A Cross-Cultural Management Guide to Thailand

As a manager you usually want to avoid these foot-in-face situations (picture taken from an actual prison fight).

A few weeks back I wrote about building a kick-ass team of Thai employees and how to deal with with the challenges of recruiting and assembling an awesome team. Today I’d like to look at the day-to-day management of an expat manager in Thailand. What follows is my own best practices that I came to use over the last 10 years while running a tech start-up out of Bangkok. For my own company these turned to work out quite well, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only or the best way to go about it. What might have worked for a tech company of 20 people might not be suitable for larger organisations or different industries, so take this with a grain of salt.

Expectations of Your Employees

What do your employees expect? Compensation aside, there’s actually a number of pain points that can be very different to what you might be used to from your home country.

  • Harmony is really important in Thailand. Especially in the office, as for many employees, the work environment is also their social environment. Whereas people elsewhere might ‘tough it out’ when they don’t get along with their boss or their coworkers, it’s much more likely that in Thailand they’ll just walk out the door. If your management style has a ‘soft touch’ and you aim to keep relationships more harmonic, you’ll get to profit in the form of more loyal staff and lower fluctuation.
  • Progress is easy to discard as being only about salary and promotions. However, similar to most other countries, ambitious staff in Thailand will expect progress in the form of acquiring knowledge and developing their hard and soft skills. You can cater to that by putting people into positions and giving them responsibilities that challenge them rather than only assigning them work and assignments they already fully mastered.
  • Support people proactively. Not everyone is a self-starter, so teaching staff – even if it’s just 30 minutes a week – goes a long way as well. It builds up human capital over time and reduces fluctuation. Support also extends beyond work – you can expect staff to ask for your advice and help on matters that elsewhere would be considered outside of the scope of work of a supervisor.
  • Appreciation for more than their ‘utility value’ is important. If you care about your staff and not just about their contribution to your company, they’ll return the favor and stick around longer. New founders often expect a tremendous level of commitment from their first hires and are disappointed if that doesn’t happen. Commitment is something you earn, not something you can expect to get without effort.

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Challenges For You as a Manager

Understanding expectations is a good start, but accepting that your own management style needs to adapt and go beyond mere awareness of local expectations will allow you to really take advantage of local strengths and mitigate any weaknesses the location entails.

  • I found delegating works a bit different in Thailand. It’s a lot harder to delegate responsibility. On the other hand it’s a lot easier to delegate the small things. Think about what takes up your time and attention – regardless if it’s a work or personal issue – and delegate it.  Local cost structure allows you to avoid queueing, filing, commuting … that doesn’t replace having a qualified project manager, but you can get back some of the lost time that way.
  • Know what areas you can comprise on in terms of quality and deadlines. Don’t add complications, disharmony or pressure for stuff that doesn’t matter. You’ll probably have to make quite a bit of compromises, so it helps to know in advance where you can stomach it. Likewise be aware of the areas where compromise isn’t acceptable.
  • Prepare yourself. More things go wrong in Thailand. Build up know-how in all areas of business to develop a better sense for evaluating potential business hazards. It could be a technical issue, a tax problem, legal issues or an HR issue. You’re the chief firefighter – be prepared to jump in and fix whatever went wrong.
  • Avoid single points of failure – whether that’s one key employee who is irreplaceable or a process where the mistakes of a single person can have profound negative consequences. Create redundancies, fail safes, contingency plans and redundancies.
  • Be aware of the cultural and language barrier even you can speak Thai The easiest way to deal with it is to avoid assuming maliciousness if it can be explained by lack of knowledge, ability, or just plain coincidence. Another way to reduce the effects of that is to organize people in teams: When briefing multiple persons simultaneously, they can later on compare notes (useful, given the significant potential for misunderstandings and people’s hesitation to ask clarifying questions).

A Possible Organisational Structure

Over the course of a few years I added quite a few people to the payroll. It was a bit of a challenge to figure out how to organize everyone. There were a number of issues: What can be delegated? How can the management bottleneck be reduced? Is there a way to reduce or manage rampant fluctuation? A few years ago, one of my most talented staff members came up with a rather neat organisational system that is still in place today. It turned out to be a formidable solution and it’s currently my favorite piece of organisational advice for companies in Thailand:

The basic idea is to have teams of 3 to 6 people that share cross-functional tasks. In my company that can mean there’s a single team that takes care of customer service, product management, marketing, and business development. Instead of having individual people for each role, they share the responsibility for all of those roles.

This has a number of benefits for the employees:

  • From an employee’s point of view, the immediate benefit is work enrichment. It’s simply more interesting to have a range of diverse tasks instead of doing the same stuff over and over again. This makes the job a lot more attractive – something that will help set you apart from larger companies who might offer bigger benefit packages.
  • In a small company, this also allows a lot of people to work with each other, which makes the workplace a more social environment. That’s a factor that shouldn’t be underestimated in Thailand, where work and social life are often strongly connected.
  • They get to learn more. Nothing feels more like a dead-end job than repetitively doing the same tasks over and over with little improvement to your own skills after an initial learning phase.

