In Asia, ignore hierarchy at your peril

Hierarchy is still ingrained in Asian business culture. Here is what happens if you forget.

I once made a senior client angry. Furious, in fact.

Working in Bangkok and juggling multiple engagements, I was confronted with two conflicting meetings. I chose what I thought was the most important, an audit committee meeting and chose to send a colleague to the other. To quote Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, “Big Mistake”.

My ‘big mistake’ was to underestimate the importance of ‘seniority’ in Asian business. What I thought was a good solution, was construed by my client as disrespectful.

Cultural differences and more importantly cultural sensitivity is increasingly important as business becomes more global. To work successfully in another country requires us to think, understand and act within the cultural context of that country, which can sometimes be forgotten when we are juggling multiple priorities.

Erin Meyer writes in Navigating the Cultural Minefield about the nuance of cultural differences. She says, “It’s all too common to rely on clich├ęs, stereotyping people from different cultures on just one or two dimensions…this can lead to oversimplified and erroneous assumptions… The truth is that culture is too complex to be measured meaningfully along just one or two dimensions.”

I had thought it was more ‘respectful’ not to cancel – the result was not what I had hoped for.

My colleague called me right after the audit committee, obviously shaken: the client was furious. He was livid because we had “only” sent a senior consultant who was too “low in status” to speak to him. We should have sent someone ‘”higher” to have that conversation.

The problem was compounded when you consider he was a former police colonel and was used to being accorded extreme amounts of respect. In Asia, with its strict hierarchical society, the police, armed forces and government officials are an important class of their own. I should have known better. A decision taken quickly, without thought of the nuances of respecting cultural difference had got me in a very uncomfortable position.

Seniority in very important in Asia: the rank of the person you send to meet shows the amount of ‘face’ you have accorded your host. In addition, no matter how skilled a person is, if they do not have the title to go with it, their credibility can suffer.

As an after effect, you also see a decent amount of rank inflation in parts of Asia. While the trend in Australia is to flatten the hierarchy, some organisations in Thailand are actually increasing the number of titles and ranks, in order to provide more junior people with a senior sounding title. It is also to facilitate a system where people are “promoted” every 1-2 years - just because someone has a similar sounding title, doesn’t mean they are your decision making counterpart.

In hindsight, I should have simply moved the meeting or sent someone more senior in rank or title to attend the meeting as my ‘mistake’ had nothing to do with the competency of my colleague. In this case I was lucky: the situation was quickly defused by senior management, who we were on very good terms with. But without their assistance, the situation could have easily escalated.

While hierarchy and ‘face’ are concepts we have increasingly depreciated in the western working world, it is important to remember it is still an essential consideration when working in Asia. It is not just a set of rules, but rather a sensitivity and understanding of the nuances of cultural difference.

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This article was first published on the KPMG Newsroom here: The version on is the original version, and contains content not present in the KPMG version.

Photo credit: Tokyo Form



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K Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: In Asia, ignore hierarchy at your peril
In Asia, ignore hierarchy at your peril
Hierarchy is still ingrained in Asian business culture. Here is what happens if you forget.
K Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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