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Business Across Cultures: Harmony's End

“Welcome Australian soldiers! We have graves prepared for you” was a statement recently written on a placard carried by demonstrators in Jakarta. Anti-Western sentiment is at a high point in the wake of the referendum in East Timor. Foreign pressure on international financial and aid institutions has added to the Indonesian nationalist groundswell that appeared following the June 1999 parliamentary elections.

Indonesian-Western diplomatic relations have been disrupted to a great extent; the work relationships between Westerners and Indonesian in many international offices also are being affected.

It only takes a small incident, which then builds into a major issue, to jeopardize the entire position of an international business in Indonesia. There are emotional issues involved; independence, national unity, human rights, democratization, and transparency are issues that people feel strongly about.

Cross-cultural understanding is a learning process. Both the expatriates and the Indonesian nationals should have an interest in each other's views. However, informative discussion can quickly deteriorate into emotional criticism. Understanding this, the main question here is how to maintain effective working relationships in your company considering these emotional and volatile issues.

There are several possible resolution strategies to this question. Senior management needs to understand and analyze what kind of working relationships have existed in the office up to now to decide which of strategies to pursue.

First of these works in offices where the mixed nationality top management has worked together for, say, five to ten years and are so well known to each other that they would consider themselves 'friends', regardless of any lack of social interaction. These offices often have no problems discussing such issues. However, it seems that even in this case such discussions are best held one-to-one to avoid the outward display of emotionalism or confrontation in front of subordinate employees.

Second is large offices where the expatriate managers have been in place for 'some time' and the work relationships and work acquaintances seem fine. Here there are usually two approaches.

One of these is prohibiting political discussions completely. To let it be known that this is an international-quality workplace and emotional differences of opinion will not be tolerated.

This approach can be effective; however, it tends to broaden the gap between Indonesian and Western employees because it does not increase mutual understanding.

The cornerstone of the Third Corporate Culture that international companies must develop in Indonesia is an ever increasing understanding of the other culture's expectations and priorities. Any condition, rule, or regulation that prevents an increase in that understanding must be considered harmful. This is regardless of any short term apparent benefits to the harmony of the office.

Another more productive solution is to recognize that such emotional issues exist in your work staff and to try to work through and address them in a controlled manner.

This can be done through written policy statements or, better, a general meeting that clearly states that you understand that these issues exist, that you already have good working relationships, and that you will take every measure possible to get through these temporary 'bad' times and work toward building a better future for all of your employees. It may seem to be boilerplate, but this needs to be communicated clearly and often.

The third and most volatile situation is where an international office has recently had a large influx of expatriate personnel who have limited international experience. The Oil/Gas, Financial and Banking sectors are good examples of this. All of these sectors are employing expatriates on short-term contracts to address immediate needs. These expatriates usually do not have the experience to understand that 1) a difference in views between themselves and their Indonesian hosts is natural, and 2) when and where it is appropriate to express those views.

Westerners often have very definite beliefs in the 'proper' values that nations should possess. Dictatorship, genocide, and repression are terms anathema to the values of most Westerners in Indonesia. They are to most Indonesians also. However, the perception of events is different to differing cultures. East Timor may be seen as an occupied territory to many Westerners, however, it is the 27th province of Indonesia to most Indonesians. Culture is environmental in nature coming partially from the way one was taught to view things. Two different cultures can easily look at the same situation and interpret it in vastly differing manners.

The volatility of this last situation stems from the tendency of Westerners to voice their heartfelt beliefs in 'what is right' and with the Indonesians growing tendency to express their own beliefs. These can easily come in conflict with one another.

Western tempers rise quickly; Indonesian tempers rise just as quickly but are often more controlled. To the expatriate, an argument may be a passing thing, like a friendly debate perhaps. However, to an Indonesian employee, a heated argument usually has long lasting negative effects on the work relationship.

Further, most Westerners have an educational background that includes rhetoric and debate. This background in formulating logical and rational arguments often allows expatriates to dominate heated discussions with Indonesians. The public education system here does not yet allow for such studies. Of course, the Javanese and Priyayi mentality in most Indonesian managers discourages these kinds of western-style debates in any case.

Upper management's goal should be to convince their Indonesian and expatriate personnel that the working relationships that have been cultivated are stronger than any passing nationalistic or racial rhetoric. That the work force may indeed have strong differences of opinion, but that they are a family. A family with ties stronger than any temporary disruptive sentiment running through domestic and international circles.

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