Asian’s and Emotions. Harmony and Ambiguity.

“Okay guys” John said. “You all know Thursday is a big day for us”. All eyes were on him – the one  guy sitting at the head of the black pear-shaped table. “Time to tell me what the plan is”.  Silence. People started looking around. “Well, who is going to present?” he asked. Whenever two eyes both of them could only see confusion. The longer the silence, the more they could feel a sense of revulsion dwelling up.

“Is this the Indonesian day of silent prayer or something like that?” he asked. “If so, you should`ve told me. We could have scheduled the meeting for…well…yesterday.” Finally one of the Indonesian employees got the courage to tell him the truth. Avoiding to look into his eyes, Agung said with a slightly trembling voice: “We are very sorry, Sir. We thought that you were going to come up with the plan…“.

“Shit!” he cried. “I just can’t believe it!” His body was tense, his face red like the hot water lever of a dispenser. “Why did I even hire all of you? Could have saved a lot of money. In the end I gotta do everything on my own”. He got up quickly. The chair made a rattling sound when he pushed it back. Pointing his finger at them, he concluded the meeting “Okay, that’s it for now. Get it done, goddammit!”

“Typical Indonesians” he thought. “Will they ever learn to take responsibility? Just keeping silent – staring at me. Hopeless.”


Alright. I probably don’t need to tell you that the communication here didn’t go too well.  There are several issues at work. One seems to be that Indonesian employees lack initiative. That is not necessarily the case – but supervisors often need to instruct them more clearly than in the west. Unless they are told to take care of a problem, many Indonesians will assume that the leader will handle it himself. But this is not the real issue I want to discuss. More interesting right now is John’s lack of self-control. His impulsiveness. His inability to control his own emotions.

We have all heard about the term saving face. One way of losing face, according to the perception of many Asian people, is to display intense emotions in public. And yeah, anger is probably one of the worst things you could show.  In this case it is quite clear that this was not the first time for John to shout at his employees. They were afraid to tell him that they haven’t prepared anything. He did it once more – do you think that will make it any better? I doubt it.

Even worse – they will not only fear him. Eventually they will also loose respect and start ignoring him. Avoiding trouble is the mantra. Harmony what to strive for. Now, does that mean you can’t communicate your feelings? Not at all.

But to do that, think about the term “communication” again. Basically when you communicate you want to get a message across so that your conversation partner understands what you want to say. And showing your wrath is the best way to make your point clear, right? Well, yes and no. Of course John’s employees understood that he was angry. But did he communicate what he expects from them, what they should have done or what they are supposed to do now?

Ehm, let me see. “Get it done, goddammit!” is all I can find. So what is “it”? And who of them should take care of “it”?  You might think that this is not a realistic scenario. Of course John would have been more concrete about what to do next. Well, let me ask you this: can you still focus on these things when you are in rage? I doubt it. At least I can’t.

“Okay, this is all very nice. But what do you suggest me to do then?” Good question! First of all you need to convince your Asian employees that showing emotions is not all that bad. It does not necessarily destroy harmony if you do it the right way. “So how do I convince them?” Wow, you’re my dream audience. What great questions you ask, thanks a lot! My answer: by telling them that you want to share your emotions because you really care about them. Of course you need to be sincere about it.

Once you have convinced your employees of that whenever a conflict arises you can take three steps to resolve it:

  1. Express your own emotions and help your colleagues to express theirs
  2. Express your own needs and help your colleagues to express theirs
  3. Formulate a request for them how to fulfil your needs and help them formulate a request how to fulfil yours

At this point there need to be a few words of caution. This system does not work as long as your employees are not willing to open up. In other words: it needs time. Especially in a case like John’s where both parties lost their trust in each other. Another thing is that at the first stage you need to express your emotion and back it up with a fact. “I am disappointed because there is no progress for this project” would be a possible statement. The danger here is to drift off into judgement. “You are lazy!” does not work very well. All it does is to demotivate your colleagues.

Make it your priority to understand their feelings and their position. Maybe they will tell you that they feel discomfort because you have expectations of them but do not make it clear what you want them to do. Maybe they will tell you that once you realize they do not fulfil your expectations, you always become angry. Just like good old John. Then, once you understand their feelings, acknowledge them. Tell them: “I understand that you feel uncomfortable”.

They will love you for it. “Oh wow. Somebody listens to me. Somebody cares!”

And you will be surprised. You will realize that some of your assumptions were just wrong. Just like John. He assumed they all knew what he expected of them. Well, they didn’t. Sorry, Johnnyboy. Now you know better.

I hope that you will give these ideas a try. It might change your live. If you don’t, at least do me a favour: read “EQ and Leadership in Asia. Using Emotional Intelligence to Lead and Inspire Your People” by Sebastien Henry. I got most of the ideas of this article from his book. Maybe he is better at convincing you 😉 Oh, and there is one more thing. Imagine after the meeting John talks to his employees again and uses the techniques we just discussed. What would the conversation look like? Post your ideas in the comment section and we shall discuss!


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