliments. If you applaud an employee when others are present, it often embarrasses the recipient and leads to feelings of envy or charges of unfair favoritism among colleagues.

So how should you deliver negative feedback?

It’s always a good idea to begin on a positive note that recognizes the employee’s efforts and his value to the team. These words should be sincere or not spoken at all. But a genuine effort to count all that is truly good sets the right tone.

To be less direct, you can also ask the employee a few open-ended questions about how he perceives his performance in the area of focus. The very fact that you’re asking those questions sends an indirect message that you are concerned about something and you want his cooperation in addressing it.

When delivering the bad news, make use of words that soften the message, sometimes referred to as ‘downgraders’—somewhat, sometimes, a little, slightly, likely, kind of, possibly, perhaps. The Thai language is full of these beauties, and for a good reason. The English language is as well, but many, many English speakers just love to speak in absolute terms. Downgraders create an opportunity for recipients of uncomfortable news to process the message without losing face. They help Thais receive the real message, not the secondary message born of collateral damage from your overly direct words.

Now, let me take a guess. You’re worried that if you’re robbed of your ‘upgraders’ (entirely, absolutely, completely, awful, unacceptable), if you go ‘soft,’ the message will not get through. You need to trust me on this one. If you cling to your very direct style “because that’s the way we say it back home,” the only message that will get through is that you lack proper sensitivity and empathy and you are not someone that employee wants to follow.

In giving negative feedback to Thais, take care to use the carrot more than the stick. Guide them toward a better path. A message like “your work has been sloppy, and I need to see improvement” can be delivered more effectively in a roundabout way: “Your role is incredibly important to this team. As you know, we’ve just landed a big project, so I’d like you to be extra careful and double-check all your work in the future. If we can keep the process running smoothly this time, I know we can deliver a great result for our client.”

By taking an indirect approach, that message is delivered through positive words and then wrapped in a larger package of harmony and team success. In Thai society, these are powerful motivators to inspire greater effort.

“We’d love to hear your voice more often in our meetings…”

“It’d be really great if you could focus more on…”

“The team looks up to you, and I’d love for you to set the example by…”

Generally speaking, kind words invite improvement, while unembellished criticism is a disincentive for action. The time may come when the carrot is insufficient, and the stick needs to make an appearance. But any moves in that direction should be incremental and made only after a gentler approach has proved inadequate.

Just remember, you don’t have to win every battle to win a war. Keep your ultimate goal in mind, and then pursue it with finesse.

When your employees see that you understand them and you’re sensitive to their cultural values, you can avoid many of the pitfalls that damage trust and team morale. The more they respect your character as a team leader—the more they see you use power with kindness—the more they will commit themselves to the success of the team as a whole.

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.