There are many situations where we find real cultural differences across Asia that influence projects, negotiations, change management and everyday leadership and team behaviours.
None of these distinctions, as we have observed them, seem to present insurmountable challenges or issues to achievement. Rather the awareness of these factors serves to simply increase effectiveness, the timeliness of achievement and the degree of acceptance of change, or levels of buy-in and engagement.
One of the first practical distinctions we experienced in leading local teams, driving change, or facilitating project implementation is based on different preferred behavioural styles. There are many ways to analyse these styles, we find the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator provides useful structure. The prevalence of different types seems to vary quite sharply with the different cultures in Asia, also with the availability of real data for MBTI types across countries we can avoid falling into the trap of cultural stereotyping.
In the US the MBTI type ISTJ – Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judgemental – is around 7-8% of the population. In Singapore, the ISTJ proportion of the population is 30%. Adding in the related type ESTJ, accounts for over 50% of the population. There are practical implementations; while running a change management programme with an organisation in Singapore we had attempted various brainstorming sessions with the team to explore likely change scenarios and possible outcomes. These sessions had been very challenging. From further work we identified that the profile of the team concerned was dominated by ISTJ (70%) and ESTJ (20%). True to type, "brainstorming", which we tend to see as a natural corporate practice, is actually one of the most stressful activities that an ISTJ can be asked to perform. Recognizing this we were able to change tack and provide a series of case studies and specific sets of instructions on managing different aspects of change (along the lines of "if X" "then Y"). For both ESTJ and ISTJ, in a change situation, the preferred approach is to look to experience as a guide, for unfamiliar situations the approach becomes "tell me" or "show me" what to do.
As another example working with an operational team in India (ESTJ dominant) on a project implementation, it was essential in the project definition stage to build in additional time and meetings to allow for extended discussion and debate what often seemed to be needless detailed points. This was a critical activity for the project success to obtain the necessary buy-in and alignment before proceeding.
While for any leadership situation in any culture, it is always important to consider all the different preferred styles, we have found that being alert to the likely prevalence of dominant cultural preferences has always provided additional insight and increased effectiveness and the likelihood of success.
Relationship with Time
Sequential planning, or multi tasking. In time or through time. Past-present centric or present-future centric. The end justifies the means or the means matter most. There are numerous ways of understanding and expressing our individual and cultural awareness of time, awareness of these real differences is vital.
In India, having experienced attending or organizing many meetings in the back office operations for one firm, it is apparent that meeting times are largely optional. For any given meeting, people who may or may not have been invited will begin to arrive about 15 minutes before the appointed time and for anything up to about 30 minutes after the appointed time. Specific individuals may or may not turn up at all. The meeting itself may or may not ultimately happen. All of this is perfectly acceptable, natural and conducted without stress. There is no sense of 'waiting' for the meeting to start. It actually starts as soon as there is more than one person is in the room, many side discussions and meetings take place until an indeterminate point in time when the agreed agenda items are covered (..or not..). The best advice is 'go with the flow', do not expect a fixed agenda and focus on the outcomes you would like to achieve, resetting these on a daily basis. Do not expect to force the 'right way of doing things'.
Working with a corporation in Manila, it seems that there is more flexibility. It was observed that emails arranging meetings would explicitly state that a meeting invitation was American time or Manila time. If American time, the participants would come at the scheduled time and expect a structured agenda. If Manila time, then the process is almost identical to the India experience (and this is how the local teams prefer to operate). So in the Philippines, communicating your expectation is vital.
On a project with an international company in Bali, Indonesia, the local management communicated that they now recruit all there middle managers from central Java, where they know there is a strong sequential time orientation and a more western approach to managing projects and time. The Balinese have a wonderful cultural heritage which is almost totally present focused, the past and future exist within the present. There is the Bali "ten minutes" for the duration of an activity, trip, or arrival time of anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Time sense extends into the relationship versus task focus. The experience in China is that a project does not have a defined end, but merely seems to extend into the next project or coalesce into parallel activities. Similarly with contracts. Working with an American company on a Joint venture in Shanghai, there was much celebration by the American team on the signing of the contract after four years of negotiations and continuous relationship building. There was somewhat less excitement on literally the following day when the Chinese team asked to meet to begin the next round of negotiating the contract…..
Working on a JV project with a Japanese company and multinational corporation, we were struggling to get our project NPV's to payback over a five year period using the latest negotiated terms. With the close collaboration of the project teams, we were able to enquire of the Japanese team, in general terms, as to how their project financials were stacking up. They were very happy: their NPV was break-even at 25 years and achieved their hurdle rates on their normal 50 year projection! Ultimately this differing perspective was used to redistribute upfront investment to the Japanese partner in return for a greater share of the longer term returns and make the deal work for all concerned.
The best summary of the importance of relationships is an old adage. "In the West, what is being said is the most important, the further East you go, who is saying it becomes increasingly important".
There is already a lot of guidance and advice written on managing this. We recommend "Riding the Waves of Culture" by Fons Trompenaars as one of the best descriptions of these factors and successfully managing these.