In Asia, ignore hierarchy at your peril

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 clichés, 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 government employee and was used to being accorded extreme amounts of respect. In Asia, with its strict hierarchal 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.

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. 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.

Feature Image: Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
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2 thoughts on “In Asia, ignore hierarchy at your peril

  1. Very good. I would like to encourage other KPMG Australia staff to submit their own cultural learning experiences from working with Asian cultures which can be shared with our colleagues to help constructively understand the nuances and operate more effectively in the Asian business Century. Well done!

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