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Business Across Cultures: Bapakism Part I

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One of the areas of Indonesian business culture that presents the most problems for cross-cultural understanding is the idea of the status of business managers and executives. The concept of status runs throughout the Indonesian mentality, while it is less evident in Western business thought. In Indonesia, everyone has status. This status may be situational; one is subordinate in a given situation and superior in another. When one is in a superior position, be it in one's own home or in the board room, an Indonesian expects to be treated in a certain manner by his subordinates.

The word Bapak literally means father in the Indonesian language. It is also the honorific for a person in a superior position to your own or someone who is older than you. When in Indonesian business a person achieves a position of authority and becomes a decision maker, he is recognized as being a Bapak. When one becomes a Bapak, interpersonal relationships change. A Bapak expects deference and obedience on the part of subordinates and employees. While he has the responsibility to look after and care for his employees, he also expects their loyalty and respect.

There are many motivational and attitudinal stereotypes that can be used to describe the traditional Indonesian Bapak. I will address one of these stereotypes: An Indonesian Bapak is not expected to serve or follow orders except those given by a clear superior.

I recently heard an interesting example of this during one of my cross-cultural orientation programs. I was working with a small group of newly hired expatriates in one of Jakarta's major department stores. While we were concentrating on Indonesian work standards and expectations, the discussion digressed to the topic of the support they were getting from their company during the “settling-in” period.

All foreigners hired to work in Indonesia go through such a “settling-in” period which includes the move from a hotel to a house or apartment, bringing in the family, learning about schools and hospitals, among other things. During this period, the foreign professional relies heavily on company support. As this particular company had not designated anyone to assist them, the expatriates in my program naturally looked to the Indonesian Bapak who had hired them as the person to ask for help. The participants worked in different divisions and had quite different experiences.

In the first case, the expatriate was very fortunate, the Bapak he was dealing with had lived overseas and understood and was compassionate about the problems facing newly arrived foreigners. When the employee asked about non-business problems “The plumbing at home is leaking, can you have it fixed?” “My driver was a half hour late again today, can you have someone talk to him?” “The television is not working.” the Bapak listened and acted on the problems.

My other participant had a more traditional Indonesian Bapak as a manager and didn't have the same success. Initially it seemed all right. However, as the list of problems became longer and the expatriate was discussing them on almost a daily basis, the Bapak suddenly became unavailable. Unfortunately, he was also unavailable when the expatriate needed to see him for work-related matters. In this case, the Bapak was uncomfortable with an employee coming in and making requests. To avoid the unpleasant situation, the Bapak withdrew from the relationship with the employee and the expatriate lost access to the decision maker.

This is a hard situation on both sides. Foreign professionals definitely need help settling in and the employer should have designated someone in the company or contracted with a consultant to help them. On the Indonesian side, a traditional Bapak is not used to being asked to act by a subordinate. By nature, many Bapak are somewhat aloof and authoritative. They show their power and, while not deeming to act and assist a subordinate, requests to the Bapak should be made thoughtfully and sparingly.

This is the idea of status. When one has status, one expects others to show respect. Because status is situational, the Bapak in your office may have to move very quickly when he receives a call to see his own boss. Then he has become the subordinate and must follow all the complex rules of the work relationship; he must shield his superior from bad news, do his best to keep him happy and show the respect due the Bapak's status.


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

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