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Business Across Cultures: Meetings and Expectations

William Fish, the head of a multinational company in Jakarta, and Charles Jones, his American business development officer, were in a staff meeting with a number of their Indonesian counterparts and co-workers. The discussion became heated with both Bill and Charles actually yelling at each other concerning the proper way to structure the marketing campaign. The silence from the Indonesians was complete. A compromise plan suggested by Charles, the clear subordinate, was finally accepted. As the meeting adjourned and people left the room, many of the Indonesians were surprised to hear Bill congratulate Charles on his performance and invite him to lunch. Such a heated and confrontational situation might well have ended many of the Indonesian relationships in the room, but with the Americans it seemed to strengthen them. What happened at this meeting and how did each side perceive the events?

The American perspective may seem clear: forget the pleasantries. If you have something to say, then say it. Observers often note that there is little room for politeness and personal relationships in the American business style. Long-term business partners split up, bosses fire their sons and people in general will not let personal relationships get in the way of doing what is right for the business. I agree that this may appear to be the case on the surface; however, Americans do care about personal relationships and loyalty in the workplace. Most American managers naturally want to be liked by their employees and many will go out on a limb or go that extra mile to help someone. American employees do not just work for the money; job satisfaction is a important element of a worker's life.

When Mr. Fish called this staff meeting he made a few cultural assumptions. First, he assumed that all of the participants would speak up and voice their opinions on the topics being discussed. Second, when differences of opinion occurred, those differences would not be personal, but only business related. And last, business in general would not suffer, but rather be stimulated by such a situation.

Some of these assumptions were at odds with traditional Indonesian business customs. Voicing opinions and making recommendations is certainly a part of Indonesian business. It is not uncommon at all for an Indonesian Bapak to call a meeting of his department heads, ask their advice and recommendations and then make his decision. The difference is that in Indonesia, the boss makes the decision and the subordinates do not argue with that decision. When Charles verbally disagreed and challenged a decision by Bill, his superior, he acted in a way that may have surprised or confused the Indonesians in the meeting. Bill didn't mind this disagreement. He knows that he is the boss and, if need be, can enforce the decision that he thinks is best. However, the deep undercurrent of equality that runs through the American mentality can also be seen in business relationships. Bill likes his employees to voice their opinions and assumes that if they do not say anything, they have no information or opinion to contribute.

Most western managers are able to separate business and personal issues fairly easily. Even when firing an employee or ending a long-standing supply contract, a western manager might say something like: I hope you understand, it's not personal, only business or I hope that this will not affect our personal relationship The difference is that Indonesian business relationships are personal relationships. Employment here is paternal in nature. The boss, or Bapak, is in a personal relationship with his employees and is responsible for the well being of his subordinates just as a father is responsible for the well being of his children. The employees return this paternal protection with loyalty and hard work. When the personal relationship is disturbed, the business relationship must, by definition, be disturbed also. Indonesians will go to great lengths to preserve the harmony of the work relationship. Confrontational attitudes, like those seen in between Bill and Charles in the staff meeting, would be considered impolite and counter-productive in most Indonesian offices.

By cultivating and encouraging a free and sometimes argumentative flow of ideas from employees, American managers try to add energy and vibrancy to a business. The American ideal is that everyone's opinion is important and new ideas can come from any level of the company. People should believe strongly in their ideas and defend them when questioned. They know that this can lead to arguments. In America, these arguments are just business and are not expected to carry over in to personal relationships.

There are several points here for both American and Indonesian managers to note. Indonesian employees should not feel overwhelmed or embarrassed by displays of negative emotions between their western counterparts. If Bill and Charles want to yell and scream at each other at work, let them. You should try to maintain the harmony that is the core of Indonesian work relationships. don't become offended, and have a good laugh later over the way the foreigners acted. For the expatriates, try to understand that confrontation, argument and aggression are not part of traditional Indonesian business culture. Some of your employees may misunderstand such negative emotions and that may cause problems in the overall running of the office. In meetings, try to be civil. Make sure to actively encourage the ideas of the Indonesian managers present and don't assume that they will freely voice their opinions. Keep arguments private, behind closed doors. At all times, maintain the appearance of calm control over yourself and the business.

Westerners and Indonesians perceive the same actions and events differently. This is the great lesson. What westerners find normal, may offend an Indonesian. What an Indonesian is content with, may confuse a westerner. However, knowledge is a tool. When learning to work effectively in cross-cultural work relationships, both sides must understand the other's cultural background and discover what areas present potential problems and what areas present potential opportunities.

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