Managing Along the Pacific Rim
US executives need better preparation and the humility to reform their style in order to meet the challenges of running a business effectively in a foreign culture
FOR some years I have been concerned about the development of management leadership for American corporations with business operations in Pacific Rim countries.
As companies become global and send managers overseas, these expatriate managers will confront the rising aspirations of indigenous managers. The more ambitious want not only to assume increasing responsibility locally, but also to move up the corporate ladder, even to the top. The countries themselves prefer indigenous management. Therefore, companies that seek to perpetuate themselves must train current expatriate managers to develop indigenous successors.
Many companies are poorly prepared for global competition. American managers, by and large, have limited language skills compared with managers from other countries. American managers, compared with their European peers, are more politically conservative and chauvinistic about American management and political institutions. Their often narrow world view makes them more dependent on foreign subordinates, and thus less able to lead and be a focus of identification for people they manage.
Gerald Czarnecki, recently appointed senior vice president for human resources and administration at IBM, speaks of the need to read deeply in the history and culture of the area to which one is assigned. He calls particular attention to the need to understand the experiences of people who have been dominated by foreigners and the pressure on younger people to regain their sovereignty.
LIBBY GIAMETTI, a manager with American Assurance Company in Bangkok for many years, stresses the need to understand the various religious mentalities in Pacific Rim countries. A Japanese person, for example, doesn't feel accountable to God, but to parents, ancestors, and Japan itself. Political concern for human rights, rooted in Judeo-Christian religion, is not easily understood there. Religion requires the blessing of new buildings, which is important to Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Muslims, and Animis ts alike, as is the arrangement of furniture in those buildings.
The power of family obligations in Pacific Rim cultures requires sensitivity to the different roles people play within a given family. Family roles can form a greater part of a person's identity than they tend to do in the West. They can affect a person's way of focusing on work, especially if the company's culture is very different from the employee's family experience. Not only is birth order far more important in Pacific Rim cultures, but in many cases people are beholden to their families into their 30s. A 32-year-old may consult with the family about whether to stay with the company or whether to accept a training assignment in the United States.
For expatriate managers trying to develop indigenous management in Pacific Rim cultures, a major problem is the management and expression of aggression, not only anger but also initiative and drive. For example, Chinese are acculturated in tightly controlled families that value quiet, obedient children. This creates conformity and respect for hierarchy. When such people join organizations, they are less likely to volunteer opinions, to show initiative, or to depart from standard procedures without a supe rior's approval. When organizations are flattened, it can be psychologically difficult for those who are accustomed to multiple levels of hierarchy because when they are on their own, they have no one above them to look up to. The key to nurturing independence in people who are accustomed to hierarchical dependence is to develop their identification with you, their boss.
When indigenous subordinates are less likely than Americans to speak their minds and to act on their own initiatives, an American manager must adopt a more paternalistic style than would be expected in the US. By paternalism, I mean personal attention to social affairs, acceptance of social responsibility, and support for people in dealing with bureaucracies.
The expatriate manager must work closely with small groups when local traditions do not value large-scale public debates and discussions. Subordinates from Pacific Rim cultures usually won't explain in detail how they arrived at decisions, nor are they likely to be open to criticism for them. The Western manager must exercise extra verbal and emotional restraint, must take a long view of working out the relationship (forget you ever heard the phrase "one-minute manager"), and allow subordinates to talk w ith each other about collective advantages rather than individual achievements. On that foundation, the manager can encourage people to become increasingly independent, innovative, and entrepreneurial, traits they will need if they want to advance in a Western-style organization.
WHERE hierarchy is honored, as it is in most Pacific Rim cultures, saving face is particularly important. So it often works better to avoid giving people specific targets that might lead to failure, but rather to say, "I need to have this happen," laying out several goals you wish to achieve. That same respect for hierarchy also means that you're less likely to hear about problems from people who report to you.
Susume Yoshida, president of Sumitono Chemical American, Inc., points out that in the West, communication is largely through words, but "at the heart of Eastern culture, there is a disposition to see things that have no voice." Japanese, for example, often have great difficulty explaining features of their culture in words. Communication, therefore, may be convoluted, often calculated to avoid embarrassment. American managers will have to devote considerable time and effort to earning subordiantes' trust
in order to be able to pick up, even by indirection, what they need to "hear" from their people. (This does not hold for Koreans, however, who are very direct in their expression.)
Ethnic differences and hostilities sometimes contaminate work relationships. Indonesians and Malaysians, for example, have long been hostile toward their indigenous Chinese populations. In Hong Kong, while most of the Chinese come from nearby Guangdong and speak relatively loudly, the Thais are quieter and more relaxed. This complicates the work relationship if one has to supervise the other.
One useful technique for the American manager who is trying to lead a diverse group is to organize small teams clustered around the manager as a basis for developing closer work relationships in the group. Ethnic tensions will remain, requiring continuous control and nurturing so that subordinates eventually can identify with each other through identification with their common leader.
The key requirements for expatriate managerial success are patience, flexibility, and, particularly, humility. Trust and friendship don't happen as quickly in Pacific Rim cultures as in America. It takes time to bargain and develop a consensus.
Managers have to listen to people, avoid second-guessing them, and sometimes go along with someone who is not yet succeeding. It's important not to challenge people directly, to give them a chance to explain, and to nurture in them greater independence and initiative. The Western manager won't get the quick results so highly prized back home and that may even be demanded now. He or she may even have to hold the home office off. Time may have little relevance in some Asian cultures where many people are n ot accustomed to fixed decision times.
American managers who are rigid and driven will have difficulty in the Pacific Rim. Although they will enjoy the privileges of rank, those who cannot allow themselves to be courteously deferential soon will be shut out. Those who don't take the trouble to learn the subtleties of interpersonal behavior will be viewed as boors. The American who rushes in and out on a two-year assignment, with a heavy emphasis on the bottom line, without focusing on developing indigenous managers, will be found increasingly
unwelcome. The manager who passes down corporate policies without thinking about their applicability in the local setting will be viewed as a fool. The corporation that doesn't allow for adaptation sets up its overseas managers as insensitive clods. The manager who would succeed must become a cultural anthropologist in a managerial role.