Managing Intra-Asian Workforces

By Erin Meyer Mar 25, 2013

While companies are moving beyond their borders and reaching into international territory, their employees are not “global people”: All people carry an element of cultural perception linked to the culture or countries they were raised in. Multinational organizations are full of individuals who hail from a specific place and likely hold deep-rooted cultural views.

To ensure team collaboration, therefore, managers must monitor how their culturally diverse team members perceive one another. Most challenges for cross-cultural teams emerge when managers assume that the cultures within a particular region are similar and thus respond to the same management techniques. This could not be further from the truth.

In Asia-Pacific, where multicultural workforces are continually growing, these differences are especially acute and present a huge challenge for managers who lead intra-Asian teams.

The biggest mistake a manager can make about his or her teams in different parts of Asia is assuming that they are culturally similar. If, as a leader, you think, “We are all Asian; there are no differences,” then you will face serious problems.

China and Japan provide a key example of cultures within Asia-Pacific that outwardly are often perceived as similar but, in reality, are extremely different. Citizens of both nations place importance on relationship-built trust and are often uncomfortable voicing individual opinions in brainstorming sessions and engaging in open confrontation (although this tendency is considerably stronger in Japan than in China).

However, these nations have very different attitudes about decision-making. The Japanese are much less inclined to make decisions quickly, without extensive discussion, and they often select a course of action after lengthy group consensus-building. Conversely, the Chinese are much more comfortable taking risks, preferring quick decision-making to group consensus. In a team this can create a lot of frustration. The Japanese are accused of being slow, while the Chinese are accused of taking action without adequate forethought.

The business relationship between Thais and Singaporeans is another good example of a problem that can occur within intra-Asian teams. In business, Thais consider confrontation to be rude, aggressive and disrespectful. Open disagreement is avoided, and even asking another’s individual point of view in front of a group can feel confrontational to some. In contrast, Singaporeans are much more likely to express differing viewpoints openly. Debate in Singapore is apt to be both accepted and even appreciated as a way to stimulate new thinking.

Managers leading a team in which both of these cultures are present must be aware of these sometimes-subtle communication differences and be adequately equipped with the tools and techniques needed to mitigate potential problems.

Be Prepared

In many Asian cultures the default purpose of a meeting is to put a formal stamp on a decision that has been made beforehand during informal premeetings. In Japanese this is called nemawashi. The same activity occurs in various degrees in China, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand. When leading a team with members from one of these countries, managers should try making phone calls before the formal meeting to confirm the situation.

Be mindful of language. For example, to encourage debate, try phrases like, “I do not quite understand your point” and “Please explain more why you think that,” and refrain from saying, “I disagree with that,” which could shut down the conversation completely.

Unprecedented economic growth in Asia will drive more and more businesses to expand across the region. The trade and investment opportunities that exist in Asia-Pacific are staggering, and paramount to organizations’ success and investment in the region will be their ability to effectively manage teams.

Erin Meyer is a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, one of the world’s leading graduate business schools, and director of the executive education program Managing Global Virtual Teams.

Republished with permission. © 2013 Erin Meyer. All rights reserved.

Related Article:

Cross-Cultural Diversity Challenging Global Managers, SHRM Online Global HR, March 2013

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