• Nanang Chalid

Making that Handshake: Insights for Indonesians in working with a different culture.

Updated: Dec 11, 2021


I was once interviewed for a book, written by Professor Hora Tjitra, Hana Panggabean, and their Atmajaya University academic team, whose mission was to understand the challenge that Indonesian usually has in working with the multicultural environment and make them thrive. Here it is in summary, on what most challenges that made most of "cultural handshakes" failed for Indonesians when it comes to working with a different culture.


The Indonesian Chemistry.


One, it is about 'The Indonesian Chemistry' - that's how I called it. Based on my experience of meeting with global Indonesian talents, having Indonesian community, fellow, or friends remain key as emotional support on surviving and thriving when they work abroad-- regardless of how skillful they are and how qualified they are as an individual leader in their subject matter expertise. This is the reason why Indonesian social groups always exist in so many places. And if you are an Indonesian who works or study abroad, it is likely that you'll be making friends (and best friends) with other Indonesians who also live, study, and work in the same company or city/country where you are based. It's inherent in our "collective-collegial" needs of being. The sooner Indonesian talent finds his/her community, the better they usually cope with challenges at work.


Hail Harmony!


Second, the habit of looking for harmony in a meeting. This is also related to the non-verbal gesture culture that becoming norms in Indonesia, but not likely in many other culture. When you are in most Indonesian meetings, you can simply be silent to show your disagreement with a plan. Thinking that you can then take things "offline", and approach the person outside the formal meeting to share your concerns, and try to find out a win-win solution. This is where culture clashes: whereas within a global professional setup, a decision taken in a meeting is irreversible. 'Speak now or forever hold your peace' is what most culture of many global companies meetings are because time and speed is essential. Meetings, by most culture, is a decision-making forum. For Indonesians, it is a relationship-building forum. This is why challenging others in meetings are perceived as 'unnecessary' for many Indonesians as it is considered as risking the relationship you have built. Just like work is personal for many Indonesians, things he/she says in meetings are also considered as 'personal', while for many other cultures, work is work -- nothing personal. In other cultures, you can debate and fight over ideas and plan in meetings, and you can go for meals and drinks together afterward. For Indonesian, critics or harsh feedback in meetings can be taken as a personal offense. This 'public-face' culture that is very strong in Indonesian's norms is not the case somewhere else. Can you imagine how confusing it is for Indonesians when they joined in a meeting where conflicting views, debates, and tension is taking most of the minutes?


Good intent of Humility that might risk your credentials.


Third, is the humility that made Indonesian show him/her self as the underdog. Due to collegial culture, Indonesian feels that any achievements are teams. not 'because of me.' Of course, it is very positive as it makes Indonesian culture collaborative by nature, but it is also detrimental professionally as great individual talent is 'worried' about being outstanding and holding him/her self back in showing what he/she is capable of. In many interviews of Indonesian candidates for a global/regional leadership role, the Hiring Manager is sometimes confused on what are impacts that a person really made, because the candidate always refers to things that "we" did, instead of highlighting his/her personal contribution to the result of his/her successful stint. When I was the HRBP of the regional function, I help the interview process by specifically asking the question: "What do you INDIVIDUALLY do, to make those brilliant deliverables done?" -- then, the true answer shows up. And I did that deliberately, as I know the cultural context of this extreme humility in most Indonesians.


Aspiring Indonesian Talents: here is how to thrive.


Despite all the above being positives in many ways at home, when it comes to working with different cultures, all the above become 'blind spots' that risk Indonesian talent/leaders credentials. My advice to any aspiring Indonesian talent who would like to go and work abroad, be conscious of these habits and learn to change them as you grow your multicultural leadership muscle. Just like a handshake, you need to extend your hand and willingness to change, so that other cultures can also start to understand you better. Because when you do that 'cultural handshake', Indonesian leader would have the best of both world: very independent yet socially-balanced, assertive yet able to bring out synergy within the team, and proud yet humble, which made you approachable and being vulnerable, that make your learning agility to be a better person and a better leader make you continuously relevant as talent.


And if you say that: " I am Indonesian talent/leaders, but I don't experience all the challenges mentioned above ". Then lucky you, because you have been exposed to a very niche growing-up environment that made you very independent, able to speak up your mind and dare to challenge others in meetings, and proudly admit distinctive impacts you individually made. Out of my 15 years of experience, I spend 5 years abroad. I learned my lesson a hard way, so I wish my fellow Indonesian talents can skip through the hardship through this blog.


For more complete insights on this topic, in which I was just one of the respondents of this 18-years of research, I recommend you to read the full and complete book. (Hora Tjitra & Hana Panggabean, 2015. "Kearifan Lokal, Keunggulan Global: Cakrawala Baru di Era Globalisasi ". Jakarta: Elex Media Komputindo)

Key success factor for Indonesian talents who work with multicultural set up is to be conscious on cultural blind-spots and making the cultural handshake fast.

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