Intercultural Work Environment

This is a reproduction of an article which appeared in Thai-Swedish Chamber of Commerce Handbook Directory 1992, pages 72-79.




Dr Henry Holmes

Cross Cultural Management Co., Ltd.

Dr Henry Holmes is Principal Consultant for Cross Cultural Management, a consulting firm devoted to developing an understanding between foreigners and Thais in the workplace.




    Some months ago, we were sitting in the Bangkok office of a Western managing director.  He had, up to this point, been in charge of the Thailand branch of his company for six months.  Prior to his posting in Thailand he had managed a branch in his home country.

    We started off by asking him, “What strikes you as the biggest difference between the company branch you ran at home and the branch that you are managing here?”

    He pondered before replying, then finally said, “Well, here I frequently get the impression that we have no problems”.

    As the discussion progressed, it developed that, in actual fact, there were quite a lot of problems within the operation here. Yet he would frequently “discover” some of those problems in unusual ways, or perhaps not at all, until it was too late to provide a remedy.

    “But what about at home?” we probed.

    “Actually, there I was constantly aware of problems we were having.  People from every level would tell me about them. However, that operation was going a lot better than the one here”.


    It may be a relief to some to know that there are only a few real taboos in Thailand.

For many managers in Thailand, not just our Western friends, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what is going on!

    Effective management in Thailand depends to a great extent on developing ways to learn what is going on, or to put it more broadly, to improve the quality of feedback and two-way communication one gets from his or her colleagues and subordinates at work.  It is a major issue that so far had been eluding our manager.

    Foreigners frequently assume that developing skills in managing with Thais is primarily a matter of observing do’s and don’ts.  It may be a relief to some to know that there are only a few real taboos in Thailand. These are amply explained in the many good books about Thailand that is available locally.  The principal cautions relate to behavior or remarks about the Royal Family, the Buddhist religion and the Thai nation itself.  A number of other guidelines may vary between what is practiced in Bangkok and more traditional customs found in up-country areas.  And of course, many Thai customs described in the books are changing to some degree all the time.

    Instead of overemphasizing what to avoid in Thailand, we have found it much more fruitful to look at the whole range of constructive things a foreigner can do in order to create goodwill and motivation, and develop effective teamwork among colleagues.  Many of these concepts and approaches apply to household as well as office management.


    How to Improve Communications?

This is perhaps the question closest to the needs of every manager.  It would be important even if the family moved to a new neighborhood and a different office only 50 miles away from home.  But when talk of a move to Thailand, linguistic and cultural differences make the job much more challenging.  Nevertheless, the  process of getting relationships built and communications up to a satisfactory level still needs to be moved along as soon as possible, i.e., get teamwork operating within six months rather than as  long as (in some cases) two years or even longer.

    Research on the subject of management style among Thai has revealed some striking differences from Western patterns which, if we take our own assumptions for granted here, might lead us down unproductive paths.

    In most multinational companies in Thailand, a large number of middle and senior level Thai executives have been previously exposed to the Thai-Chinese traditions of the family business.  The expectations of a boss and an employee in this tradition have a number of characteristics which tend to be carried over into the more modern or professionally-managed Thai companies and even into multi-national organizations.

    According to this tradition, there is a preference (on the part of various levels) for a rather centralized management style.  Compared with the West, a larger number of decisions are made by the senior person.  This custom becomes particularly cumbersome for a foreigner if his joint venture partner and decision maker is of the old school and the partner has several businesses going at the same time.

    Compared to the West, there is less work delegated here by seniors to juniors and some of those assignments are not given so thoroughly or systematically.  As a consequence, accountability is not found in the same form or degree as you might expect.  A particular problem with accountability here is that juniors do not always report back -i.e., give feedback to seniors about what is going on.  This issue comes to a head in the case of bad news, which can be a great frustration for managers if it is reported too late to turn the situation around.  Events like these can be very costly.

    Another characteristic of traditional Thai management is that the senior person tries to develop an effective patron-client relationship with his staff.  The senior is expected to provide direction, control and protection, while the junior contributes good performance and, very important, loyalty.  Indeed, loyalty has by custom been expressed more towards an individual than towards an organization or a profession.  As a consequence, the manager works hard to develop and maintain good personal relationships with his staff.

    As a part of this effort, the senior person has tended to take on a wider range of company-related social roles than a Western manager might be expected to perform.  Among these may be attending religious events, gift-giving and receiving, entertaining staff and having somewhat more knowledge of subordinates’ family situations.  All of these can serve as motivators on the part of the leader, and are commonly admired by his colleagues.  There are a number of opportunities in this area that an expatriate manager may want to explore further.

