Sat, 04 Aug 2001

Useful framework of managing cultural differences

By Pri Notowidigdo

JAKARTA (JP): John Asing (fictitious) has accepted the post of technical advisor for The Great American Oil Company (fictitious).

Based in Jakarta, he will be working directly with Mr Sumarno (fictitious) or Pak Sumarno, as he is called in Indonesia. Together they will be responsible for a major exploration project in Natuna Islands.

John is eager to arrive at his post. His work experience in the United States seems exceptionally well-suited to the task he must accomplish in Indonesia, and his high motivation and excellent track record reassure him that he will encounter little he cannot handle in his assignment.

After having been on the job for several months, though, John is experiencing a lot of frustration.

To Pak John, as the Indonesians have come to call him, it appears that Pak Sumarno and most of the subordinates lack both training and motivation. Efforts on the part of Pak John to resolve the issues have been futile.

The problem became increasingly severe in the weeks that followed.

Pak John just could not understand why his attempts to share problem-solving and decision-making responsibilities with Pak Sumarno did not appear to be received favorably by Pak Sumarno. After all, wasn't Pak Sumarno his Indonesian counterpart?

It seemed to Pak John that the only way he could get the job he was sent to do done was to do most of it himself. Gradually, he assumed more and more of the responsibilities, which had been previously performed by Pak Sumarno. Though he feels some concern about this situation from time to time, these feelings are more than compensated for, by the knowledge that he is getting the job, which he was sent to do, done.

What is happening here? At face value, Pak John and Pak Soemarno are obviously not communicating with each other. From a cross-cultural perspective, there is cultural conflict in terms of different values, assumptions or expectations.

In this regard, Fons Trompenaars, a cross-cultural guru, states that a culture distinguishes itself from other cultures by the specific solutions it chooses to certain problems. He proceeds to apply a useful framework of managing cultural differences by highlighting five fundamental dimensions on how we relate to other people:

a. rules versus relationships,

b. the group versus the individual,

c. the range of feelings expressed,

d. the range of involvement, and

e. how status is accorded.

We can begin to understand why individuals and organizations act as they do by considering the meanings they attribute to the above dimensions.

For Pak John, individualism, rules and achievements are critical operating principles.

He assumes that Pak Soemarno shares his assumptions and expectations. Pak Soemarno, though, needs to first develop his relationship with Pak John in order to develop a basis for mutual respect, understanding and trust.

What are the issues?

Management issues like productivity, responsibility and accountability. Underlying these issues, though, are cross- cultural issues as well. "Pak John is the expatriate technical advisor who is the 'boss' and the 'expert,'" says Pak Soemarno. "I will wait for Pak John's directives."

Meanwhile, Pak John, himself, is expecting initiative on the part of Pak Soemarno.

What steps can be taken to address the issues?

To be effective cross-culturally, it is important to be alert and sensitive to the needs, orientations, values and aspirations of other people. Through this process, both Pak John and Pak Soemarno must learn to appropriately reflect on insights thus gained in words and actions.

While there is no foolproof formula on how to achieve this objective, it would seem critical to listen and observe attentively, sensitively and nonjudgmentally.

Being tolerant, accepting and considerate are equally important. Of utmost value is perhaps persistence, a willingness to be introspective, and an eagerness to examine and learn from failures as well as successes.

A commitment on the part of Pak John and Pak Soemarno to scrutinize and improve their capacity to be genuinely receptive to different ways of communicating cannot be overemphasized.

Has Pak John accomplished his objectives?

In the short run, Pak John is perhaps able to "do the job" according to the letter of the law. For the long run, though, he must address a number of issues. Has he been able to facilitate the transfer of skills? Has he increased the likelihood of meaningful social interaction? Has he increased the probability of achieving a sense of personal and professional accomplishment and growth?

Understanding of their respective cultures and their own assumptions and expectations about how people "should" think and act can provide them with the basis for success.

As Trompenaars remarked, "There are no universal answers but there are universal questions and dilemmas," and that is where we all need to start.

The writer is an executive search consultant with Amrop International, The Amrop Hever Group, an organization that finds senior executives worldwide. (E-mail: