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Cross Cultural Management: Thai Style

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Brian McDermott

Brian McDermott

Asia Cross Cultural Expert

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Cross Cultural Management: Thai Style

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Foreign managers coming to work in Thailand will probably have to adjust their management style considerably. Pushing Thais to speak up in meetings, report bad news and meet rigid deadlines will not usually produce results, and nor will heavy-handedness.

Patrick, an American manager of a chemical manufacturing company was sent by his organization in the USA to Thailand to observe firsthand how operations were proceeding in their Thai plant and to increase productivity.

At his intercultural coaching session Patrick made it clear that he has a very task focused ‘Type A’ personality. And having been a former military officer, he was up for the challenge saying, ‘I arrived here ready to tackle any problems that exist at the plant and kick-ass.’

During his first month, he was met with polite smiles, respectful head nods and the continued denial of significant problems. After checking things out he uncovered a number of problems that the local manager, Khun Somchai and his staff were not mentioning.

“So how did you handle the situation?” I asked.

He replied, “Well, I said to Khun Somchai, ‘If you don’t acknowledge the problems, how do you expect to be able to solve them?’ I was, and still am frustrated that no one will admit that any problems exist. And to further frustrate me, when they do tell me about a problem it is usually too late to do anything about it.

I need the very best upward feedback I can get to be successful here. And that especially includes the prompt reporting of bad news. What can I do?”

I replied, “Receiving timely and accurate feedback from Thai subordinates can be very challenging. But getting impatient and insisting that Thais tell you what they have done wrong will be counter-productive. Your approach of putting them under a lot of pressure could confuse them.

It is going to be more effective for you tounderstand and adopt some aspects of the Thai style of management:

1. Spend time with your staff on the subject of feedback. Your Thai counterparts must genuinely like and feel at ease with you which leads to better upward feedback.

2. Understand ‘kreng jai’ which is one of the most important Thai values, meaning to give respect, show deference, and a reluctance to disturb others. If Thais have a caring leader, who can reduce the kreng jai you will be more approachable and the Thais will be inspired to give feedback for the good of the team (and the leader).

3. Gaining the trust of your subordinates will encourage Thai teams to be more accountable and assertive. Leaders need to be good managers as well as visionaries.

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