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Hi! Managers: Is empowerment right for Asia?

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FarangFarang

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I was reading this article in The Nation today and it just strikes me because the author is so in denial about exactly what is holding many Asian countries back in the world marketplace.

For years, multinationals operating in Asia have been importing Western management practices, such as empowerment, into their local operations in the hope of improving the performance of their people.

In some cases, these practices have proven useful and have produced good results. More often than not, however, Western lessons have gone in one ear and out the other; the practices have been viewed as interesting, but irrelevant. While efforts to implement them have been noble, the results have been short-lived.

In this light, should we be persevering with western management practices in Asia? If so, is there a better way of doing it?

There are two conditions that affect the successful acceptance of Western management practices: first, how ready people are to be empowered, and second, how much empowerment is needed.

Are people ready to be empowered?

We must recognise that in general, Asian workers are very different from their Western counterparts when it comes to dealing with authority figures. Through education, upbringing and culture, many Asians have learned to be obedient and not to challenge figureheads such as parents, teachers or bosses. Empowerment works only when underlings have reached a certain status, or level of seniority. Before that, they are simply not ready to be empowered.

Go to any typical university in Thailand, for example, and you will rarely see students challenging their teachers. It is all about taking notes, rote memorisation and compliance. There is limited individual creativity, critical thinking and debating. The teacher provides the knowledge; the student learns.

Go to any typical university in Thailand, for example, and you will rarely see students challenging their teachers. It is all about taking notes, rote memorisation and compliance. There is limited individual creativity, critical thinking and debating. The teacher provides the knowledge; the student learns.

The Asian business world is very much the same. Despite all the brouhaha and touted benefits of empowerment, few business leaders can honestly say that their people practice it on a regular basis. It is the exception, rather than the rule, where leaders delegate and empowerment takes root.

Moreover, too few subordinates take the initiative and proactively solve problems. Taking risks in a corporate environment is not part of their repertoire. Usually, the boss tells; the subordinate obeys. There is very little room for going against the grain and feeling empowered, unless it means doing exactly what the boss wants.

How much empowerment is needed?

I do believe the author is correct in pointing out that not all employees can be empowered. However, the reasoning for it is not exactly well thought out.

Many Asian countries are based on a patronage system in which jobs, perks, bonuses, promotions, etc are all given out based on undying loyalty to someone rather than on merit. No matter whether it happens under capitalism or communism that style of society usually ends up being massively corrupt and in most cases under performing.

Now, I can understand the author's take that maybe Asia (specifically Thailand) isn't ready for empowered management but it could be if it changed the style of education and began programs that encouraged empowerment on the local level. But the author seems to just accept the fact that Thais are taught not to ask questions or think critically so therefore it's foolish to try to empower people.

It's sort of circular logic.

In many Western societies, individualism and self expression in the workplace is prevalent. Workers have gained a voice and the right to influence their destiny, and this has played nicely along with the concept of empowerment, where managers allow workers to make decisions on their own.

There are endless examples in which empowered workers have produced better business results. Empowering gives them more control of their environment. In theory, they are happier and more productive, so the case for spreading empowerment to other parts of the world is strong.

But is it always a good idea to empower workers? And if so, how empowered should they be? While strong worker involvement usually means more commitment to the welfare of the business, this is only true if they are committed to doing what is in the best interest of the company and its customers.

Take, for example, my recent travels in the United States. Last month I flew from New York to Fort Lauderdale in Florida on a well known US airline with a reputation for empowered workers. It was a terrible experience. The plane was dirty, one toilet was broken and the air hostesses were short-tempered with the passengers.

What about the dirty planes and short-tempered hostesses at airlines that don't empower their staff in the US? Or what about the dirty planes and rude staff on Air Asia, Nok Air, Bangkok Airways, or countless other Asian airlines? Or what about the coverup of why the Bangkok Airways flight where in an empowered company the pilots would have been empowered to not fly since they had already flown more than they are legally allowed to?

This is such a stupid and pointless example because it has nothing to do with empowerment. The author is really stretching to prove that the status quo is okay and that empowering workers is scaaaaary. Don't do it. This is what could happen.

