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Business Across Cultures: Customs unfair, unrighteous, illogical, and cruel

“Laws are sand; customs are rock. Laws can be evaded and punishment escaped, but an openly transgressed custom brings sure punishment. The penalty may be unfair, unrighteous, illogical, and a cruelty; no matter, it will be inflicted, just the same. Certainly, then, there can be but one wise thing for a visiting stranger to do — find out what the country's customs are, and refrain from offending against them.” Such advice was given by Mark Twain in his story, The Gorky Incident.

Expatriates living and working in Indonesia should certainly understand the customs and norms of the local culture. A basic understanding and respect for these customs makes it possible to have a smooth posting here. However, there are many different cultures and custom sets at play in Indonesia. Besides the customs of the society, we also have the customs and norms of our corporate culture. Just as an expatriate working in a foreign country should learn to understand that country's customs, the employees of multinational companies need to understand the values and customs of that company, and follow them at least while at work.

Many mid-level Indonesian managers feel that multinational companies operating in Indonesia need to conform to local standards, norms and customs — that there is little room for implementing foreign business customs here. This is a difficult mindset to change, but changed it must be. Multinational companies have a responsibility to international standards and home-office supervision. At the very least, a multinational company must enforce its standards among its work force on company property during working hours.

We see this often in safety procedures in the heavy industry sectors. For instance, while one may be able to enforce a mandatory seatbelt use rule in company vehicles during working hours, even senior managers can be seen unbuckling as they cross the company's property line.

Customs and norms are so deeply ingrained in a person's psyche that there is little that one can do in the short or medium term to alter this basic aspect of human nature. A company needs to focus on this to have any success in implementing change. What is acceptable behavior for a company needs to be formally written and often repeated to the employees.

However, the ‘inside or outside of the workplace’ distinction is not necessarily a bad one to make. If we can accept that changing custom in the home is neither required nor perhaps even acceptable corporate behavior, we can focus on developing managers who can 'switch' or 'click' on and off certain behaviors based on their locations and the situation. Indeed, this is the basic definition of an effective global manager — a person who can alter his or her management styles and actions based on the specific needs of the situation. That is, someone who acts differently when they step off the plane in Sydney than they do when they step off the plane in Makassar. By reverse definition, a person who cannot change their managerial skills sets and actions based on the appropriateness to local customs and situations is a bad global manager, whether or not they are expatriate or Indonesian.

Of course, the level of tolerance in society and in the company determines how far and how strict this change in actions need be. For instance, drunken behavior by Westerners in Blok M sports bars is generally tolerated, while impolite and emotional behavior by Westerners in rural Java is not. Taking a longer lunch on Fridays to go to the Mosque for practicing Muslim males is acceptable; however, breaking off a telephone conversation with an important client in Geneva by saying that, 'I am sorry but I cannot talk to you now because I have to go pray' is not acceptable behavior in most multinational companies.

In conclusion, being aware of your environment — of what is really happening around you — and adjusting your actions and behavior to that situation, is one of the most important abilities of successful global managers. Both expatriate and Indonesian managers will usually need help to develop this skill. Appropriate behavior towards others in the workplace should be an important corporate value often stated to employees. Senior management needs to decide on and establish what behavior is and is not acceptable and draw a ‘no-go’ line in the sand, so to speak, or you and your company could be subjected to penalties unfair, unrighteous, illogical, and cruel.

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