Working in a multicultural work environment

Promoting Australian investments in the Philippines will eventually result in Australian managers working with Filipino staff.  And cultural differences will be a big consideration in the success or failure of the business. It is to the benefit of Australian business having the experience of managing a multicultural environment that I am confident an Australian business in the Philippines will be successful in managing local staff.

From BusinessWorld Philippines

February 15, 2012

Expats’ dilemmas

In training seminars I’ve conducted with multinational companies operating in the Philippines on overcoming barriers to intercultural communication, all my participants agree that to succeed as managers, they have to understand the Filipino culture and values, especially the underlying social structures that influence relationships, the Filipino’s work ethic, and, most importantly, the Filipino’s communication style.

Most Western executives are driven by being seen as good at their job. Work objectives are essential especially for those who are here for three to five years only. These managers bring a “We are here to work” mindset and a “can do” attitude into an untried work and social environment. They come from a business culture with a system work-orientation, where results matter most than relationships. On the other hand, Filipino managers and employees focus more on job security, and the attitude of “We work to live” is prevalent.

When relating with top management, colleagues, and subordinates, expats from Western egalitarian societies may not find organization hierarchy and status important. Everyone can contribute to organizational goals and objectives. More often than not, however, social structures outside the company get replicated inside the workplace. To expats, this stand in the way of getting the job done. “Why does everyone call me ‘Sir?’” lamented one expat manager.

Where openness and direct communication at all levels characterize expat managers, Filipinos are guarded and don’t give their trust until it is earned. Expat managers need to really listen and be sensitive to non-verbal signals because the real issues take a long time to come out. Conversations lack directness, and Filipinos tend to say “Yes” when they really mean “No” or “I don’t understand.” They hesitate to ask when in doubt.

A number of studies have been conducted to understand cultural differences particularly those affecting work place behavior. One is Hofstede’s “Five Dimensions of Culture,” as follows: power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, feminism vs. masculinity, and long-term vs. short-term orientation. Each culture is assigned a power distance index (PDI), an individualism index (IDV), an uncertainty avoidance index (UAI), a masculinity index (MAS), and a long-term orientation index (LTO). This study reveals that the Philippines has a very high PDI (very hierarchical and status-oriented); low IDV, (very collectivistic); low UAI (flexible); medium MAS (both competitive and compromising); and low LTO (having a short-term orientation and living by the day).

Hofstede’s study shows that Philippine society is among the world’s most hierarchical. In a family, parents, grandparents, and older siblings are looked up to. Similarly, Philippine organizations are characterized by a paternalistic management style, where a patron-client relationship prevails. One’s social status is defined by one’s rank within the organization, and a person in a higher level is expected to take care of those in the lower levels. A Filipino’s socialization centers on the family (very collectivistic), which is the basic unit of society. Thus, uplifting the welfare of their respective families is foremost in the minds of Filipino employees. They have to work to live, but they live primarily for their families.

In Western and more affluent, individualistic societies, the family has become less important in satisfying physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Young people go out on their own when they reach legal age (in most countries, 18 years old). This practice breeds independent, self-confident, assertive individuals who do what they want without much influence from their parents. Arguments, disagreements, and debates are common ways of communication. This highly individualistic population adheres to the principles of freedom, justice, and financial independence, and strives toward self-actualization.

Given these cultural differences, expatriates must manage in a way that will result in a three-pronged win-win situation: for themselves, for the Filipino managers and employees, and for the whole organization. One expat participant, for example, expressed willingness to be more open and to let his Filipino subordinates understand that “coming on strong” is natural in his culture and is not meant to belittle locals. Another expat said he would be less critical, less intimidating (no swearing and cursing), less direct and forceful when giving instructions, and more aware of the need to not “lose face” at all times. A third promised to be more open-minded and to establish personal contacts with his subordinates through more social activities within the company. But the most interesting insight came from a more senior expatriate executive who thought of “Filipinizing” corporate objectives — that is, translating them in terms of achieving Filipino values of family, community, country, and shareholders.

Once all of these are done, the expats’ dilemmas may not be dilemmas anymore!

(Dr. Kaamino-Tschoepke is an assistant professor at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. She teaches Organizational Behavior, Strategic Human Resource Management, and Business Organizations and Management. She can be emailed at The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of De La Salle University, its faculty, and its administrators.)

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