Thai Followship Kreng Jai Style
Expatriate managers in Thailand face a unique set of opportunities, issues and challenges. Darren Hanson, Professor of Leadership and Head of Global Partnerships, NEOMA Business School, France, looks at how Thai culture impacts the workplace, and gives his view on how best to be a leader of Thais in Thailand.
Leadership is defined by and through its followership, against a unique situational backdrop. This perspective on leadership, from Michelle Bligh, Associate Professor in the Division of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences at Claremont Graduate University in the US, is particularly relevant when we try to understand the fast-growing, dynamic and complex Southeast Asian Kingdom of Thailand.
With its central location and substantial manufacturing operations, the country is an attractive destination for many multinational’s operations, but what does it take to lead a team in Thailand? How does Thailand’s ‘followership’ — the role played by a leader’s followers within an organisation — influence effective leadership styles? What should newly arrived leaders consider to get the best from their Thai teams?
A research team from the Centre for Leadership and Effectiveness in Organisations (CLEO) at the NEOMA Business School, France, set out to discover the key elements that typified Thai national culture. The CLEO team asked the question: ‘How do those cultural features impact the way a leader in Thailand can get the best from their staff?’ To better understand Thai culture, it helps to appreciate a behavioural philosophy that underpins daily interactions, as there is a symbiotic relationship between work culture and national culture.
In Thai national culture, the concept of Kreng Jai describes the practice of creating and nurturing positive relationships with others. There is no comparable English word, but perhaps ‘kindness’ comes closest to defining Kreng Jai. A noted expert in Thai leadership, Professor Meechai Orsuwan from Bangkok University, worked with the CLEO team. He states that Kreng Jai is generally regarded in Thailand as a positive trait that is needed to create a peaceful society. People without Kreng Jai are viewed as aggressive, impolite and inconsiderate.
What Defines Kreng Jai?
While foreign managers who are interacting daily with Thai employees may find the concept of Kreng Jai difficult to understand, the NEOMA Business School team identified the following criteria that describe and explain the main behaviours observed or reported in Kreng Jai:
1. Showing Respect
• Avoiding disrupting or interrupting others
• Reticence to express own opinions
• Avoiding asking questions or seeking help
The relationship between the leader and follower in Thai society includes the manner of greeting, speech and general behaviour, as determined by the comparative status of the person addressed and the speaker. Respect in Thai society implies obedience and being guided by rules of etiquette. These rules or norms include not arguing with a superior, not giving unasked-for advice and not addressing the superior. Relative degrees of compliance to these rules depend partly on the relative statuses between the two parties, and partly on the amount of power the leader holds over the follower.
2. Avoiding Conflict
• Accepting a situation, even at the expense of asserting one’s own rights
• Withholding emotions that might show displeasure or anger
Social distance is inviolable in Thai culture, and consequently it is emotionally loaded. Potentially aggressive exchanges are avoided and replaced with inconsequential small talk. This may seem inefficient, but it gives the people involved time to explore the situation and make a decision whether to withdraw as gracefully as possible or continue with the matter at hand.
3. Adhering to Social Level
• Averseness to overstep role
• Reluctance to evaluate a colleague’s or superior’s performance
Kreng Jai exerts social pressure for people to stay at their own level. Consequently it tends to hinder, or even prevent, individuals from taking the initiative. Peers and superiors would view a person going ‘going beyond’ their accepted social level negatively, as it would imply that the person is overstepping their social ranking. As a consequence, a foreign leader of a Thai team will find that Thai’s cultural inclination is to wait for instructions, rather than act as events may warrant.
Collective Culture in the Corporate World
Thai culture has high power distance and strong collective focus. In contrast, predominantly Anglo cultures, such as Australia and the US, are consistently recognised as low power distance and individualistic,rather than collectivist, in focus. Since much of the management and leadership thinking emanates from a US cultural bias, foreign leaders in Thailand often want to implement best practice leadership.
However, they may find it challenging to do so due to Kreng Jai in the work place. For example, a leader from a low power distance culture, such as Australia or the US, who is seeking to build an engaged team may seek to encourage their team members to address them by their by first name, strike up a conversation, or challenge their opinions.
Their Thai team, influenced by Kreng Jai, would find this difficult and uncomfortable. Thailand’s strong collective culture can support leadership objectives, such as encouraging a group orientation and teamwork. However, Kreng Jai compels individuals to avoid social ostracism by conforming to strategic alliances and coalitions. Consequently, the majority of Thais will not speak up or offer any opinions in meetings unless they are confident that their opinion is the same as those of their leaders. The Western leader therefore has to balance respect for Thai social norms with encouraging open debate and discussion of options to achieve the best outcome. Thai people are status-conscious. The greater the number of employees that report directly to a person, the higher their status and power — and the greater the care and expectation required from their employees in playing the correct role.
For example, managers in Thailand often speak at employees’ weddings, attend family funerals and may assist in personal matters. Followers would be insulted if their leader did not play this role. Foreign leaders with direct reports will be assigned high status by Thai peers and team members, regardless of whether they seek to be an egalitarian, democratic leader.
According to Professor Orsuwan, the more you know and trust a person, the less Kreng Jai is an issue. Patience and understanding will help a leader build the trust and confidence that will in time translate into more open and direct communication with followers. Key to this is finding trusted confidantes among your team, learning from them, and being open minded.
This article first appeared in HQ Asia (2015), Issue 9.