Cross-cultural guru offers tips to Thai and foreign expats in diversity management

Economy January 08, 2014 00:00

By Pichaya Changsorn
The Nation

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Globalisation presents enormous opportunities for firms to capture but their executives need to be trained well to reap the benefits and prepare for more cross-border competition.

Diversity management has become one of the most important skills required for today’s managers. Pojai Pookakupt, a leading diversity and cross-cultural management expert, offers some tips for foreign and Thai executives to work effectively with a diverse team and environment, in an exclusive interview with The Nation’s Pichaya Changsorn. 
Thais working abroad or foreigners coming to work in Thailand would find many challenges that prevent them from working effectively and achieving the goals and strategy set by their companies, provided they don’t have the right skills and mindset.
“First thing first is the mindset. Having differences is not better or worse. The key word is ‘synergy’. Executives need to recognise differences and have an ability to get more than two out of one plus one,” he said.
The tips to deal effectively with diversity – which covers the ability to work not only in a cross-cultural environment or in other countries, but also in many dimensions such as gender, generation and society – are as the follows: 
Have the skill to sort out the differences, instead of assuming a person’s behaviour as a national habit. 
A manager needs to have the skill to sort out if a certain behaviour belongs to a particular individual, or is part of the national culture, or is a universal trait that every human being has. Pointing out the weak points of other people or giving non-constructive feedback in public, for example, is unwelcome in any culture.
Focus on building trust.
Building trust is one of the biggest challenges for any executives in leading their Thai teams. It’s a crucial start for executives to gain the trust of their subordinates so that they can get their full cooperation and unleash their maximum strengths and potential. 
Foreign executives assuming posts in Thailand would simply think they can automatically get things done here. But if they cannot win the trust of their Thai team, they will not hear all the facts since their Thai staff will always weigh the pros and cons, wait for the right moment, or won’t speak out at all. On the other hand, foreign expatriates should also be aware of a popular notion: “What is said is something that is not as important as what is not said”. 
Foreigners coming to work in Thailand often complain their Thai staff are short in assertiveness, which means not being quite ready to express their opinions, or present a different viewpoint. However, “assertiveness” in the view of Thai staff may be too “aggressive”.
Don’t stop. Keep finding new ways if old methods don’t work.
Like a favourite quote from Albert Einstein – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results” – foreign managers should not give up, if their management methods don’t succeed in getting the expected results from their Thai team. For instance, instead of repeating the same message which has not been understood, an executive has to find a new way to communicate. 
To tackle a classic problem in the Thai corporate world, that nobody speaks out in a meeting, foreign expats can resort to many methods such as assigning their team to come back with some ideas on the particular issue in the next meeting, or setting out a rule that everyone has to speak up in a meeting before it can be finished. Or they can designate a staff to take the role of a “devil’s advocate”, who is allowed to voice contrasting opinions in company meetings. 
“With ‘kreng jai’ or the ‘power distance’ culture in Thai corporate hierarchies, executives have to create a role for their Thai staff that will allow them to be ‘assertive’ comfortably,” she said.
_ Throughout her 20-plus years of experiences, Poojai has worked with many Thai and multinational companies including Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Shell, Oracle, ExxonMobil, Bayer and Sony, providing executive coaching and diversity and cross-cultural management courses.