Use the Power of Cooperation to Build trust with your Asian Employees

We are very lucky. The rules of influence are universal across cultures, so you can use much of what you have learned about human psychology and simply apply it in Asia. Often it is better to think about our similarities rather than our differences when we want to get what we want in another country.

When I read Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, one of the sentences that struck me the most was a quote by Isaac Asimov: “All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality…and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person”. Well, what I would love to say is – forget that. You can’t just go and pretend that everything about your country is better when you live in a place far away from home.  But it wouldn’t work. It’s human nature, this want to be better. The desire to prove that you are superior, that your decisions are right.

Not very likable, is it? A desire to prove superiority is what made Nazi-Germany try to take over the whole world, after all. Unfortunately likability is one of the most important factors of influence. So don’t do it like the Germans (yeah, I can say that – I am German after all). The best way of making people from other cultures like you is by doing just the opposite of fighting. What could that be? Correct! Cooperation is what I’m talking about.

It might sound obvious, but my experience is that when foreign bosses and locals work together, a gap emerges in most cases. While it is normal in many Asian countries superiors’ decisions are untouchable – they are the ultimate force to bow to – I believe that this phenomenon is even stronger with expatriates. Asians are often too shy to engage casually with a (foreign) boss – which results in the expat seeing the locals as too stiff – not fun to hang out with.

Depending where they come from, expats are often reluctant to the concept of power distance – the idea that superiors are higher in the social ladder than their subordinates and therefore can basically do whatever they want. Sure, authority is important in any culture, but the extent to which people bow to it differs.

What I suggest is a simple solution to this problem: instead of just assigning responsibilities to your colleagues, why don’t you create a task force for which you have to cooperate with them closely on a day-to-day basis? Maybe this doesn’t feel like the most effective way to get work done, but that is not the whole purpose in this case. The main point is that it gives you an opportunity to cooperate with them, which, according to research, is one of the best ways to reduce stereotypes and increase likability between both parties. Plus, you might as well learn something new about their culture –  who knows?

Do not expect immediate results. Your employees might be reluctant at first – they are often not used to collaborate this closely with their boss or a foreigner, but over time they will open up. The point is to create an environment in which you work as equals, an environment based on trust and open communication. Then, hopefully, you will eradicate the feeling of superiority. The “us vs. them” mentality which creates the distance between foreigners and locals. But be careful. When you work together in the task-force, you still need to assign your subordinates responsibilities clearly, state your opinions and make the final decisions. Otherwise you risk being perceived as incompetent – a boss who doesn’t have opinions.

I highly encourage you to read Influence by Robert Cialdini. It is a great overview of the techniques of influence – and the best thing is that you can use them all over the world. The next post will deal with other aspects of influence: consistency and reciprocation. If that happens, employees will lose respect in you. So you need to find a good balance.

Last but not least: please share your experiences of cooperating with local employees in the comment section! How did you make them like you? What problems did you face? Share with us!


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