When I complained about the bad service and problems, I received an earful of excuses for why none of this was the fault of the airline. The empowered air hostess gave me the impression that she couldn't care less about my problems. She was much more interested in avoiding responsibility and standing up for her right not to do her job.

In the end, she dared me to write a letter of complaint to the management. Her defiance and reluctance to respond to passenger complaints stood in stark contrast to the spirit of empowerment.

This would never happen on an Asian airline such as Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific. As far as I can see, in these airlines people follow orders and procedures aimed at efficiency, safety and passenger service. They are not paid to feel empowered or express their individuality on the job. They are paid to follow protocol - and it works.

Yeah, because I've never had that happen in Thailand. Except they don't call it empowerment. They call it saving face. If they fuck up your flight itinerary no matter how hard you argue they'll almost never admit to any wrong doing and under people who get refunded or even comped as an apology for the company's mistakes are about as rare as lottery winners.

And it's not just the airlines. Go to any business in Thailand and tell me where when you complain that you don't get the blank stare, denials, and outright lying to avoid admitting a mistake.

I'm not suggesting that the Asian way of compliance is better than the Western way of empowerment, but it does suggest that there is a time and place for empowerment. Employees need to be ready to be empowered, and the situation should dictate the degree of empowerment required.

Actually, that's exactly what he's suggesting. How else is one supposed to read, "This would never happen on an Asian airline such as Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific. As far as I can see, in these airlines people follow orders and procedures aimed at efficiency, safety and passenger service. They are not paid to feel empowered or express their individuality on the job. They are paid to follow protocol - and it works."

It's simply an excuse not to adopt management practices that have proven superior and ignore the fact that the youth are not being prepared for the challenges of global business.

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2011/05/04/business/Hi!-Managers-Is-empowerment-right-for-Asia-30154552.html

I find it ironic that in the print version of The Nation the above story was run on the same page as this one Importance of critical thinking which basically points out how ill-prepared Thai students are due to the fact that many Thais learn that it's better not to think too much. Just do as you're told.

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I was reading this article in The Nation today and it just strikes me because the author is so in denial about exactly what is holding many Asian countries back in the world marketplace.

For years, multinationals operating in Asia have been importing Western management practices, such as empowerment, into their local operations in the hope of improving the performance of their people.

In some cases, these practices have proven useful and have produced good results. More often than not, however, Western lessons have gone in one ear and out the other; the practices have been viewed as interesting, but irrelevant. While efforts to implement them have been noble, the results have been short-lived.

In this light, should we be persevering with western management practices in Asia? If so, is there a better way of doing it?

There are two conditions that affect the successful acceptance of Western management practices: first, how ready people are to be empowered, and second, how much empowerment is needed.

Are people ready to be empowered?

We must recognise that in general, Asian workers are very different from their Western counterparts when it comes to dealing with authority figures. Through education, upbringing and culture, many Asians have learned to be obedient and not to challenge figureheads such as parents, teachers or bosses. Empowerment works only when underlings have reached a certain status, or level of seniority. Before that, they are simply not ready to be empowered.

Go to any typical university in Thailand, for example, and you will rarely see students challenging their teachers. It is all about taking notes, rote memorisation and compliance. There is limited individual creativity, critical thinking and debating. The teacher provides the knowledge; the student learns.

Go to any typical university in Thailand, for example, and you will rarely see students challenging their teachers. It is all about taking notes, rote memorisation and compliance. There is limited individual creativity, critical thinking and debating. The teacher provides the knowledge; the student learns.

The Asian business world is very much the same. Despite all the brouhaha and touted benefits of empowerment, few business leaders can honestly say that their people practice it on a regular basis. It is the exception, rather than the rule, where leaders delegate and empowerment takes root.

Moreover, too few subordinates take the initiative and proactively solve problems. Taking risks in a corporate environment is not part of their repertoire. Usually, the boss tells; the subordinate obeys. There is very little room for going against the grain and feeling empowered, unless it means doing exactly what the boss wants.

How much empowerment is needed?

I do believe the author is correct in pointing out that not all employees can be empowered. However, the reasoning for it is not exactly well thought out.

Many Asian countries are based on a patronage system in which jobs, perks, bonuses, promotions, etc are all given out based on undying loyalty to someone rather than on merit. No matter whether it happens under capitalism or communism that style of society usually ends up being massively corrupt and in most cases under performing.

