8 Things Overseas Grads Need to Learn about Working with Local Indonesians

Coach Cynthia is a top-ranked international speaker, who has spoken before audiences in Indonesia, United Kingdom, France, Singapore, China, USA, and Curacao. Cynthia coaches senior leaders, expats, coaches, and coaching firms around the world.

I promised to write this for my Indonesian overseas-grad friends who have come back to work in our beloved country.  Especially those struggling to understand local staff and want them to speak out, be innovative, etc.

Firstly, I honor you for coming back and building Indonesia up to be a world-class nation.  And yes, there’s the culture shock.  We think we’re Indonesian, but we’re not really. And we think we understand Indonesians, but we don’t. And in between trying to figure out who needs to change, let’s be aware of how global exposure has shaped us to be different… and then understand more about local Indonesian mindset without judging.

I don’t have all the answers, but I take a few of my life experiences to share with you some possible reasons why local Indonesians find it difficult to speak out, think out of the box, etc. Note however, Indonesians have proven to be great survivors in the midst of chaos, and have creative ways to get what we want. That’s what makes me love being Indonesian and believe in my people’s ability to be a world-class talent and nation.

1. Mistakes are shamed in public.

When I was going to school here, mistakes were shamed in front of everyone.  Teachers would call us stupid in public, make us stand in front of the entire class, or go outside and stand by the door.  These rituals may be the reason why many people may prefer being quiet in the background rather than taking the risk to participate. Unfortunately shame stifles innovation. The fear of making mistakes and being shamed for it keeps people away from trying new things. Hence, the same ol’ stuff remains… and same ol’ progress.


2. Questioning authority was shamed. 

My eldest brother is very smart. And smart kids ask a lot of questions.  I remember my mom wondering why her son is so tan. Finally she found out that because he asked the teacher lots of questions, he was frequently sent out to stand by the flagpole until he could be quiet. Teachers did not like his curiosity, when in fact, he was just trying to learn. They perceived it as a hassle, or a challenge to their own intellect. Could it be that this ritual happens to a lot more people? Could this create a generation of people who are afraid to question authority, or even ask questions to clarify?


3. Thinking Big is weird.

A few years ago, I was called to do a talk for 500 teachers in Jakarta about the mindset of success.  I asked the participants to tell me what they want to achieve in life. One woman stood up and said that she wanted to own her own business one day. The rest of the group laughed sarcastically and made fun of her ambition. I called the group on it. No wonder there are so few successful people here.  The very minute someone dreams big, the others shoot them down. Where’s the support? Where’s the encouragement? Why make success something to be feared, instead of desired?
4. Too much need for acceptance.
Yes, we are a collective society. What people say greatly matters. Going nowhere in a group is often better than standing out and going somewhere by yourself. It’s like a national version of “let’s go to the bathroom together.” As if  you can’t go by yourself. For those educated in more individualistic countries, breaking out of this shell is easier. But imagine if these collective values are pounded in your head all your life.  Stepping out and speaking out for yourself may still be a great risk.


5. Success is a burden.
One of my clients refused a promotion, which would have given her 2x the salary.  When asked why, she said that if she earned more money, she would be the backbone of the greater family. And she’d rather not take the burden. So she prefers to stay small. Often, the richest person in the family is expected to pay for more things for others. If not, they are considered selfish, uncaring, arrogant.  I don’t have all the facts, but I perceive that here it is less ok to say, “I earned this money; I’ll use it how I want to.”


6. Tomorrow we’ll still have rice…

I used to work with Northeast Asians.  One of them, my boss from Hong Kong, often said, “You Southeast Asians work so slow, because you don’t have winter.” A few years later, I ran across this video about time perspective and how it links to sense of urgency (click here to watch). It says that people who live near the equator often take it easy. The sun will rise tomorrow. Food will always be plenty. So the need to go go go, and save, and think long term is not naturally built in. And interestingly, in my Executive Coaching experience, I often hear exactly the same comments about Indonesians: not thinking long term, no sense of urgency, etc. So I wonder if this theory is actually true…


7. Indonesians criticize Indonesia too much

I hear Indonesians say, “You know, the problem with Indonesians is…” And I usually ask, “Wait, aren’t you Indonesian?” I hear people saying how great Singapore is, how amazing USA is, how lovely Europe is… but not enough about how great Indonesia is.  We are tearing down our own confidence and we often don’t even know it. How then can we stand up and show up in the global community, if we keep telling ourselves that we’re not good, our people is bad, our quality is poor, etc. After living in USA, Singapore, and  France, I realize that these developed countries can learn a lot from us about being tough and taking ownership of their own lives instead of waiting for the government to take care of them.  At the same time, I learned about national pride from them. They are confident. People often perceive it as arrogance, but to me, they appreciate their nation and their people… and that’s a beautiful thing. And it gives them confidence to go after dreams as a nation, stand side by side to achieve common goals, and defend their values.


8. A huge power distance, especially in Java

Indonesia has hundreds of tribes, thousands of islands.  It’s hard to say the word “Indonesian” without wondering which Indonesian you’re talking about.  Sumatrans are very different from Javanese. Balinese has their own style. People from Flores and Papua are hard as a rock. Perhaps because Java has been the central place for business and living, people often refer to Javanese when they talk about Indonesians. Javanese has a strong history of God-like kings and power distance is huge here.  But if you go to Sumatra, their king can be voted out. They are more entrepreneurial and can speak out in front of authority.  Balinese? I find it interesting that my Balinese driver doesn’t even feel the need to help me with my heavy bags of groceries, nor pick me up at the lobby of the supermarket.  Speaking in East Indonesia for charity talks, they are so good at speaking out.  The problem is to make them stop preaching to you. But remember that Indonesia was colonized for hundreds of years. So I wonder if this makes our people feel like they are inferior to westerners. Again, I haven’t done extensive research on this, but I continuously see that westerners are treated as if they’re always right or they’re superior.  And for us who’ve lived abroad, we’re more used to seeing them as our equals and even managing them… But for locals especially coming from traditional backgrounds, I can understand their hesitance. Anyway, I’m not making any conclusions, but it’s just interesting.


Ok, there you go.  Not based on extensive scientific research, but just a few observations I have in going through my daily interactions with our people.  I love my country and this is such a great time for Indonesia. We are the star of Southeast Asia, thanks to the potential of our population and our stunning natural resources.

I hope through this sharing, we overseas grads can learn the best out of our local counterparts and share the best to them as well.  I hope we Indonesians also become more aware of our own limiting beliefs and cultures, and find a good alternative that helps us achieve our personal dreams and our national vision.

Indonesia, Go Global!

Original Post from http://cynthiawihardja.com/workingwithindonesians/

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