Pete Brunoehler shares with fellow expat managers some of the best ways to overcome the challenges inherent in being an expat in a Malaysian management role.
Most of us spend 40 or more hours each week in our workplaces with our colleagues. During those hours, you are likely to experience a whole range of human emotions including happiness, sadness, frustration, apprehension, and unfortunately, anger.
In one of the global companies that I worked for, we had joint meetings between the Latin American Team and the Asian Team. As a participant and observer during these meetings, I was always struck by the dramatic differences in outward emotions as conveyed by members of each team:
Latin American Team: hugs and kisses all around when arriving at the meetings, much like meeting long lost family members. Very loud and passionate discussions during the individual sessions of the meeting. Big hugs and kisses, sometimes even accompanied by tears when leaving the meeting.
Asian Team: Intermittent handshakes when arriving. Polite and relatively quiet discussions during the meeting. Cursory (if any) goodbyes when leaving. So while these two parts of the world are probably the most extreme when it comes to outward showing of emotions, wherever you hail from as an expat, take heed: you are working in Malaysia now.
Whatever the situation, the emotions conveyed – and the responses to those emotions – may be very different from what you are used to. One emotion that I would like to single out is anger. In some parts of the world, anger and similarly strong emotions are accepted and even expected when resolving conflicts, while in other places – like Malaysia – they’ll likely shut the discussion down immediately.
Three of my experiences
1. A US-based Regional Head of Asia for an American MNC had been literally cursing and ranting for the whole first day of an Asian Leadership Meeting, through several presentations by senior Asian managers, all while several other senior managers (including me) witnessed it.
On the second day, before starting his own presentation, the most successful Asian GM stated to the boss, “My goal today is to not make you angry.” So despite a team that possessed decades of Asian leadership experience, the emotions that drove that meeting were anger and a fear of further anger.
2. The expat GM of a European MNC loudly slammed the door in his office after a phone call, at about 9am. For
the entire day, the office was unusually quiet, but instead of concentrating on their work, the staff focused on
avoiding this boss, and on messaging one another asking, “What happened to our boss?”
3. A senior expat manager in a local Malaysian office was trying to point out an issue related to a piece of paper
sitting on a subordinate’s desk. In doing so, he pointed to some content, “stabbing” the paper for emphasis. His
Malaysian colleague recoiled, and it quickly became clear that this was seen as an aggressive and confrontational act. Despite explaining that he was not angry, the perception remained.
In the first incident, the expat manager was clearly out of line anywhere, even more so in Asia. The second case would probably not have made waves in some countries, but certainly caused them in the Asian setting. The third case may not be as clear-cut, as the manager was not even angry, but I have included it to illustrate how perceptions can differ here.
Takeaways to learn from
1. Expressions of emotion vary widely around the world. While your country of origin (nature) may instinctively drive you toward certain emotions, the country – Malaysia – that you work in now should inform how those emotions are conveyed (nurture). They will often be perceived differently in a local context than they would be back home.
2. Some emotions, such as anger, should almost always be held in check. But whereas the impact of showing anger may be fleeting and forgotten in some cultures and countries, it can create long-lasting damage and barriers when shown here in Malaysia. Problems indeed need to be solved, but anger is not the way to reach that solution.
3. Even positive or neutral emotions may be expressed and perceived in ways that are different from what you are used to. I have learned to ask trusted local staff when I am unsure of how to express an emotion around an important situation, and this has helped me adapt accordingly.
In conclusion, while none of us can always completely control our workplace-related emotions, we can manage them just as we manage other aspects of our professional lives, and by doing so, we as leaders will definitely get more out of our comfortable and confident local teams.
Pete Brunoehler is Managing Partner of AMark Consulting Southeast Asia, the first Asian office of US-based AMark Management Consulting. AMark partners with clients in a variety of industries to overcome internal and external growth barriers and to maximise performance and profitability. For more information please visit amarkconsulting.com, or contact him (no obligation) at [email protected].