Now, I can understand the author's take that maybe Asia (specifically Thailand) isn't ready for empowered management but it could be if it changed the style of education and began programs that encouraged empowerment on the local level. But the author seems to just accept the fact that Thais are taught not to ask questions or think critically so therefore it's foolish to try to empower people.

It's sort of circular logic.

In many Western societies, individualism and self expression in the workplace is prevalent. Workers have gained a voice and the right to influence their destiny, and this has played nicely along with the concept of empowerment, where managers allow workers to make decisions on their own.

There are endless examples in which empowered workers have produced better business results. Empowering gives them more control of their environment. In theory, they are happier and more productive, so the case for spreading empowerment to other parts of the world is strong.

But is it always a good idea to empower workers? And if so, how empowered should they be? While strong worker involvement usually means more commitment to the welfare of the business, this is only true if they are committed to doing what is in the best interest of the company and its customers.

Take, for example, my recent travels in the United States. Last month I flew from New York to Fort Lauderdale in Florida on a well known US airline with a reputation for empowered workers. It was a terrible experience. The plane was dirty, one toilet was broken and the air hostesses were short-tempered with the passengers.

What about the dirty planes and short-tempered hostesses at airlines that don't empower their staff in the US? Or what about the dirty planes and rude staff on Air Asia, Nok Air, Bangkok Airways, or countless other Asian airlines? Or what about the coverup of why the Bangkok Airways flight where in an empowered company the pilots would have been empowered to not fly since they had already flown more than they are legally allowed to?

This is such a stupid and pointless example because it has nothing to do with empowerment. The author is really stretching to prove that the status quo is okay and that empowering workers is scaaaaary. Don't do it. This is what could happen.

When I complained about the bad service and problems, I received an earful of excuses for why none of this was the fault of the airline. The empowered air hostess gave me the impression that she couldn't care less about my problems. She was much more interested in avoiding responsibility and standing up for her right not to do her job.

In the end, she dared me to write a letter of complaint to the management. Her defiance and reluctance to respond to passenger complaints stood in stark contrast to the spirit of empowerment.

This would never happen on an Asian airline such as Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific. As far as I can see, in these airlines people follow orders and procedures aimed at efficiency, safety and passenger service. They are not paid to feel empowered or express their individuality on the job. They are paid to follow protocol - and it works.

Yeah, because I've never had that happen in Thailand. Except they don't call it empowerment. They call it saving face. If they fuck up your flight itinerary no matter how hard you argue they'll almost never admit to any wrong doing and under people who get refunded or even comped as an apology for the company's mistakes are about as rare as lottery winners.

And it's not just the airlines. Go to any business in Thailand and tell me where when you complain that you don't get the blank stare, denials, and outright lying to avoid admitting a mistake.

I'm not suggesting that the Asian way of compliance is better than the Western way of empowerment, but it does suggest that there is a time and place for empowerment. Employees need to be ready to be empowered, and the situation should dictate the degree of empowerment required.

Actually, that's exactly what he's suggesting. How else is one supposed to read, "This would never happen on an Asian airline such as Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific. As far as I can see, in these airlines people follow orders and procedures aimed at efficiency, safety and passenger service. They are not paid to feel empowered or express their individuality on the job. They are paid to follow protocol - and it works."

It's simply an excuse not to adopt management practices that have proven superior and ignore the fact that the youth are not being prepared for the challenges of global business.

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2011/05/04/business/Hi!-Managers-Is-empowerment-right-for-Asia-30154552.html

I find it ironic that in the print version of The Nation the above story was run on the same page as this one Importance of critical thinking which basically points out how ill-prepared Thai students are due to the fact that many Thais learn that it's better not to think too much. Just do as you're told.

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Well I do agree with your last comment for 'how ill-prepared Thai students are due to the fact that many Thais....' I've this articles to support your feeling with the subject 'Seniority' which is the same as my opionion. Even if I argue with my mom reasonably, she's often upset when I do haha. So I've to use very soft and sweet words to tell her.

