The Asian Culture — Religion and Philosophy The roots of Asian culture and practices are vastly influenced by the great religious teachers and philosophers of the East. For China, Japan and Korea, the people were influenced by the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tzu, the Muslims by Prophet Muhammad and the Indians to an extent by Buddha.
“The societies of China and Japan are based on the tenets of Confucius which advocate order, respect, hierarchy, good manners and sacrifice of the individual for the greater good of family or community.” Robert George noted in his book The East-West Pendulum.
The Judeo-Christian tradition of the West puts great value on each human life, whereas the Asian tradition, the life of the community, the corporation and the family is of greater importance. Many things follow from this difference. For one, Asians emphasize on social harmony and consensus. Individual initiative and individual creativity is of less importance than the willingness to merge one’s identity in the life of a company, family or community.
The Muslims tend to be more pragmatic due to the geographical balancing influences of the east and west. This culture straddles strategically between the Chinese in the East and the Romans in the West and so one tends to find a blend of Eastern values of respect, social order and good manners in the Muslim society too.
I am aware that these generalized statements and may not hold true in many situations. The intention is to bring out these points for discussions. One of the fundamental Asian traits lies with the focus on communal values. Eastern society places higher value on collective accomplishments.
As a result of this key cultural value several behaviors can be identified with the Asian society. They are:
1. The desire to preserve harmony by: a. Indicating a “Yes” which does not necessarily mean agreement b. Avoiding to confront issues even when it affects performance. c. Inability to be completely honest about how one feels. d. Being pretentious in order to be polite and courteous despite differences.
2. Respecting the elders to preserve order and hierarchy by: a. Holding back personal opinions when ideas differ. b. Avoiding challenging the elders even when they disagree. c. Giving the benefit of doubt to the elders. Even though these cultural values above are also found in Western societies, in Asia it is even more obvious.
However, the differences in values are slowly becoming less distinct as people in Asia become more westernized and assimilate western values. The western form of education system has also played a large part in narrowing these cultural differences. Lifestyles and work practices of western multinational companies have influenced the management styles and leadership practices of Asian managers.
Despite the East-West convergence, some of the cultural differences that are still obvious include things like:
1. More emphasis on “We” and less of the “Me, I” in social interaction.
2. Respecting elders and seniors by behaving in a polite and courteous manner.
3. Avoiding giving honest feedback to preserve relationship and harmony.
4. Saying “Yes” or nodding which does not necessarily mean agreeing.
5. Placing importance on collective efforts instead of individual heroism.
6. Placing a higher value on work and earning money instead of social pleasures.
7. Being less expressive and more reflective in behavior.
8. Superior-subordinate relationships tend to mirror traditional Parent-Child relationship.
The Asian Leadership and Management Style Susan Curtis and Lu, in their research paper “The Impact of Western Education on Future Chinese Asian Managers”, found that problems in Taiwanese enterprises were often related to attempts to over-control. This is true, in many other entrepreneur-founded companies in Asia too no matter how large they may be.
According to Littrell (2002), employees working in an Asian Chinese management environment tend to experience a higher level of dissatisfaction as compared to working in a western multinational work environment. Although one might expect Asian capitalist countries to have different leadership styles as compared to mainland China, this research indicates that Taiwan and Malaysia have a similar approach in their management development and leadership style.
So for Asian organizations there are indeed two types of challenges, that is:
1. Getting managers to lead and coach more instead of manage and control
2. Encouraging employees to express themselves more openly
Some progressive Asian managers are already leading and coaching their team members effectively and many Asian employees, who have had tertiary education, are more likely to express themselves openly.
Watson Wyatt Asian Survey In August 2001, Watson Wyatt interviewed 115,000 respondents at more than 500 companies in 11 Asian countries. The study included multinational and large local companies. Interestingly, the survey reveals that many Asian employees have a low level of trust and confidence in their senior managers and business leaders.
Consider these survey findings:
1. Less than one-third of salaried workers surveyed in 11 Asian countries had a favorable impression of the level of trust between senior management and employees.
2. Only 37% of Asian workers believe that their senior managers behaved in accordance with company values.
3. Only 38% gave their senior management good marks for their ability to make decisions or changes needed for their companies to compete effectively.
4. Asian entrepreneurs and supervisors have very strong technical knowledge, but possess little managerial and leadership skill.
“We have a generation of leaders and supervisors who grew up with strong technical expertise but really do not have managerial skills; the softer side of people management — the coaching, advising and guiding — is not there.” Conservative cultural influences in many Asian countries also tend to widen the gap between employees and managers. American managers are said to be often quick to praise or point out mistakes, but in Asia, managers may not provide clear and timely feedback frequently enough.
In Asia, “Yes” doesn’t always mean agreeing and “No” does not always mean no. Someone might think they are doing a great job, but heard their boss complained to another that they let the ball drop. There is a cultural dimension that makes it very difficult for leaders to give feedback to their employees.” says Mr. Orbeta of Watson Wyatt. The result of the survey is congruent to my experiences. Many Asian managers have not been trained appropriately to provide feedback in a manner that would be the least embarrassing and yet effective to the receiver. In the same period, Watson Wyatts conducted a similar survey on approximately 12,500 employees from 67 leading companies in Malaysia and found that Malaysian employees are:
1. Seeking more effective leadership.
2. Disappointed with the supervisory level.
D. Quinn Mills, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School shares this thought:
Summary Considering the Asian cultural values and its significance in influencing the Asian leadership styles and behaviours such as those described, it is crucial then that Asian managers explore and consider new possibilities of leadership approaches that can enhance their effectiveness. We need to find more effective ways to be more open and courageous to provide honest feedback in a timely manner without antagonizing relationships. We need to discover new ways to develop others without making them too reliant on us as leaders. We need to learn ways to help others open up and feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas. I suggest here that we consider the coaching approach as a tool in helping ourselves become more effective leaders and developing a coaching mindset for ourselves as a vehicle to learn and grow with others.
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