Business and Finance

3 ways expats can connect with local colleagues

Your team in Malaysia will execute better, be more successful, and earn more bonuses the better they interact with and understand you and your thinking. A key component of this is that the more you can learn about Malaysia – especially food, sports, politics, and current events – the more “local and familiar” you will become, and this will be seen in a very positive light.

Malaysia is famous for an unbelievable array of food, from Chinese to Malay to Indian to Nyonya, and I can personally vouch for the taste and enjoyment (not to mention the kilos gained) from many years of enjoying all of these cuisines.

One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to learn about and build rapport with your teams and customers is to regularly dine together in local stalls and restaurants. Rotating the cuisine at monthly management meeting lunches, insisting on local food when travelling with salespeople… this is easy, enjoyable, and inevitably leads to discussion of all things local. I know for a fact that I personally gained credibility with my teams by doing so.

But unfortunately, I also know of expat managers who will partake mainly (or only) of Western food when dining with their Malaysian staff. Further, some expat managers tend to indicate no real interest beyond the food, sports, and politics they followed back home. In this scenario, the expat’s team members will likely clam up, and the chance to better integrate with one another and generate the chemistry needed for team success may be lost. In addition to missing a grand opportunity to try many new things, such expats may come across as disinterested, or worse, condescending to their local colleagues.

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There is tremendous interest in Malaysia in the Premier and Champions Leagues, the NBA, Formula 1, and more. There is a lot of interest in the US election, in UK politics, the European migrant crisis, and of course American entertainment. All of this shows the global nature of many Malaysians.

However, your team still lives and works in Malaysia and they are directly impacted by daily events here. When discussing local issues, history, or food, one of my local managers used to point to me and say, “He’s more local than we are!” While he was obviously exaggerating, in my view it is a major compliment to be referred to in that way.

I was embarrassed some years ago while in a meeting with my team in the Philippines when the discussion turned to sports heroes. My boss (an American), did not know who Manny Pacquiao was! To our Filipino Team, this was a huge let down, maybe on par with not having heard of Muhammad Ali in his day.

Key takeaways from this experience:

#1

You are not a native of Malaysia, and as such, there are basic differences and inherent barriers to your staff feeling completely comfortable with you, and vice versa. As a test, ask your team members sometime: “What did you have for breakfast/lunch/dinner?” Then compare to what you had. “What did you do last weekend? What hobbies do you have? How do you interact with your family? How old were you when you left home?” You will find there are plenty of differences, so as the expat manager, you need to proactively bridge the gap and build relationships.

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#2

The great news here is that this is not difficult. Doing some homework as to current events, local personalities, etc., and showing some flexibility (drink the teh tarik they offer, even if you are dying for another coffee) can go a long way here. Malaysians are usually delighted when expats are familiar with local customs or comfortable using common local phrases.

#3

You have probably already observed a lot of talk of local politics. You should follow these events, and be aware of what is happening, not just for the economic impact that it could have on your business, but for the way it affects ordinary Malaysians. Be aware, however, that at times, supporting or criticising certain politicians or parties may unintentionally align you with or against races here.

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In conclusion, I believe the key to successful engagement and interaction is to be sincerely interested and to take the opportunity to learn what you don’t know. Today, especially with the internet, this is easier than ever. Expats today have an excellent opportunity to easily study and learn about their home away from home.

I have found Malaysians to be the most enjoyable, down to earth, and genuine co-workers of all the countries in which I have worked. Nonetheless, we do not share the same background, and since we are the visiting expat, we need to work harder to overcome the natural barriers and build strong, effective working relationships.

Your team in Malaysia will execute better, be more successful, and earn more bonuses the better they interact with and understand you and your thinking. A key component of this is that the more you can learn about Malaysia – especially food, sports, politics, and current events – the more “local and familiar” you will become, and this will be seen in a very positive light.

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 maximize performance and profitability. For more information, please visit amarkconsulting.com, or contact him with no obligation at [email protected]

This article was originally published in The Expat magazine which is available online or in print via free subscription.




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