When in Jakarta… Top tips for expatriates working in Indonesia

Many international assignees attend intercultural training not long after arriving in the Indonesian capital. What is interesting is that the concerns they express about relating to their Indonesian counterparts at work are nearly always the same. Here is a list of the most common concerns that have come up regularly during intercultural training as the most challenging obstacles to a profitable relationship between international and Indonesian employees of multinational companies:

"I hear yes but he should have said no"

This is a fairly common complaint all over Asia and certainly true in Indonesia. Harmony is a very important value and must be maintained at all costs. This also means communicating smoothly and without discomfort or disagreement. It is far more important for an Indonesian colleague to answer “yes” and then to be unable to comply than to give a straightforward “no”.

"Why did she say she understood me if she did not get a word of what I said?"

International assignees often complain that their Indonesian counterparts have given the impression that they have totally understood what has been discussed when in fact they haven’t. People tend to forget that Indonesia’s relationship with the English language is very recent. English is not yet widely spoken so even if you talk slowly and clearly, it can often be very hard for them to grasp everything you have said. There is, however, another factor, which is losing face. Indonesians will nearly always avoid putting someone in a position of “losing face”. Telling you what you said has not been understood means putting you in an uncomfortable position which should be avoided at all costs.

"I want my subordinates to be proactive and come up with new proposals, but they just don’t take any initiative!"

In general, Indonesian business culture tends to follow procedures to the letter without discussion. This can result in a lack of initiative. Two factors are at play here:

  • Firstly, Indonesia has a highly hierarchical culture. Employees do not feel at ease having to decide or act independently from their superiors. For many of them, this feels like a lack of respect or like breaking the limits imposed by authority.
  • Secondly, Indonesia has for many decades been subject to colonisation, single-party politics and the influence of a privileged army elite. People are accustomed to obeying and to respecting whoever is above them. It will take time to learn how to free themselves from their past and feel individually strong enough to speak up, create, take initiative and bring their opinions and ideas forward with ease.

"My employees seem to be far more interested in chatting on their phones and amongst themselves than in working"

It is a fact that Indonesian people highly value human relationships and that their culture has a strong collective component. Communication within the group is vital for them. Basa basi (chit-chat) is part of the daily routine at all levels of society. Indonesians place great emphasis on personal relationships within the group and go to great length to cultivate them. It is easier to accomplish a task if it is shared with a someone they trust and appreciate. It is important to give reasonable space for social interactions even when they happen during a meeting. Imposing a strict rule of not chatting or spending some social time with colleagues during working hours risks a loss of motivation and diminished performance.

"The quality of their performance is very poor. Why can’t they write a report with the same care they put in preparing a birthday card?" 

Some Indonesians struggle to attain the level that their managers in western companies demand. They may have had very limited international exposure and Indonesian business culture has been shaped by values of obedience and respect for authority.  This has resulted in a lack of pushing towards to achieve individual results and high-level performance. Moreover, the education system in Indonesia does not necessarily prepare future employees for high western standards. However, Indonesia has developed rapidly in recent years, and has by far surpassed its European counterparts in terms of economic growth. Indonesian people, especially particularly the younger generation, have a lot of potential. It takes time and patience to find a common understanding of what can be expected and delivered and how best to get there.

If you are about to relocate to Indonesia as an expatriate, take some time to understand Indonesian values and how they impact and workplace behaviours.  Listen and observe and remember to adjust your own style and behaviours to ensure that you get the best from your new team.

Claudia Landini Image

Claudia Landini

Claudia is a cross-cultural trainer, coach, translator and interpreter and has also worked in the non-profit sector.  An expatriate for nearly 30 years, she has lived in Sudan, Angola, Guinea Bissau, Congo, Honduras, Peru, Jerusalem and most recently Indonesia. She is now temporarily based back home in Italy.

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