For the company, it works out as well:

  • It’s amazing what new employees can learn from existing ones – even if their immediate predecessor isn’t there anymore. By having people organized in cross-functional teams, everyone on that team has a decent insight and can help new members get their feet on the ground. I spend much less time coaching and teaching staff myself this way than I used to when everyone had their individual role.
  • Employees can cover for each other in case of illness, vacation or when people leave the company. I practically have no restrictions on when employees can take vacation. Due to the team structure, other people can handle tasks for employees that aren’t present without causing any disruption.
  • Employees can help each other out. I notice that effect especially when it’s absent. Whether it’s formulas in spreadsheets, WordPress administration or Google Adwords: There’s always someone on the team who can teach and assist someone who’s struggling. In the past, I had to sit down with staff myself to impart knowledge, now the knowledge is in the ‘team cloud’ and it can flow more freely between members. It doesn’t completely absolve me from that role, but it seriously reduces the workload I face.
  • This structure makes things very flexible. If there’s a peak in one area (e.g. customer tickets during a sales season), people can easily jump in and help out. The work in different areas comes and goes in with product life cycles. Teams can adapt to whatever is currently in demand. In some weeks nearly everyone is working on marketing campaigns, while in others it’s 70% customer service.
  • In practice there’s some specialisation – team members have different skill sets and preferences and thus lean towards handling specific areas more than others (be it CSS, copywriting or customer service). I don’t discourage that. But unlike fixed assignments, this is based on self-organisation, their preferences and strengths and changes with company requirements. This way I found out that one of my data entry staff is actually a CSS wizard – she never brought it up, I never thought of asking. But the team was aware of it and put her skills to great use.
  • The above mentioned employee benefits translate into a lower fluctuation rate, making things run a lot more smoothly. Part of the reason for that is that there’s always something new for people to learn and improve. As long as employees see an opportunity to develop themselves further, they are much less likely to seek out new shores.
  • When undesired fluctuation occurs, the system helps offset the negative consequences (staff shortage, training efforts, etc.).
How it all started. The very first picture of our Bangkok office, taken nearly 10 years ago. Employee count at the time of the picture: 0.

Overall Thoughts

I guess my overall organizational efforts are less standardized than they could be. I do feel however though that resilience is more important than perfection for an organization in a volatile, developing labor market like Thailand.

What are your thoughts on management in Thailand? Did you come up with your own best practices? I’d love to hear about your improvement suggestions, opinions and insights in the comments (as well as any questions you might have). If you want my input on a company management, feel free to get in touch.

12 comments
  1. You are spot on. Being able to add value to the team will be great. Coaching and earning trust is important. Thai people tend to be nice and sometime, gives only positive feedback. Unless we earn their trust, they are not as open.

    1. Vincent, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! Trust is indeed an important point. I feel a lot of new managers underestimate how long it takes to earn trust and build a relationship with their team members – especially when there’s additional cultural challenges they might need to overcome. Patience and willingness to work for that trust doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, but it tends to go a long way.

  2. I know this article is 8 months old but just want to say I’m impressed! As a newbie to the start-up world (or generally being a new boss), hiring and keeping staff is my main headache (even as a Thai myself). You can read a lot of book and articles on how to be a great leader but I often find that it doesn’t always work with Thai staffs/environment. So it’s great to see very specific examples from your experience 🙂

      1. I deal with mostly low skilled staff and I find that they can be quite unmotivated and unwilling to progress. Often when they first joined we have good and friendly relationship then things get sour after a month or 2 (not sure why)/ My staffs do not communicate anything to me or sometime don’t even acknowledge when spoken to. Strange thing is they performed well at work and complete all the tasks given to do perfectly. It’s not a one off incident. I have this repeated pattern for few round of hires already. They just don’t stick around. Either we hire badly or doing something seriously wrong. At our size of business it’s not always possible to hire good graduates or highly skilled staff. So how to motivate them??

        1. Can you elaborate a bit on how ‘unmotivated’ and ‘unwilling to progress’ looks like in practice? In what kind of situations does it happen that they don’t acknowledge when spoken to?

          Is there possibly someone in the company who you have a very good relation with and who might be willing to share their thoughts and insights on what could be done to improve the situation?

  3. I just saw this. I live in Chiang Mai now and use virtual teams now but used to manage a team in Laos (damn hard work), I love the cross function team idea. I know plenty of businesses there that would really benefit from it. Just sent to my old boss.

  4. Thai’s are retarded when it comes to work. The lazy culture is remarkable. If it was in my hands i would never hire thai’s they are completely unreliable. Just like spoiled children. Avoid them as much as possible. No education, no curiosity, no motivation. Complete retards.

  5. I’m grateful for this post. I am a new (expat) manager of a team, and this has helped give some perspective and show that maybe there is hope after all. I may just try it your way before throwing the towel in. This past month has been stressful and frustrating. They spend a copious amount of time out of the office (during office hours), the one is supposed to go take pictures of a few stores while the other goes with and takes pictures of the one taking pictures. I give them deadline for important work (stuff I need them to do in order for me to do my job), and deadlines are treated like an “I’ll do it later” kind of attitude.
    If you have any advice, I’d love to hear it! 🙂

    1. Sure thing. Maybe I can help out a bit. I’ve just sent you an e-mail.

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