Let read at this sentence 'This is reflected in a Thai saying "Doen tam phu yai ma mai kat", which literally means that one will not be bitten by dogs if one walks after an elder. Children are taught to be obedient and listen to their parents, seniors and those of higher ranks.They are expected to follow these people's teaching and orders unquestioningly. This long established practice presumably leads to the low confidence of Thais.

Full details for above article;

http://www.thaiwaysmagazine.com/thai_article/1923_western_influence/western_influence.html

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Hi Sasie,

Thanks for the comment.

I agree that it is good for people to be respectful but you there are limits. For instance, the girl Nok in the "Importance of critical thinking" article. She has been robbed of a whole world of possibilities because she is not allowed to hold a view or do her math in a way that the teacher doesn't agree with. How many books will she now not read? How many jobs will she not get because she has lost all intellectual curiosity and desire to better her mind? What if she was to later become a great Thai mathematician? That will never happen because the school system, Thai society, has told her that it is better not to think too much.

In many ways, this "Asian" patronage system is about keeping the rich rich and the poor poor. Don't ask questions. Follow order unquestioningly. Pay respect to people of higher rank than you. Guess who that system benefits? People on the top giving the orders.

What frustrated me about the article was that the author is just sort of saying, "Hey, Thai people don't get a good education so they're unprepared to be empowered." And I'm sort of saying, "Well, what if you educated them properly? Don't compound your errors and stick with something that isn't working simply because that's the way things are."

And what I found funny was that the "Importance of critical thinking" article was on the same page as this article. One is saying, "Hey, our educational system is broken and if we don't fix it we're going to fall behind." And this article is saying "Hey, our educational system can't support new management philosophies so we should just accept that Asia doesn't do employee empowerment."

Bill

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The author doesn't touch on the biggest obsticle of empowerment, and you just gloss over, and that is the "Face" issue. It is hard for anyone to take responsibility for mistakes, even if they learn from them. It is also hard for an employee to cause the boss to loose "Face" by pointing out a mistake.

This is the bigggest obsticle a Western business has in setting up operations in this region, and hiring employees. Management never hears about what is wrong with operations because of the "Face" issue. At all costs telling your boss about something that isn't working will be avoided, even to the extent of an underling taking the blame for something going bad when it had nothing to do with them.

You can not empower an employee when that employee will be put in a position of accepting blame for a problem, and you can not expect them to fix a problem. That would be admitting that there was a problem in the first place. This would cause someone to loose "Face", and who knows what that could cause. People have died from loss of "Face", both by their own hand, and from someone else.

This "Face" issue is not touched upon by the author, but should have been. It is a bigger obsticle to Western business style than empowerment, and is tied together as the cause for the resistance to an employee accepting being empowered.

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From my personal experience, one of many problems faced by Western businesses in Thailand are local people attitude and yes educational system failure. Bill already pointed out root caused. Also, if you know someone who works in huge multinational company, you will get some sense of what kind of people who get hired . These firms will recruit most of employee who has experience abroad. It could be studying or working. The reason is that they are familair with Westerner business management style. Another point is that I am pretty sure that if we ask Thai people who don't work in Investment area, they wouldn't care what government policies have been passed and affect them;unlike Western countries. MostThais really don't know what the word " right" means. I don't think that we should talk about how they learn to excercise the right in the right and efficient way. They eventually ask for nothing , done nothing for the whole society. However, for the past 10 years, I have been noticing huge progress in Thai education. It is a very good sign for the next generations. On the other hand, our media performance, such as varieties of news have been very poorly steadily. I still am funny everytime when most of the TV reporters reports family affair and drug dealer for entire week.

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...

In many ways' date=' this "Asian" patronage system is about keeping the rich rich and the poor poor. Don't ask questions. Follow order unquestioningly. Pay respect to people of higher rank than you. Guess who that system benefits? People on the top giving the orders.

What frustrated me about the article was that the author is just sort of saying, "Hey, Thai people don't get a good education so they're unprepared to be empowered." And I'm sort of saying, "Well, what if you educated them properly? Don't compound your errors and stick with something that isn't working simply because that's the way things are."

...[/quote']

Your words say it, but it doesn't seem like you understand it: Thai society exists on a patronage system. Thai society worries incessantly about saving face. Thai society raises children to not question, to not think critically.

Yes.

