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Home » Leadership, Talent

What’s holding back the human resource in Thailand?

Submitted by on Tuesday, 4 October 20116 Comments

So what’s holding back the ‘human resource’ in Thailand? With ASEAN 2015 fast approaching, the quality of the human resource in Thailand undoubtedly faces many challenges. And while companies in Thailand can attract and retain some ‘top talent’, this is nowhere near in the depth required to sustain a Regional Head Office or even in some cases an office that can deliver to the local market.

There are many reasons for this, including poor technical as well as conceptual skills. But today we’re going to look at one very important area in the ‘soft skill’ category.

We’ve seen before the challenges of forming a team in Thailand and, while the group culture can be a challenge to some, it is not insurmountable. However the human resource challenge we are writing about in this post is very difficult to crack, and, unlike group behaviour, has few positive attributes.

What we’re talking about is Face.

Most managers will be aware of ‘face’ and the challenges it presents them with. In short, they are provided a list of ‘don’ts’ in their cross-cultural course and many leave it at that.

However, we do not think such an approach is that healthy given our experience in the Thai workplace, and the damage that ‘face’ does in a daily basis – not only to companies – but, it’s critical to understand, Thai individuals themselves.

What is ‘Face’?

human resource in ThailandFace is another way of saying ‘reputation’ – though it goes a lot further than that. In an interaction in Thailand, both sides will take care to manage the representation of themselves, so that neither looks ‘bad’.

However, in the rough and tumble or business life, where multiple players operate on a stage at any time, and where relationships can change in a nanosecond, maintaining Face is extremely difficult.

Also, change the ‘level’ playing field of friend-friend into the commercial one of manager-staff or customer-service-provider and the problems really start to come in.

The trouble with spending so much time managing Face is that it can leave precious little focus on other unseen players (think ‘customers‘, ‘colleagues in another department’ and then more conceptually – ‘strategy’, ‘process’ and ‘standards’).

Another problem with Face – and one we do not think many Thais have adequately thought through – is when respect for another person is confused for the other person’s representation of themselves, until – chaiyo! – a relationship between two people suddenly becomes four. We soon enter a weird and wonderful world of make-believe, a hall of mirrors where it’s impossible to distinguish the Character from Personality, and where all players get totaly confused. What follows is so often a charade, where, mimicking actors in a Thai Soap, the players then create a persona that ultimately becomes untrue.

Why playing the game of Face is so damaging to business in Thailand

So what? We can almost hear our readers ask.

Well, playing the game of Face is creating huge costs to businesses in Thailand every day. Consider the following:

  • A service rep will typically be more concerned of maintaining Face with a colleague than with a customer, thereby subordinating the customer to a low priority concern.
  • When collaborating, all sides will seek to make sure that Face is maintained, and not only that, that the representation of Face is maintained. All uncertainty being avoided in Thai culture, this will typically lead to meetings that generate precisely nothing. But hey – as long as no-one has lost Face – we have achieved our objective, right?
  • Peter Drucker said that the first role of the manager is ‘to define reality’. How easy is it for the Thai manager to do that, when he finds himself in situations that are so often only representations of reality, leading to…
  • …the easy option. Thais will tend as a result to avoid anything that may give rise to conflict or uncertainty. This typically leads to managers not correcting their direct reports, and direct reports not giving feedback to their managers. In short, a void forms that severely impairs corporate performance and is characterised by under-management.
  • When a serious mistake occurs, it is the (Faceless) group that must be held accountable, so that the individual concerned does not lose Face.
  • Because Face engenders Fear, and Fear prevents Action, Face holds employees back from making decisions, trying new approaches, innovating, taking initiative, learning, growing, and developing themselves.

One piece of advice we would give to Thai and expatriate managers alike is that conflict is an essential dynamic of progress.

Conflict-avoidance and face-saving in advance only leads to bigger conflicts down the line – and these are the ones that really derail organisations. The key is to learn how to encourage safe conflict that achieves a team objective, as opposed to a charade of face-saving that only achieves individual ones. And not even that, as we shall see…

Why playing the game of Face is so damaging to individuals in Thailand

If we give our readers the feeling that Face is somehow self-serving in Thailand, then perhaps we should clarify ourselves.

Mental health admissions in Thai hospitals are currently soaring.

Now we are not so foolish as to attribute all of these cases to Face. But we would like to share a top psychiatrist’s explanation that many of his patients are ‘confused’. Sound familiar?

Face is the one great unspoken challenge not only for Thailand’s human resource capability, but also for Thai society. Ex-PM Abhisit Vejjajiva lamented that the problem with reconciling Thais lay not with practicalities but that Thai people ‘paint themselves into a corner’. We can see how avoidance, in this case, leads to polarisation and bigger problems down the line. Given this does being respectful of ‘Face’ really help anyone?

Face in our view harms Thai individuals in the following ways:

  • An obsession with Face physically, leading to an almost neurotic obsession with looks. In our view this leads at first to vanity and in turn creates personal insecurities, feelings of dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and confidence issues.
  • This insecurity in turn feeds the unhealthy conflicts that are happening we feel with greater frequency in Thai society. A typical cycle – which we see happen regularly in the workplace – is described by the Karpman Drama Triangle here.
  • Face leads to such a need for recognition and fear of not receiving it in Thailand that we have advertising campaigns like that recently of Aum Patcharapa who suddenly has found the courage (being movie star and all) to ‘dare to be me’.
  • More than anything else, we wonder whether Face, by denying reality and personal responsibility, is on a societal level heading towards a precipice?

What you can do to make sure Face doesn’t derail your organisation…

The good news is that all the above happens if managers don’t do their gardening!

And doing your gardening means implementing a structured training programme.

Two programmes we offer that specifically overcome the shortcomings of Face are Personality Factor – where participants discover their personality type and the types of others, enabling them to collaborate more effectively – and Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team – where, among other skills, participants learn how to master conflict.

You can find details of Personality Factor here and the world’s #1 team development programme Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team here. Or why not drop us a line with your specific human resource challenges using our contact page?

Lastly we hope this post has been useful and give you pointers how to make your organisation in Thailand more dynamic and harmonious – and deepen your understanding beyond that introductory cross-cultural course!


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