Home » Doing Business in Indonesia » Cross Cultural Understanding

The Indonesian Big Five Part III: Of Face and Time

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

I would think that every western businessperson working in Asia has heard the old admonition to avoid causing a loss of face in your dealings with your local counterparts. There are untold numbers of stories of how a loss of face can have serious consequences from a destruction of the underlying relationship to an employee resigning to actual violence. This advice stands true in Indonesia also.

In Indonesia there is a need to maintain the respect of one’s co-workers in order to have an enjoyable work situation, which also involves the indirect communication from a superior that one’s needs and well-being are being looked after and protected.

Mistakes and errors should be freely forgiven or any criticism immediately given and then forgotten. This can sometimes be seen in the apparent lack of desire for professional development, the assumption that education ends upon hiring, or that one deserves respect because of one’s position and not because of competence or work performance.

Criticism should never be given in public; an erring employee should be reprimanded in private for mistakes at work. All the other employees may know about the problem or error but because it was resolved behind closed doors, the co-workers can maintain the appearance of office harmony, pretending that the problem never existed. Subordinates can become easily upset, which can have serious consequences for the foreign superior creating the disharmony. Superiors should not make subordinates feel bad or attack their view of status or self-esteem. Subordinates normally do not take criticism easily, are frequently unwilling to take the ‘hard road’, and do not usually believe in a “no pain, no gain” mentality. They are generally not willing to sacrifice image, ego, or status to gain experience, develop professionally, or meet goals. Work situations generally must be enjoyable to have value.

For example, performance appraisals and employee evaluations in Indonesia are difficult because, among other things, the supervisor is seen as saving up all the problems that were ‘understood’ to be already resolved and then presenting them to the confused employee months later.

Failure to perform to the maximum of one’s abilities, just occupying office space with little or no contribution to company goals, may not be seen as ‘wrong’ in and of itself. Rarely would an employee feel he was receiving his wages under false pretext or seek another position because he felt under-utilized or was not developing additional skills.

The main way to modify behavior in an erring Indonesian employee is to spare a loss of face and encourage social shame, which is the internal feeling by the erring employee that he or she really did do something wrong. This is accomplished only by keeping criticism behind closed doors.

Rewards must be status-based. Giving a promotion if there is not accompanying status indicators like title, office size, or club memberships generally does not have great motivational effect. Performance bonuses may often be seen as an excuse to reduce work activity until further funds are needed. Promoting a hard worker to an administrative position can even result in a loss of output with the employee then behaving as a “Little Bapak” who considers it unseemly to work hard.

Persepsi Waktu

Looking at the last of my five core values, Persepsi Waktu is the culture’s Perception of Time. The difference between the strong Western sense of Future Time (and its effects on scheduling, planning, deadlines, work quality, maintenance and safety) and the dominant Indonesian Past or Present Time focus is one of the strongest cultural barriers international businesspeople encounter operating in Indonesia.

In traditional Indonesian business culture, planning, deadlines, and schedules may have little meaning or value; future time has no rigid segmentation. There is a belief that time is required to allow nature and the universe to reveal themselves. Forcing human concepts of time management on nature is seldom productive. The time needed to negotiate a business deal or to complete production of a product is generally seen as outside humankind’s control and attempts to influence the natural order are not humankind’s business.

Punctuality is the responsibility of the subordinate. The higher the status of a person, the more he or she moves through life causing subordinates to adjust to and swirl around the superior’s schedule. The lack of a future time perspective in Indonesia is seen in areas such as health, safety, and maintenance. If work quality is sufficient for today’s needs, it is generally believed that there is no need to take extra steps to ensure continued quality for tomorrow. Such an approach can be seen in the perceived inattention to quality in business and the workplace and often results in projects being half finished by international business standards. Focus is most often on congratulating oneself on what went right rather than on attending to what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. Poor performance is often repeated.

For example, workman may install a split air conditioner, which looks good and works upon installation in an office. However, upon inspection of the compressor unit, one may find that it was not properly placed or supported. The unit works now, but will no doubt break down soon due to low quality installation. Work quality, that is, the intent for workmanship to last into the future, is part of a future time perspective.

Safety issues are also affected by the weak future time sense. Roadside arc welders normally use sunglasses in an attempt to protect their eyesight from the bright light generated by the welding. However, they seldom use facemasks. The welding is always bright, so the eyes must be protected every time. However, hot metal does not fly into the worker’s face every time that he welds, only sometimes. If there is a regularly occurring safety hazard, precautions are usually taken. A possibly dangerous future event will be only weakly comprehended and seldom will precautions be taken and the result can be seen in a family of four on one motorcycle.

The process is more important than the outcome. If everything was done in the time-honored and ‘correct’ way, there is no pressure to accept responsibility for failure. There is no sense of ‘Meet the Deadline or Die Trying’. Excuses for not meeting deadlines are many and various and more often than not involve allusion to outside agencies beyond the employee’s control. These excuses all have valid currency within the Indonesian society but are normally unacceptable to goal-oriented international businesspeople.

In conclusion, it is difficult to isolate and exemplify the main cultural values of any culture, and unfortunately, a short overview like this of any culture’s main values may appear negative or at least appear to lack understanding. However in the interests of fairness it must be said that many of the main American cultural values — Self-Reliance, Control, Equality, Private Property, Law and Order, Speaking Up, and Speed — or the Australian main values — Informality, Forthrightness, Independence, Egalitarianism, and Practicality — are viewed in a negative light by many of the other cultures in the world. There are few absolute rights or wrongs in the world’s business cultures, just differences and challenges.

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