Making sense of Face in Thailand
If you have a job managing Thais, then making sense of Face in Thailand is going to be essential to your success as a manager.
We saw previously how Face is impacting the workplace in Thailand. In this post we thought it might be helpful to give Expat managers (and Thais) some tips to managing ‘Face’.
First, I think it’s important to differentiate the physical face to the emotional one. The physical face is big business in Thailand as well as many other Asian countries – especially the obsession with lighter skin.
This can be understood in a socio-economic sense: Asians may want lighter skins to differentiate themselves from those with darker skin who might be thought to ‘work in the fields’ (lower class). Therefore, lighter skin = higher class.
Unfortunately, the obsession with looks among Thais and willingness in social settings not to look beyond the physical, prevents many from dealing with the very serious challenges being thrown up by ‘emotional’ Face.
Here are some notable examples: referees who get mobbed whenever they make a judgement against a player in a football match; judges who get intimidated when a ruling does not go in one or the other person’s favour. And yes, even the ‘rage of Thaksin’ – all these things are examples of ‘emotional face’ that some say are ripping the heart our of Thai society. ‘Face’ in emotional sense is an insecurity fuelled by an obsession with vanity and perceived status in society.
Face in the Workplace
‘Emotional’ Face in the workplace might express itself differently. Consider the following behaviours:
- silence or communication blackouts
- avoidance strategies, including not attending meetings and not collaborating or sharing
- gossip as a strategy
- emotional control issues
All of the above are typical ‘Face-related’ behaviours, often relating to some perceived loss of status, a perceived slight or insult, or simply another person ‘not following norms’. Many of the reasons for these behaviours that we have encountered in the past could appear trivial. But there’s also no question that they are also impacting the workplace in a big way.
People are running scared of Face. Our advice – Don’t!
Unfortunately, because of the above behavioural problems, too many managers avoid any form of interaction that may go beneath the surface of Face. In management, this is catastrophic, because what you are essentially saying is that ‘I will make no effort in trying to achieve the key Engagement behaviours‘ – no wonder disengagement is so rife in the Thai workplace!
That’s why in Thailand it’s not losing Face itself which is the problem, but the fear of losing Face.
We think it’s a mistake to stay on the surface. Precisely because in so doing you will never achieve the engagement factors listed in the link above, such as such as identifying an individual’s talents, getting the person playing to his or her strengths, clarifying his or her role, mapping out a career path, encouraging open and robust communication and more besides.
Manage as you would manage normally
For decades Thailand has got away with its exceptionalism, its ‘we do things differently here’. And we’re not advocating overturning that. We’re simply suggesting that in the sphere of management, managers should manage normally – doing what is necessary.
‘We all wear masks and the time comes when we cannot remove them, without removing some of our own skin.’
So if it’s necessary to pick a person up on a performance issue, do so. And if you are skilled at people management you would:
- first ask for permission
- ask for a convenient place and time
- give your context, perspective and intent, check for understanding
- calmly and serenely raise the performance issue
- if Face issues emerge at any stage, breathe, maintain your posture, and smile
- if Face issues escalate to emotional control issues, reschedule the meeting and try again
The key point here is to listen, and if you feel your intent is justified, then calmly don’t let go. It’s essential to persist and resist the temptation to put a performance issue in the ‘cultural box’.
All too often Face is seen as a barrier, but we prefer to see it as a river that needs to be crossed: a river between the superficial and surface, and the depth of character on the other side.
The reward is enhanced relationships and engagement at work.
Talent Technologies offers four programmes that help manage the challenge of Face in Thailand:
Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team (details here)
Personality Factor (details here),
Conflict Management (details here) and
Emotional Intelligence (details here).
Talent Technologies :: Taking your Talent to a Higher Level