Larry S. Persons, PhD
If you’re a foreigner working with Thais, remember that you are as strange to your colleagues as they are to you. Symbols of this disconnect, like the language barrier, are as obvious as the nose on your face. But far more obtuse are the hidden cultural codes.
‘Invisible’ friction has a habit of making itself felt at the worst possible times. Consider a project that needs to be completed by a certain date. The timeline is tight, but you believe in your team’s ability to deliver.
You gather your Thai personnel and explain all that needs to be done. You confirm their understanding and let them know that hitting this deadline is absolutely essential. You’ve had issues with them before, so this time you are extra careful to ask whether there are any problems you should know about and whether they can complete the task on time. They clearly answer, “No, no problems. Yes, we can finish on time.”
The deadline arrives and the work is not complete. Your anger builds as you listen to your Thai team explaining that they need more time.
Whose fault is this? Yours.
Well, 50% of it is yours, and that’s the part you should focus on.
There are reasons that this keeps happening, and you need to address them. But dismissing differences in worldview altogether is about as helpful as spitting into a strong wind.
Their values differ. In Thailand ‘lines’ are rarely ‘dead.’ They move all the time. In fact, deadlines may be the only dead thing in the country that actually moves, yet no one seems terribly bothered because flexibility is valued over predictability.
Their geography of thought differs. Western cultures absorbed a love for agency from the Greeks. They view the world as being static and tractable, quantifiable and controllable. They attribute behavior to actors who exercise power to manipulate the environment. Asian cultures, including Thai culture, absorbed a love for harmony from Confucius. They view the world as constantly changing and somewhat untamable. In their view, human behavior is often shaped by the constraints of context, not agency.
Their view of time differs. For hundreds of years the Thai view of time has been cyclical, not linear. Life rarely proceeds along a straight line. It cycles backward and forward, much like the incessant waves on your favorite beach. Real life doesn’t unfold like a product on an assembly line. Life simply happens, and you respond accordingly. The secret is to stay calm in the present moment, an approach that feeds a shared intuition that if you just give something enough time, things will come out right. Chill. Mai pen rai. “It’ll all work out in the end.”
Their experience of power differs. For generations, Thais down the food chain have felt disempowered. Their leaders have been great at barking orders without giving them the authority or resources necessary to succeed. So, failing to deliver is not so uncommon, and although it risks the wrath of superiors, there is also a widespread expectation that Patrons should be understanding and lenient (อะลุ่มอล่วย). “If I could just explain all the obstacles that made me miss that deadline, surely you would understand.”
Their relationship rules differ. You will be tempted to diagnose your team’s failure to deliver in familiar ways. Language was a barrier. The team is not committed to the company’s success. It’s time to consider hiring new personnel who aren’t so incompetent or lazy. You will be less inclined to see this situation through the lens of ‘face,’ but nine times out of ten that’s exactly where you should be looking.
Outsiders frequently underestimate how important it is for Thais to preserve ‘face’ both for themselves and others. A loss of face can damage a person’s reputation, threaten his place in the social pecking order, and stir powerful feelings of personal shame. Face is more valuable than any amount of money: “Lose silver, lose gold, but never allow yourself to lose face.”
For a moment, shift your perspective. Shake off your legitimate frustrations and step into the shoes of your Thai team leader. As a Thai, your deeply ingrained values lead you to preserve hierarchy and harmony. You were raised to believe in the primacy of ‘face,’ which means that it’s often better to say ‘yes’ in the moment if that’s what you think the other person wants to hear. Indeed, a blunt ‘no’ to a colleague or superior, particularly when others are present, is impolite, and it can cause both sides to lose face. Your foreign boss has made what seems like an unrealistic request of your team, but as an act of kindness you refrain from pointing out that miscalculation. You decide to say that there are no problems and the work will be completed because making quiet adjustments later is vastly preferable to open conflict now.
For managers from European or North American cultures, this avoidance of conflict comes across as dishonest. But for Thais it often represents the lesser of two evils. Saving face is more virtuous than speaking bald truth.
So, dare you hope that future deadlines will be met? How do you navigate an environment where words and relationships follow hidden rules? How can you possibly build trust with people for whom ‘yes’ doesn’t really mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no?’
These are difficult questions. But if you are willing to understand, accept, and respect a cultural code that differs from yours, there are promising pathways before you that can improve your team’s chances of hitting those deadlines.
First, check your prejudices at the door. They will only throw gasoline on the fires of your anger. Admit that there are thousands upon thousands of competent Thais in multinational corporations, and many of them consistently deliver on deadlines. Even your own team has shown you they can hit deadlines. And they probably want to build trust with you as much as you want to build trust with them. So, what are some positive steps you can take?
Before setting a hard deadline, get the opinions of others in the organization about the feasibility of your expectations. Consult with your Thai team leader privately before giving a deadline to the entire group. Learn more about their current workload and capabilities, solicit their ideas about what adjustment in deadline may be more realistic, and then collaborate on ideas and strategies for how to obtain additional resources that may be needed to complete the project.
Institute shorter cycles of progress—small victories—that naturally build toward completing the deadline. It will feel more manageable to your team, and you will keep yourself from assuming too much about their ability to deliver.
Always ask, “What things do you need from me? How can I help you succeed?” This communicates that you are not just a wellspring of demands. You are partnering with them to win together.
Just to be safe, you might want to add some buffer time to soften the impact of late delivery. Use every success to build team trust and cohesion, lessening that friction again and again until you and your team start to resemble a well-oiled machine.