When western companies do business in the dynamic markets of Asia, Africa or South America, they face not only considerable geographical distance but also fundamentally different ways of thinking and doing things.
In Southeast Asia alone, approximately 600 million ethnically diverse people will become one regional economic market when the ASEAN Economic Community takes place in 2015. Those are only 10 AEC member countries compared with 26 of the European Union.
This vibrant region has many things in common which most management pundits believe are its strengths. First is its diversity, which is a central aspect of life in all of these countries. There is a certain degree of tolerance and awareness of these cultural differences that inevitably make people deal with each other more carefully. Second, there is by far a great amount of respect for the elderly as well as hierarchies across the region. Thus, most decisions made by them remain unchallenged. Third, family-owned businesses of varying sizes are the norm, with the Asian family model enjoying an efficiency over Western business models. Last, all Southeast Asian countries are looking for a niche to exploit their competitive advantages to be successful as they face real competition and increasing economic pressure from China.
Let me explore the diversity phenomenon as a vital element of Asia’s assets. Google Maps shows that Asia is significantly dominated by China by its sheer size. In this region, one finds four of the world’s greatest religions: Confucianism (China with Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Korea); Buddhism (China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar); Islam (Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei); and Christianity/Catholicism (Philippines).
In the business world, these differing religious beliefs and principles would massively influence and translate into management concepts of leadership, status, work ethics, management and leadership styles, and most prominently, communication styles -- all of which are very different from the Western world’s points of view on all of these aspects.
Whereas the Asian mindset is dominated by fondness for the collective, adhering to security, harmonious relationships and social responsibility, Westerners love individualism and personal ego, achievement and self-actualization goals, high productivity and profit maximization, with organizational efficiency at the core. These show contrasting mentalities, approaches and attitudes. The Asian world view is still relatively relaxed, with time seen as a limitless commodity and with the value of efficiency often ambiguous.
If there is one thing that cultural differences between East and West are glaringly underscored, it is in the style of communication. An Asian at a negotiation table would seek balance and harmony to reach an agreement. Most likely, however, real decisions are made outside the negotiating table. An Asian will avoid confrontation as much as possible and will not show intense emotion but rather a non-aggressive stance throughout the negotiation process. And by the way, it is a must NOT to do anything that would make both parties lose their face. After all, to an Asian, negotiations are important social occasions to foster long-term relationships.
To a Westerner, a crucial component in communication style is giving and receiving feedback, whether positive or negative, especially the latter. As an intercultural trainer, I’m always asked: When one faces a cross-cultural challenge at work, how can one get feedback and suggestions from bosses, colleagues and subordinates?
Managers from different cultures are conditioned by their upbringing and education to give and receive feedback in different ways. Most Asians will always never criticize a colleague in front of others (no loss of face, remember?), while the French will criticize passionately (in perfect French, of course!) and provide positive feedback sparingly. The British are masters at using deliberate understatements, while Germans are undoubtedly the most straightforward and honest in getting across criticism using strong words when complaining to make sure the message registers clearly.
In sum, whatever the reality may be, clashes in world views, values, beliefs and attitudes will remain well into this century and beyond. We must all learn how to decrease the negative effects of such clashes.
Dr. Kaamino-Tschoepke teaches Organizational Behavior and Dynamics and Human Resource Management at De La Salle University RVR-College of Business. She is a professional intercultural trainer and consultant of international business, international marketing, and business development.
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