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The Indonesian Big Five Part I: Bapakisme

There has been a hunt going on in my sector recently for the Indonesian Big Five. In our case, it has been an attempt to define and exemplify the top five Indonesian core cultural values. A mixed team of foreign and Indonesian cultural experts have put together what they consider to be the big five, but believe me this list is certainly open to debate.

Here is what they came up with: 1) loyalty to a hierarchical structure of authority; 2) conflict avoidance; 3) subjugation to nature; 4) face and social shame; and, 5) relaxed future time perspective.

Over three articles I will try to present each of these five core values in context. One point to note is that the core cultural values of the Indonesian archipelago are often assumed to be identical with the Javanese values. This is not always the case though these values do tend to dominate just because of demographics and social pressure. Javanese values evolved in an agricultural, highly stratified, feudal society. Values developed in such societies are often designed to protect the status quo and limit individual initiative. They may not easily lend themselves to enhancing attitudes and behaviors commonly accepted ‘globally’ as conducive to running an international business in the most efficient and effective manner.

Looking at the first of these core values, ‘loyalty to a hierarchical structure of authority’ is also called Bapakisme. At its worst it can be described as a blind submission to a higher authority with a lack of concern about work performance, standards, or initiative. At its best it is a system that encourages harmony, trust, and deference while motivating the subordinate to work diligently to obtain the superior’s goals. I believe that this value has its roots in the concept of natural born leaders and natural born followers, which translates in the marketplace as a kind of ‘divine right of bosses’.

In a society that values loyalty to a hierarchical structure of authority, subordinates may try to keep the boss happy, but may not understand what the boss really wants. Bosses are perceived to have divinely inspired knowledge and abilities. Good ideas flow from the boss and bad ideas are the fault of the subordinate. Seniors and superiors are to be respected due to their positions in a business’ hierarchical organization or, more generally, their positions in society, regardless of their sophistication, actual competence, or technical ability. Disrespect to a senior or superior may result in semi-divine retribution. This encourages the belief that a superior is always right. Rarely would a subordinate lose respect for, or argue with, a superior just because that person was obviously mistaken or overly concerned with his own status and the deference paid to him.

Cultural values such as these are often best understood by looking at specific examples. The following situations were stated as exemplifying this value by both Indonesian and foreign managers working in international companies in Indonesia.

If you cause a senior Indonesian manager to lose face, and the next day you are in a traffic accident, in the minds of many Indonesian office personnel there is a direct cause and effect relationship. You acted improperly, violated the natural order, and you were duly punished.

If the boss mistakenly says that the sky is green in a meeting, for the duration of the meeting everyone may appear to operate on the assumption that the sky is green. Afterwards, information may be sent through an intermediary that, in fact, the sky is blue, allowing the Bapak to reconsider the sky’s true color before the next meeting.

One of the main ways that a boss is ‘kept happy’ is by actively shielding him or her from bad news, or by saying whatever the subordinate thinks will spare the boss disappointment or anger. This ignores the impending negative impact of unresolved problems.

Expatriates are often frustrated by lack of what they perceive as the ‘true information’ about a situation or problem and need to spend time explaining how they, as the Boss, want to be kept happy by having ‘bad news’ communicated as soon as possible so that actions may be taken to address the situation. Not conveying bad news is partly to protect the boss, the bearer of the news, or the bearer's own subordinates, and also to avoid drastic or upsetting actions being taken. There is a feeling that bringing bad news implicates the bearer.

Mid-level Indonesian managers may be reluctant to report problem areas within their own bailiwick. Therefore, a subordinate may try very hard to solve problems in his work area himself without disturbing the boss; thus losing the benefit of the boss’s wisdom and authority to influence the resolution of problems. Displays of displeasure or anger by foreigners upon receiving bad news almost guarantee that Indonesian personnel will remain silent in the future. Subordinates often must be encouraged to report potential and actual problems and this behavior positively reinforced if the boss wishes to be correctly informed in a timely manner.

Foreigners, when not informed of the ‘true’ situation by their Indonesian peers or subordinates, may decide that that employee is untrustworthy or incompetent, lose respect for that individual, and, thereafter, telegraph that lack of respect through actions and words. Indonesians are extremely sensitive to such signals and this can irreparably harm important business relationships.

In conclusion, I should point out that almost before they learn their ABCs, Indonesians at all levels of society become sensitive to the subtle variations in levels of status that comprise this loyalty to a hierarchical structure of authority. While Indonesian personnel in senior positions are accorded the status of Bapak almost by default, foreign managers normally do not broadcast the same ‘signals’ as their Indonesian counterparts. Westerners often appear too egalitarian and friendly, or alternatively, vulgar and rude. They lack the aristocratic aura and ‘princely distance’ that characterizes the true Indonesian Bapak. Their subordinates may not feel comfortable in the non-standard relationship they must assume with the foreign boss and are not sure of his or her motivation and priorities. Thus foreigners, if they wish to assume the mantle of Bapak (Ibu for women), must earn it by fostering an image of parental concern and demonstrating a desire to look after the interests of their subordinates.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.