    A third characteristic of the traditional family company (and indeed of Thai society itself) is its hierarchical system.  This aspect is especially important for Australians or Americans, whose social systems are considered more egalitarian than those in many other societies, at least as social ideals.  Thais traditionally relate to others on the basis of their respective ranks, and to some extent, of the particular situation.  A Thai will express himself quite differently depending on whether he sees himself as a senior, a junior or a peer.  Since most Thais, like the English rarely introduce themselves to one another, they rely on a myriad of non-verbal cues about how to address another Thai who happens to be a stranger.



Meeting to solve problems are not always as frank as a Western manager would like or expect.

Stemming from this ranked system is the fact that communication has tended to be from the top down.  Thai tradition has encouraged junior family members and young students to absorb rather than initiate, to get it right rather than to question or express opinions, especially dissenting ones.  The result of this pattern is that most Thais – even at rather senior levels – have not had such extensive practice in expressing themselves in an assertive way, in either Thai or English.

    Today, there are increasing numbers of young Thais entering the job market who prefer an international organization to a traditional business because they see a greater opportunity to be recognized for competence rather than seniority as in the past.  Yet at the same time, they may run into problems if their Thai or foreign boss is not receptive or encouraging to new ideas, or if they themselves lack self-confidence or skills to express those ideas effectively.  Many Thais, both seniors and subordinates, believe it is the boss’s job to know what is going on, not the subordinate’s to volunteer information without being specifically asked by the boss.  The degree to which the foreign manager can draw out and develop these assertive skills of self-expression will be a major factor in his effectiveness as a manager.

    Two-way communication in Thailand, as we have seen, does not have a long history.  We do see, however, a few international organizations which have achieved a successful standard of upward communication and even, a fairly smooth flow of information across departments.  Examination of these cases reveals that a great deal of management attention, encouragement, training and commitment has gone into this campaign.

    A fourth characteristic of Thai family business is that professional and personal matters are not so distinct as frequently found in the West.  It is partly for this reason that criticism is not easily given here and meetings to solve problems are not always so frank and open as a Western manager would like or expect.  It is the reason why one Thai colleague whose feelings were hurt by another Thai ten years ago may not cooperate with that person even today.

    Most Thais are capable of several forms of anger or, more precisely, several ways of displaying anger, frustration or displeasure.  But in the work environment, the accepted standard for most managers is much more muted than, say, in certain Mediterranean countries.  Let’s say a cooler rather than a hotter approach tends to be the mark of a manager who wants to preserve his dignity and effectiveness in the workplace.  In Thailand, apologies are almost always appropriate but, in cases where there has been a loss of face, they cannot be expected to restore the relationship to normal.

    The overseas manager who accepts an assignment in Thailand will generally find that he can use 80-85% of the good management skills he used to get the job done elsewhere.  Within that other 15% lies an interesting array of management skills and approaches to which Thais seem to respond especially well.

    Listed below are a few areas where somewhat specialized approaches best suited to Thai colleagues seem to have a good chance of success:

          Being able to get reliable information from Thais, in voluntary or non-routine situations.

          Identifying certain non-verbal behavior which may express information we need to know.

          Ways to issue instructions that turn out the way you hoped they would.

          Increasing commitment to deadlines.

          Raising colleagues’ sense of urgency toward particular tasks.

          Conducting meetings in which Thais are willing to participate.

          Finding ways to develop skills of accountability among colleagues.

          Knowing (and being able to apply) certain deeply-held Thai values on and off the job, which serve as valuable motivators and a sign of your good will.

          Ways to ensure loyalty (i.e., maintain low staff turnover) with methods apart from mere salary incentives.

          Skills for changing practices in order to improve performance.

          Ways to administer discipline and/or dismissal by methods seen as fair and humane by Thai standards.

          How to organize parties for staff, of a sort that they will

(a)    Actually attend,

(b)   Look forward to  the next time, and

(c)    Even bring along spouses.

          What roles should the company and the manager and spouse, as individuals, play in major events involving staff, clients and government?


Information about various programs and services may be obtained by calling Cross-Cultural Management Co., Ltd at 258-4928 or 259-6483

This article appeared in “Successful Living In Bangkok” , a publication of the Community Services of Bangkok and is reproduced here with their kind permission.


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