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The Indonesian Big Five Part II: Conflicts of Nature

This is the second of three columns focusing on what I call the Indonesian Big Five Cultural Values. The first column covered ‘loyalty to hierarchical structures of authority’. In this one I will discuss ‘conflict avoidance’ and the consequences of being ‘subjugated to nature’. The third column will discuss face and social shame along with Indonesia’s relaxed future-time perspective.

As I have often stressed, it is important to understand that the core cultural values of the Indonesian archipelago, while often assumed to be like Javanese values, show distinct variations based on ethnic group, social class, and religion. However, Javanese values do tend to dominate just because of demographics along with political and social pressure.

The second of Indonesia’s five core values, ‘Conflict Avoidance’ is also called Harmoni Kelompok. Most Indonesians value maintaining the appearance of harmony at all costs. This leads to situations involving possible obfuscation (e.g., saying ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’) and perhaps taking an outwardly passive attitude toward most situations.

There is a strong separation between appearance and reality in fundamental Indonesian belief systems. Usually, more importance is placed on the appearance or interpretation of a situation rather than on the ‘real’ facts or rational analysis. Reality is often best hidden. A few examples may best be of value here.

If a problem arises in an Indonesian office, for many personnel it is often better to use the conflict resolution strategy of ‘denial’ to maintain the appearance of harmony rather than risk even the possibility of confrontation. This can be seen in the unwillingness of an employee to address problems or difficult situations and in the difficulty of accepting personal responsibility and demonstrating initiative.

Former President Suharto often used a saying that loosely translates, “Everyone understands the situation without having to discuss it.” The underlying value being that discussing or using direct communication as a conflict resolution tool makes a situation or problem too real. This could lead to confrontation, which is to be avoided if at all possible, regardless of any possible beneficial effects.

If an employee has made a mistake or serious error in the performance of the job, a supervisor who remonstrates that employee in private (i.e., behind closed doors) allows office personnel, though they are may be fully aware of the situation, to act as if nothing ‘disturbing’ has happened, thereby preserving the appearance of office harmony.

There is often a large gap between reality and appearance, with appearance being the more important. Situations that can be rationalized can be accepted, even though the ‘reality’ might not quite fit. Therefore, questions as to why health and safety standards are disregarded, or economic growth is low, can be blamed on outside factors and, by not assigning blame within the group, harmony is maintained.

Whenever an employee leaves a company, there are inevitably many stories that surface about how that employee was guilty of serious mistakes and misdemeanors during the employment. Because the relationship has ended, there is no further need to maintain silence. Employees guilty of crimes against their employer are often let go quietly so as not to make a fuss.

The cultural value of conflict avoidance may bring many benefits to the office place, at best providing a surface calm and controlling influence. From a Western perspective, it may also carry the negative stereotypes of avoiding issues, being passive, or duplicitous.

Looking at the third of my five core values, ‘Subjugation to Nature’ is also called Kekuatan Alami, Indonesians tend to take great comfort in common belief systems and religion. They are usually able to handle an unclear future because of faith; however, they also tend to be very superstitious, having a strong belief in the power of objects and events. This may lead to a failure to take responsibility for their own actions or to try hard to influence outcomes.

Most Indonesians think that a belief in some kind of religion is necessary if one is to receive any of the benefits of life. Kekuatan Alami may also be seen in the lack of initiative and personal will to exert effort to change one’s life for the better. A quiet suffering is normally the proper response to life’s problems. Complaining about that which cannot be changed is considered disruptive to the group.

Western ideas of the value of emotional release are generally looked down upon. It is the common belief of most of Indonesian society that people should hold all of their negative emotions inside until the pressure becomes too much to bear and an expressive, emotional, and sometime violent albeit cleansing response, referred to as lari amok, occurs. Such a response is often believed to be caused by outside forces such as evil spirits, so the actions of an individual while experiencing this loss of emotional control are usually excused by society without punishment for evil acts committed while ‘possessed’ or otherwise out of control.

In another example, a subsistence-level farmer, who has had little contact with paper currency and less with political empowerment, may be encouraged by his culture and society to take the perspective that these circumstances are what God, nature, or the universe want for him and, therefore, he should be satisfied with his lot in life. Less educated company employees may take the same stance.

In Javanese-influenced Islam, a ‘good’ Muslim may also pray to, make sacrifices to, or perform rituals for the local sprits or places of power because their parents told them to. This following of village ritual, tradition, and ceremony without necessarily having an understanding of the belief system behind it – form separated from substance – is common.

Familial and religious obligations have strong power over Indonesians. If traditional rituals and ceremonies are not properly and duly performed, God, nature, or the universe will take serious retribution on the fates and lives of those involved. Since this exceeds the punishment that any employer might impose, such duties have greater priority than work.

This cultural value of subjugation to nature may have benefits in the office place such as providing a calming influence or reducing stressful situations. From a Western perspective, it may also carry the negative stereotypes of being superstitious, overly religious, and lacking priorities. Also, personnel may be easily incited by rumor or unscrupulous instigators – believing what they are told without due individual consideration.

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