Sunday, November 9, 2008

Working with a Thai boss


'How can I work with a Thai boss?" Jim asks me during an executive coaching session. He is a newly appointed CEO reporting to a Thai chairman.

"How do you rate your relationship with him?" I ask.

"It's been good. It's just that sometimes I'm not quite sure what to do."

"Tell me more about the situations you're not sure about."

"We have lunch every two weeks. He always pays. I'm not sure how to behave. I'd prefer to rotate or share the cost."

"This is quite common in Thailand. When an a-vu-so (more senior) person accompanies you to lunch, he is supposed to pay for it. Nevertheless, if you want to pay from time to time, you have to check with him first.

"For example, when you have lunch with him next week, you should nob-nom (politely) ask his permission to pay. Explain to him that you feel kreng-jai. Ask if it would be possible for you to pay for that day.

"Most likely, he will disagree. You should not insist. It will be considered as sia-ma-ra-yat (impolite) if you resist the intentions of a poo-yai (senior)."

"If he doesn't allow me to pay, what should I do? I feel obligated whenever I have lunch with him."

"Jim, you might want to reciprocate indirectly, for example by buying some gift for him during the New Year festivities."

"What should I buy?"

"You have to learn more about him. If he's a golfer, you might want to consider a golf-related item. If he's a book lover, buy some books. You may want to check with his secretary. If he has children or grandchildren, perhaps a New Year gift for them would be a good idea. The trick is not to spend too much or too little."

"So, if I want to bring my team for lunch or dinner, I am supposed to pay for it, right?"

"That's true. I have a Thai friend who is a CEO. Even though he can claim reimbursement from the company when entertaining his staff, he doesn't do it. He just spends his personal money with his team. With this approach, he can sue-jai (buy heart) from his team. It shows that the leader is making a sacrifice.

"And don't worry that your Thai subordinates will take advantage of you. Usually, they also will be kreng-jai to you. Anyway, they don't want to have lunch with you every day - eating with the boss is not considered sanook (fun) by most Thais."

"That's interesting, Khun Kriengsak. I have another question. I read from your book that losing face is quite a big thing here. From time to time, I have disagreed with the chairman inside the meeting room in front of other directors. I noticed that the chairman and most directors did seem slightly uncomfortable. What should I do?"

"Next time, you may need to be diplomatic. You may need to do some homework prior to the meeting. You should have a one-on-one meeting with the chairman prior to the board meeting. Mention to him that since you're new, you may not be aware of norms and culture. You want to go through the agenda and 'check the temperature' of some hot issues. You may want to check with the chairman for potential problems with other directors. Then, lobby those directors as well. You're new, so use this honeymoon period to learn about norms and organisational culture here."

"That's a good idea. There are some minor things that I'm not comfortable with. They're no big deal but perhaps you might want to write about them for your Thai readers."

"What are they?"

"Khun Kriengsak, I don't like it when people call me farang. I checked with several Westerners here. Not all of them enjoy this label. I would rather be called Jim, and my friends Joe or Olivier."

"That's interesting. What else?"

"The other thing is language. We run our meetings in English. Sometimes the Thai managers switch to speak in Thai when they can't find the English words. My point is that all of them are quite good English speakers. Sometimes they don't have patience.

"Once they start speaking in Thai, they detour the conversation and take a while to switch back to English. It would be nicer if they translated for me what they discussed in Thai. At least I could follow what they discussed."

Kriengsak Niratpattanasai provides executive coaching in leadership and diversity management under the brand TheCoach. He can be reached at Copies of previous columns are available at

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