By NIALL SINCLAIR
Published on November 23, 2009
As Thailand moves towards becoming a creative economy, one of the key issues it faces will be how to make the necessary economic adjustments within the cultural context of the country. It's unrealistic to think you can simply import outside solutions to the problem, unless they are well aligned with the cultural parameters within which Thai business operates, in particular the underlying culture of krengjai, which helps to guide Thais in terms of their behavioural patterns.
As a farang observing Thai culture I would say that I think krengjai is a wonderful thing, in that it helps to ensure a standard of acceptable behaviour around which personal and business relationships can be conducted. On the other hand, as a farang observing Thai business practices I would say that the culture of krengjai will present Thailand with some challenges as it looks to change the way its economy works.
Let me explain.
In the West, an individual's progress at work, and their growth in competence, is to some extent based on having received feedback from their manager and co-workers. Individuals are often told how they can improve on their performance, and this is viewed as being quite normal, and is seen as being helpful in aiding employees to become more effective at the work they do. However, in Thailand such up-front behaviour would be seen as being disrespectful and likely to cause the recipient of the feedback to lose face. Two cultures, two different reactions, but are they irreconcilable? I don't believe so, and here's why.
If someone wants to become better at the job they do, they will tend to react positively to something that can help them achieve this goal. In that context, receiving helpful feedback can become a positive and supportive part of people's working lives. The truth is that feedback of any sort can be viewed through two different lens: one which sees it as a negative thing, that is, it's meant as a criticism; and one which sees it as a positive thing, that is, it's meant to help me get on in my career. So, in the end what it really comes down to is the interpretation of the individual concerned.
Therefore, the key to success lies in setting a positive interpretation of the feedback process from a krengjai perspective. To do so it will be necessary to depersonalise the whole process and make it clear to employees that it has a purely business focus, dealing with the improvement of products and service delivery, rather than a personal focus, dealing with the competence of the individual. In this way the feedback process can be seen as being both a positive and supportive one, and can also avoid the potential for loss of face that could be the result of receiving negative feedback.
If Thai businesses can establish this understanding of the feedback process, while at the same time ensuring that krengjai is observed, then the way is open to improve individual and organisational effectiveness. At the same time, establishing such a well-balanced view of feedback will help to create the conditions in which individual creativity and innovation can flourish in the Thai economy.
NIALL SINCLAIR is director of knowledge management at the Institute for Knowledge and Innovation at Bangkok University, author of "Stealth KM", and founder and managing director of Nterprise Consulting in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the fourth of a five-part series.