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Business Across Cultures: To Be or To Do?

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Is it necessary to accomplish great things to feel your life has been worthwhile? Is it enough just to be content with one's place in the natural order of the universe? These questions address the issue of what a culture considers the proper activity of Mankind.

Anthropologists make a distinction between people who are “doing,” and people who are “being.” Most expatriates from Western cultures living in Indonesia are “doers.” This means they hold the belief that if people work hard they will be rewarded, looking to tomorrow for the rewards worked for today.

Western proverbs like “Idle hands are the devil's workplace,” “No rest for the weary,” and “Keep your nose to the grindstone” refer to the ethic of hard work found in many western cultures.

In a western culture, an idle employee might hear his manager tell him, “If you can't find something to do yourself, I will find something for you.” With the implied threat that what your manager finds for you to do will not be as pleasant as what you could find yourself.

People who are “doers” tend not only to work hard but to play hard also. This means that leisure time may be filled with activities to keep the person from becoming bored, boredom considered something to be avoided at all cost.

Western managers are often perceived by Indonesians as always on the go, never stopping to talk or to build relationships. This can also be interpreted as an indifference or even dislike on the part of the foreign professional toward his or her Indonesian co-workers.

This ”doing,” action-oriented mentality is generally not found in traditional Indonesian business culture. In Indonesia, there is a belief that there is a natural order to the universe. Man need not strive for what is not destined to be; one should be content with one's place in the natural order.

This translates into an attitude in the office that some things are beyond human control and that there may not be anything that one can or should do about a particular situation. If a production line shuts down because of poor maintenance, if a deadline is missed, or a meeting isn't scheduled, the common Indonesian attitude is one of acceptance. There is nothing that can be done about the situation so there is no reason to worry about it.

In the West this may be seen as a sign of incompetence on the part of the employee responsible for the situation. However, remember that in Indonesia incompetence alone is not a valid reason to dismiss an employee.

The work relationship in Indonesia is paternal. The Bapak, the father, looks out for the welfare of the employees in return for loyalty. The maintenance of the harmony in the office will normally take precedence over work performance.

Indonesian managers should understand that productivity, efficiency and goal setting are usually top priorities for Western managers. Forming an effective, third “Corporate Culture” which draws from the best of Western and Indonesian business cultures requires that the professionals on both sides find some common ground with which to work. Indonesian managers will have to understand cause and effect relationships, and that productivity can be improved through diligence, planning, and hard work.

For the expatriate manager, this means taking the time to show an interest in your Indonesian co-workers and in the Indonesian culture in general. Western business culture is often cold and impersonal with a “time is money” attitude. Feelings on the part of the foreign professional that something is “nothing personal, only business,” will not be understood in Indonesia. Here, all business relationships are personal relationships which one must take time to build and nurture.

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

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Practical Information for foreigners, expats and expatriates moving to Indonesia - find out about housing, schooling, transport, shopping and more to prepare you for your stay in Indonesia

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