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Business Across Cultures: The Appearance of Understanding

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Globalization has been the buzzword of international business for a great many years. As international markets coalesce into unified trade zones, the individual marketplaces of developing countries are exposed to transnational pressures. Some Asian countries are pulling back from such perceived threats of international contagion. Fortunately, Indonesia is still continuing to open up its markets to world enterprise.

Multi-national companies often post senior executives to Indonesia who have a highly developed global outlook. Such multi-national managers with a generalist viewpoint toward international business may overlook the necessity of developing a local perspective in their host countries. Indonesia is one of those countries in which the home office perspective of corporate priorities may not serve as the most effective approach toward productivity and effectiveness.

Indonesian managers usually place an emphasis on harmony, understanding, and mutual respect. Some say that such concerns outweigh job performance and productivity.

Successful expatriate managers in Indonesia understand that issues of importance to the majority of their staff are not lightly ignored. Those feelings and concepts must at least be understood by an expatriate executive for him or her to be successful in their posting; they must be incorporated into the third corporate culture established in Indonesia for the company to be productive, be successful, and meet the bottom line goals of the home office.

One of the benefits of having all cultural sides of an office or organization take the time to sit down and discuss their expectations of the others' sides in a facilitated manner is a greater understanding of the cultural barriers found in that office or organization. This understanding leads to the building of the successful third corporate culture. One that may not be effective or even accepted in the corporate home country, but one that functions well in Indonesia.

All cultural sides must make the effort to understand, of course, but in this column I want to stress the expectations of many senior Indonesian managers.

Below are some actual comments made by the Indonesian managers in a recent EOS cross-cultural team building program. The comments arose during the separate orientation sessions and were identified as areas of concern worthy of discussion with their Western counterparts.

  1. Westerners should make an effort to learn - and implement - the culture, taboos, and language of their Indonesian colleagues.
  2. Westerners should avoid the use of strong or rude language which could set a bad example for the workers.
  3. Westerners should not assume that Indonesians can follow or understand their discourse. Make sure instructions are slow, clear, repeat them, avoid slang.
  4. Westerners should have a willingness to bend or make exceptions to the policy, not alter it, for individual cases and cultural needs, (e.g., time off for cemetery visits before Ramadhan, weddings, attending funerals).

These can be condensed down to a few general areas, namely: Cultural Awareness; Politeness; Proper Communication; and, Understanding. Expatriate managers need to be aware that actions and decisions in these areas that appear insensitive or arbitrary to the Indonesian staff are going to cause resentment more quickly and to a greater degree than in other areas.

Indonesian managers can be expected to make many adjustments to working in an international company. Scheduling and deadlines, punctuality, giving bad news, and taking responsibility are areas where most Indonesian managers agree that following Western management techniques is important. However, if a company needs to make regulations about prayer times or other religious obligations, for example, great care is required in how such regulations are presented and enforced.

Sensitivity to the needs of employees is a management area that is seldom stressed in most Western business cultures where efficiency, productivity and effectiveness rule. For expatriate managers to be successful here in Indonesia, it is important that they incorporate into their management styles the outward appearance of caring about and understanding the basic cultural values held by their Indonesian co-workers. This active, outward appearance is a key to building effective and productive cross-cultural working relationships.


This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.

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