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Business Across Cultures: Foundations of Teamwork

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When asked what they most want from a foreign co-worker, Indonesian managers give varied responses. However, respect, understanding, and trust are the three most common answers.

These are basic human values that most managers anywhere in the world would agree are important in day-to-day business relationships. But it is the interpretation of 'how to demonstrate your understanding', 'how to show respect', 'how to develop trust', where differing cultural value systems come into play.

Asked to explain what 'understanding' means, Indonesian managers are most likely to say it is an understanding of Indonesian culture, more specifically, the traditions and ingrained attitudes woven into the Indonesian business culture. Indonesian managers do not expect expatriates to know the difference between Wayang Golek and Wayang Kulit, or between Batik Tulis and Kain Sumbawa. They do not expect expatriates to stop drinking beer, nor do they expect them to eat Nasi Goreng for breakfast. Expatriates are not expected to let go of their own culture and fully adapt to Indonesian culture to demonstrate their understanding.

Indonesian managers do, however, expect a foreigner working in Indonesia to have a basic knowledge of the country, the people, and the fundamental values found here. Furthermore, they expect a foreigner to adapt, at least partially, to the Indonesian environment by controlling negative emotions and displaying at least a basic consideration of politeness in the Indonesian context.

Learning the Indonesian language is seen as a strong indicator of a person's interest in Indonesia and its people. Foreigners with a high level of Indonesian language ability are respected. Foreigners who have lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and still cannot hold an intelligible conversation in Bahasa Indonesia lose respect. For the majority of expatriates who attempt to learn the language, or least had good intentions of doing so, there is no bias one way or the other.

Understanding generates respect. When asked how a foreigner can show respect for the people and cultures of Indonesia, most Indonesian managers may initially fail to provide specific examples. It appears, however, that all that is expected is basic manners. Say pagi in the morning; say malam at night. Do not walk by in a hallway and ignore the person coming toward you. Business is personal in Indonesia. Expatriates must show that they are in an on-going relationship with their Indonesian co-workers, and basic courtesy goes a long way towards demonstrating this.

At a deeper level, an expatriate shows respect to an Indonesian manager by listening to and valuing that manager's opinions. The Indonesian manager may better understand what can and cannot be realistically accomplished in the local context. Of course, there are situations that require an immediate decision on how to proceed. If an Indonesian manager wished to give his opinion, but there was no time to listen, the expatriate should make an effort later to explain why there was no time, and to discuss how things could be done differently in the future. It is all about showing that expatriates are not arrogant, do not think they know everything, and do credit their Indonesian colleagues with a measure of intelligence and experience.

Respect is shown in many other ways, of course. Profanity, rapid speech, jargon, sarcasm, and inappropriate humor on the part of expatriates may embarrass or anger Indonesian personnel. Indicating objects with your foot, improper use of the hands, touching of the head, crossing of the arms, sitting on desks, and many other actions are interpreted as disrespectful. Each office, factory, or worksite has to decide for itself what behavior is appropriate.

Understanding and respect generate trust. Trust is normally ranked number one by managers, Indonesian or expatriate, when asked what is the most important aspect of a business relationship. Veracity, follow-through, and follow-up are the foundations of trust. Trust that someone will do as they say they will. Trust that someone will complete the task given. Trust that someone will let you know if there is a problem.

Trust is earned. Indonesian managers should know that the fastest way to gain trust from a foreign co-worker is simply to do what you say you will do, consistently. If you complete a task as promised, you gain trust. Make this a habit, and trust increases. However, even one occurrence of deception or lack of follow-through without proper feedback, destroys trust. It is important to note, however, if an Indonesian manager agrees to perform a particular task or project, and then finds difficulty in the performance, a timely notification and rational explanation of the difficulty will actually increase trust on the part of an expatriate. A point many Indonesian managers find hard to comprehend.

Although it is often the case, cultural adaptation should not be a one-way street. Many times, the expatriate is expected to adapt to the cross-cultural work situation with his Indonesian colleagues taking the view that, “You are a guest here. You must change.” On the other hand, foreigners often feel, “This is an international organization. You must learn to do things our way.” Few managers have read books or essays on the other nationality's cultures. There is often little understanding of why an expatriate behaves in such an emotional manner or why Indonesians can seem reluctant to assume responsibility for their actions.

Sadly, suspicion and ill will can characterize many Indonesian-expatriate relationships. Respect towards an expatriate is often merely a respect for advanced technical knowledge or a grudging acceptance of business expertise. Frequently, an Indonesian receives respect only in so far as he is 'useful'. The man himself and his cultural heritage being accorded little value. Understanding, respect, and trust must be nurtured on both sides.

While cross-cultural skills and knowledge may be important to individual managers, it really boils down to the will and desire of the senior management, especially the corporate executive committee, to engineer a Third Corporate Culture - a culture that is neither all Indonesian nor all Western, but a hybrid that works better here in Indonesia than either culture could ever hope to do alone. A culture that emphasizes Understanding, Respect, and Trust as the foundation for teamwork between expatriate and Indonesian personnel.


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

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