Kreng jai versus provocation —
A unique Thai management tension
of opposites. 

Bowing Ronald McDonald

Bowing Ronald McDonald

Rooted in a century old patronage system this cultural behavior is a double edge sword to progress. Deep respect for age and status, a wonderful faith and belief in harmony makes provocation difficult for the modern manager in Thailand.

This past week in Thailand working with a number of business teams raises the question for me about the merits of inclusiveness when deciding strategy. Just how wide do you take the discussions before deciding on a course of action? Thailand’s gentle tolerance and courteousness is admirable in a society context, yet when your trying to hatch a winning strategy it seems to me that timid teams just can’t deliver quick enough.

This will be my 30th year of doing business in Asia and I observe even in a new generation of managers a reluctance still to think outside the square and develop bold interventions to change the way business is traditionally done. Their education wrote learning systems have delivered to the boardrooms very competent people who can make things happen but arriving at the best strategy to compete and deliver innovation is a much greater challenge for most.

Almost unique to the corporate cultures of Thailand is the Thai concept of “kreng jai.” Asking questions, particularly if they are perceived as challenging, can be confounding and aggravating for Thai elders. As a result, many Thai students and employees have learned not to ask questions.

In Thailand I have found, it’s so hard to get Thai managers to ask questions and have an open discussion. This aspect of Thai culture has made Thailand less competitive in the global economy as many Thai businesses fail to evolve and progress according to a recent Culture Amp survey. Thai-style management I suspect often results in having employees who don’t question and don’t confront, because they don’t want to be considered rude or aggressive. Everyone ends up waiting for the boss to raise the first question since he or she is the one with the highest authority.

While “kreng jai” is an embedded part of Thai culture, how can Thais overcome some of the negative consequences in the classroom and workplace that result from it. If they don’t as a society and a country they will not evolve at the rate this wonderful country deserves.

My experience has been that Thai and Japanese people belong to collectivist cultures which focus on fitting in with others, social harmony, interpersonal sensitivity, and conformity. Americans belong to an Individualistic culture, which focuses on independence, and with less concern for other people. Most would say they prefer a collective approach, but the higher up in the company often the sentiment changes with the frustrations of share price and getting things done,

Deep respect for age and status, a wonderful faith and belief in harmony makes provocation difficult for the modern manager in Thailand. As a result far too much money is spent on external research and expensive consultants designed to stimulate change of which most are recipes for actions and not route maps. So is a little more authoritarianism better for the companies of Asia than the rambling western style corporate democracies we love to create. Do these endless strategy discussion deliver much in these submissive management cultures and is their a better way of delivering strategy breakthroughs.

I believe those wanting to be fast moving companies in Thailand with these inclusive management styles will never be entirely changed in a western context, nor should they completely, in that a sense of family has greater value in Asia than many of the soul less companies I visit elsewhere. There is much to admire in how Thai companies run their businesses, these observations are simply around the hatching of real innovative strategies.

What’s needed are small tight strategic teams in-house, who can put aside these deep cultural behaviors and create globally competitive businesses. Intelligent, worldly well informed and closely connected. Respected by their Exco’s and Boards where they can quicken the process of innovation. It seems to me that implementation isn’t the problem it’s letting new ideas live and become sound strategy.

Companies shouldn't be frightened of new ideas it's the old ones they should fear.