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Working with Thais, part one

Submitted by on Monday, 7 February 20112 Comments

Working with Thais? – If so you may be interested in the key cultural characteristics involved in working more effectively with Thai professionals.

This article deliberately ignores the ‘surface factors’ of cross-cultural behaviour. Instead we focus on the deeper components involved in getting great performance out of Thai teams and individuals.

Once an expatriate manager has mastered some of the behavioural skills involved in cross-cultural relationships (such as how to wai properly and how to observe body language), the next step is being able to juice performance from his or her direct reports and team.

While this may sound easy (having ‘got on the right side’ of your colleagues) this is where the hard work really begins.

If you delegate assignments and your colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, and then you are faced with delays, misunderstandings, and moments of awkwardness – then this article may help you focus on some of the deeper aspects of working with Thais.

The aspects below outline some of the characteristics plus some of the actions an expatriate manager can take to ‘bridge the gap’.

1. To Cities from Farms

By far the biggest so-called ‘cultural’ challenge expatriate managers face when working with Thais isn’t, in fact, cultural at all, but economic.

It is due to the ‘mega-trend’ taking place throughout Asia where labour is moving to the Cities from the farms.

It may be hard to imagine, but only 60 years ago Bangkok was still a sleepy fishing village and trading outpost surrounded by paddy fields (some photos can be found here)

What has this got to do with Working with Thais?

Well, many of the challenges Thai professionals face in the workplace still relate to this sudden change. While the physical architecture of our environment may change quickly, the architecture of the mind does not.

The following characteristics are prevalent in most societies that have gone ‘To Cities from Farms’:

  • Poor conceptual skills. Since agricultural societies pass on knowledge practically (i.e. tangibly through demonstration) the change to intangible, conceptual abilities may take some time. For example, when companies urge their staff to be ‘more customer oriented’ or ‘to execute more effectively’ these very instructions are confusing, since they are conceptual

What you can do

Don’t think translating instructions or processes in Thai will help significantly… because the problem (poor conceptual skills) remains the same! And even including diagrams by themselves won’t bring much improvement.

Instead, train your whole team (all the moving parts) in the areas your require using visuals and fun, hands-on activities with  follow-ups… it’s the only way to be sure that your message or strategy can be acted upon!

  • Wisdom of the Elders. Another significant factor born from an agricultural society includes the ‘Wisdom of the Elders’ syndrome, where age is usually seen as something to be respected and as a sign of wisdom. This can be a double-edged sword of course… not in the least when a younger Thai manager is tasked with leading a senior colleague! This characteristic can also encourage deference, which is not always helpful when communication is required to drive improvements.

Management Training Thailand

2. Education… really?

The second factor to bear in mind when working with Thais is the massive impact of the Thai education system on the workforce.

This is really an effect of the first factor, but what’s important here is that despite huge amounts of money thrown at the Thai education system by successive governments (Thai education currently accounts for over 20% of government expenditure and has been as high as 30% in recent years), the return on this investment has been woeful.

To take one area as an example, English language skills among Thai professionals remain far below that of their counterparts in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, and Thais consistently underperform in this area in the UNESCO rankings.

Upcountry, in some places teachers are still assessed by only two criteria: whether they are sober and whether they come to work wearing a shirt.

While this video is unrepresentative of every school in Thailand, it demonstrates the technique known as ‘learning by rote’ (or ‘repeat after me’), which is how most teachers still teach in Thailand: highly ineffective and irrelevant for today’s workplace, where skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving are more valuable.

These skills are not being taught to any level of proficiency, and companies, having seen a quarter of their tax bill go on education, must be wondering what they have spent their money on when new recruits arrive in their offices still unable to string a sentence together in English (or even in Thai on the factory floor!)

What you can do

Obviously, managers cannot dial back the clock and teach Thai colleagues what needed to be taught in 18 years of education.

However, here are some tips managers can use to good effect:

  • Learn how humans learn. This may sound obvious, but managers who are most effective in working with Thais understand how the mind works and how knowledge is acquired, practised and put into action.
  • Understand the elements of human performance. It’s essential to gain knowledge about the factors of human performance, such as natural abilities (talents), skills, knowledge and experience and the value of each of these to any task or project.
  • Create a clear framework. To upskill your colleagues, resist the temptation that ‘reading a book’ or ‘taking part in a training course’ will do it. It won’t. Instead, you need to make a project out of skill development itself. This needs a framework and clear linkages to the tasks at hand.
  • Be prepared to push back at ‘Global’. In our experience Global HR has proven mostly hopeless at understanding the challenges ‘on the ground’ in emerging markets. Their initiatives such as competency models usually only exacerbate the problem. Feel free to push back at HR and global systems when you know it’s not something that will work for your team!
  • Integrate skill development to pay & bonuses. Thai professionals are typically eager to learn, but may worry about the risks involved (losing face or making mistakes for example). Once you have created a clear, achievable framework, it’s often useful to link some elements of it, however small, to staff KPIs or bonuses.

Of course, if you feel this is something best left to professional trainers, why not look at our selection of management training programmes delivered in Thai and English, and take the worry off your shoulders!

Stay tuned for the second part of this article, where we will look at the impact of the fear factor in the Thai workplace, and what expatriates can  do to overcome it.


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