Building a multicultural team in Thailand? Unite your Thais and Expats as one using my four rules for Thailand culture training learned from 20 years experience team building.
Thailand Culture Training Rule 1 – It is about Personality, not Rules!
Both Thais and expats have great qualities that the other group appreciates. When I conduct pre-training cultural surveys the results show this.
Thais frequently comment that expatriates are systematic, goal-oriented, confident and driven. And the expatriates admire their respect, calm attitude, loyalty and strong social qualities that their Thai counterparts bring to the team.
Yet, it is weird that the very same attributes that the Thai people love above expatriates and expatriates love about foreigners are often cited as evidence of the things that we also dislike about each other.
Expatriates complain that Thais are “not independent enough”, “miss deadlines” and “never speak up”. But isn’t this the flip side of their respectful attitude and social qualities?
Meanwhile, Thais complain that expatriates are “arrogant”, “too direct” and “lack empathy”. But isn’t this the flip side of their confidence and goal-oriented attitude?
The problem with our best qualities is that they are also the home to our worst! What people love about us, taken to the extreme, can become annoying, upsetting or even damaging to a relationship.
So, the first thing to understand when we are dealing with culture is that every personality in our team exists on a sliding scale. The confidence that we love about people can appear like arrogance at some point. The laid-back approach we admire can seem to be apathy at others. Or, the direct approach that was appropriate yesterday, may not be appropriate right now.
So, to begin understanding how to train culture in your team, understand that Thailand Cultural Training is about developing personalities. It is not just about everyone following the cultural rules of Thailand.
If cultural training was really as easy as learning Thai culture, there would never be any conflict. But there is. And the conflict exists in every team, not just multicultural teams.
To understand why this is so, we need to understand Rule number 2.
Thailand Culture Training Rule 2 – It is Not About Culture!
Thailand culture training is not about culture! That may sound a little ridiculous, but it’s true.
When an expat comes to Thailand your Human Resources team will surely take the new staff member through all the basic Thai cultural rules. They will be told not to touch the head and not to point their feet. They will be told to respect Buddha images and the King. And they will be shown how to Wai and other such customs.
This is great. It will help the new team member avoid some basic mistakes. But it is not going to make the team stronger. After all, avoiding conflict and making the team stronger is the point of cultural training, right?
The problem is that we perceive Thailand Cultural Training as an opportunity to tell Expats how to behave in Thailand. It is perceived that this is Thailand, so visitors must learn Thai ways if they want to succeed and fit in.
Of course, this is true. But it is only partially true.
The truth is that Thailand Cultural training should create a stronger team. It should build a team culture that is not about Thais or expats at all. The team culture should reflect the vision and the mission of the business. The only question we need to answer with any training is “How do we get our team to the mission in the best way?”
It does not stop us from getting to our team goals because people come from different countries. Different perceptions stop us. These different ideas create conflict. And conflict does not only occur between Thais and expatriates, does it?
If you have worked in a Thai-only company or a company of just one nationality, was there any conflict? Of course there was! Every company has conflict. However, when we have a multinational company with different people from different cultures, it is easy to blame another nationality as the main problem.
In fact, the problem is not cultural background at all. The problem is people failing to use the same tools to get to the goals of the business.
When your team understands this point, Thailand cultural training can begin to look and feel differently. And it can begin to really work. It can begin to unite your team as one.
Thailand Culture Training Rule 3 – Train Thais and Expats Together!
One of the most crucial changes you can make to your Thailand cultural training is to train Thais and Expats together. This demonstrates to the whole team that the process of learning is not one way – from Thais to expats – but both ways.
Truing designed in this way educates your people in more than Thai culture. Thais and expats together learn a new, shared culture. This shared culture is designed to get us to the mission and vision of the company, faster, more efficiently and with less frustration and conflict.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t train your expats in Thai customs. Indeed, use the training to have your Thai staff show expats how to behave properly and share their experiences. This is just the first part of creating a deeper bond between different nationalities.
The second step is to educate the Thai people on Western thinking. The reason why this is so important is that business practices, expectations, systems and hierarchies are mostly European in origin. They come from basic Greek Thinking that involves logic and compartmentalization.
So, by educating your Thai staff in these basic western ideas, they can understand why many expats have kinds of behaviors that are different from their own. Also, they will understand how the business that employs them was probably not set up in a Thai ‘family-style’ either. Most are a foreign invention with foreign rules that Thais have to adapt to as much as the expatriate has to adapt to the Thai style.
By showing both Thais and expatriates that change is a two-way street, you begin to impress upon your team the need for mutual change. Both Thais and expatriates must learn a shared culture if the business is to successfully integrate the ideas of all its people.
Thailand Culture Training Rule 4 – Unite in Skills, not just in Understanding!
The final piece of the puzzle is to teach your people shared skills. Thailand Cultural Training should not just be about learning information about one culture or another. If you do this, it will quickly be forgotten and the emphasis will only be on expats to change their habits.
A better approach is to introduce a set of team skills that the whole team can practice together once they leave the classroom. This holistic approach to learning achieves several key objectives.
Firstly it gives your participants something valuable. They can practice their team thinking skills together and the skills will add value to their personal skill-set.
Secondly, the act of working together on problem-solving will unite different people. This exercise does not just unite Thais and expatriations. It brings together people from different departments and levels of your hierarchy. Consequently, you begin to unite the whole team, regardless of their cultural background.
Finally, by sharing skills across your business you are achieving the ultimate goal. This technique really stimulates a universal culture in your business. Ultimately, this culture should not be Thai or expat at all, it should be simply the best way to achieve your company goals.
The author, Michael Paul Stephens is the founder of Provolution Consultancy, a Bangkok-based corporate training company. His Cultural Sensitivity in Thailand programs have assisted many organizations build a better team culture in multicultural businesses in Thailand.