And their educational system is a reflection of that. Their educational system is a product of Thai culture - it is, in my assertion, exactly what their culture needs to support its inherent corruption. Changing their educational system to be effective therefore means changing Thai culture.

So how do you change the educational system, when to do so would necessitate altering the very nature of 'kwam pen thai'?

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Go to any typical university in Thailand, for example, and you will rarely see students challenging their teachers. It is all about taking notes, rote memorisation and compliance. There is limited individual creativity, critical thinking and debating. The teacher provides the knowledge; the student learns. <<<

this in a paragraph sums up so much of what is wrong with the education system in Thailand !!!

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Interesting discussion. As one who has been involved in US manufacturing my entire long career, I have seen many styles of management come and go. Manufacturers seemed to choose the "flavor of the year" and changed their style of management over and over, sometimes to the benefit of the workers, but mostly creating top heavy upper management that generally seemed doomed from the start. My best example would be our previously strong aerospace industry in California. It has been dead in the water for at least 20 yrs, never to return to this state. At one time aerospace employed millions of workers here, and supportive "job" shops were everywhere. The workers there were "empowered" with many types of commitees, groups, etc. to accomplish higher productivity and quality. It seemed to have the reverse effect. Manufacturing has been outsourced to mainly China, and the workers looking for new venues to work at/in. This situation has caused many an early retirement, self included. Having stated all this, perhaps Thai workers might be better off remaining in their old school of thought. Just an observation from the other side of the coin.

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Interesting discussion. As one who has been involved in US manufacturing my entire long career, I have seen many styles of management come and go. Manufacturers seemed to choose the "flavor of the year" and changed their style of management over and over, sometimes to the benefit of the workers, but mostly creating top heavy upper management that generally seemed doomed from the start. My best example would be our previously strong aerospace industry in California. It has been dead in the water for at least 20 yrs, never to return to this state. At one time aerospace employed millions of workers here, and supportive "job" shops were everywhere. The workers there were "empowered" with many types of commitees, groups, etc. to accomplish higher productivity and quality. It seemed to have the reverse effect. Manufacturing has been outsourced to mainly China, and the workers looking for new venues to work at/in. This situation has caused many an early retirement, self included. Having stated all this, perhaps Thai workers might be better off remaining in their old school of thought. Just an observation from the other side of the coin.

Well, my dad worked for Lockheed for over 40 years and my grandmother worked at Rockwell for over 20. One of the reasons why aerospace is no longer a strong industry in California is Lockheed and many other aerospace corporations moved out of California. Lockheed made their major move way back in the mid 1990's. You speak about this as if it's a recent trend.

1967: Douglas Aircraft of Long Beach merges with McDonnell Aircraft, forming St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp., which is acquired by Boeing Co. in 1997.

1995: Lockheed Corp., headquartered in Calabasas and with major operations in Burbank, merges with Martin Marietta Corp. to form Lockheed Martin Corp. and moves to Bethesda, Md.

1996: Rockwell International of Seal Beach, which has key facilities in Canoga Park and Downey, sells its aerospace and defense divisions to Boeing.

2000: Litton Industries, based in Woodland Hills, is purchased by Northrop Grumman Corp.

2010: Northrop Grumman, based in Century City, announces that it will be moving its headquarters to Washington, D.C.

That's why aerospace died in So Cal.

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Your words say it' date=' but it doesn't seem like you understand it: Thai society exists on a patronage system. Thai society worries incessantly about saving face. Thai society raises children to not question, to not think critically.

Yes.

And their educational system is a reflection of that. Their educational system is a product of Thai culture - it is, in my assertion, exactly what their culture needs to support its inherent corruption. Changing their educational system to be effective therefore means changing Thai culture.

So how do you change the educational system, when to do so would necessitate altering the very nature of 'kwam pen thai'?[/quote']

I understand it but I'm questioning whether it's institutionalized into the system and whether that institutionalization is intentional. In other words, since a population of citizens who are largely uneducated, unquestioning (because you've drummed it into their brains that it is the pinnacle of Thai culture to always respect those above you even if they're corrupt or wrong), and easily manipulated (due to never being taught critical thinking skills) are preferable to citizens who might actually figure out that you've rigged the system to make sure you stay rich and they remain poor.

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