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Henderson Consulting International, Manila, Philippines
The Facts: You have set up your new office in Manila and, with the help of a few previous connections and more than a little good fortune, you land your first contract within a relatively short period of time. The job involves providing professional consultation and technical support on a joint venture project with a local corporation. You will be working in the offices of the Philippine company, scoping and designing the project, managing the implementation phase, and working with their domestic personnel to get the job done. Your contract specifies an interim review after the design phase is completed, but top management assures you that it's just a formality -- they definitely want to work with you for the whole project. You review the facilities and resumes of both management and technical staff and everything looks fine. No problema, you tell yourself as you tackle the project enthusiastically.
At first everything is great. You are given your own office and are told by the CEO to work directly with the EVP for the Division; he seems highly supportive and tells you to call on him at any time for whatever you might need. Although the working environment is relaxed by American or European standards, the staff works long hours and everyone is unfailingly polite. You soon find yourself enjoying the change of pace and congenial aspects of the Filipino workplace.
Until, that is, you become aware that the project is slowly but surely falling behind schedule. Being the accountable party, you know that it's up to you to address the problem. After some quiet background investigation, you pinpoint the source of the problem: the manager of a mission-critical department who appears to be horrendously incompetent. An older lady nearing retirement -- let's call her Mrs. Santos -- she has been with the company her entire career. Your analysis shows clearly that the problem lies in her use of outdated methods and resistance to certain innovative aspects of your project. Although your interactions with her have always been courteous, you begin to wonder if she's trying to sabotage your efforts.
In an effort to nip the problem in the bud, you approach the EVP to discuss the problem. You come in well-prepared for the meeting, with hard copy documentation tracing the bottleneck to Mrs. Santos' inept management. Thus, you are a bit surprised that he doesn't seem to share your concern for the issue. Although he listens intently to what you have to say, he gives oblique answers to your questions and seems to be avoiding the issue. But you know better than to press too hard and quickly back off. At the end of the meeting, which was much shorter than you anticipated, it's clear that he thinks you can work around Mrs. Santos and that he does not share your concern about the problem.
You do your best to keep the project on track, and keep looking the other way. However, the problems continue to pile up and get even worse over the next few weeks. Murphy seems to lurk around every corner, and every time you have to put out a fire the origin seems to lie in the same place: the inefficient department head. You have lunch with a couple of her key employees and pump them for information. Although what they tell you about operational matters confirms what you already know about inefficiency, it also makes clear that they see no way of changing dear old Mrs. Santos' way of doing things. When asked hard questions about project objectives and what could be done to ease the bottlenecks, they shrug their shoulders and laugh in a nervous, almost incongruous fashion.
Finally, at a key staff meeting just before you must file your interim report, the issue comes to a head. The EVP is there, but primarily as an observer -- as the big shot ex-pat consultant, you are chairing the meeting. You present the project as it has proceeded to date, doing your best to paint a positive picture, even going out of your way to complement some of the technical staff who have done outstanding jobs. But you feel that you can no longer avoid the hard fact that important deadlines are about to be missed. It also seems clear to you that 90% of the problems lie in that one particular department.
When Mrs. Santos takes the floor to summarize her department's work on the project, however, she paints a glowing picture. Things are really moving along, targets are being met and exceeded, everything is copacetic indeed. You can't believe what you are hearing! You know that everyone in the room must know that she is basically covering up, and can't help being upset in that she is downright contradicting what you have been saying and trying to bring to everyone's attention.
Responding to your gut instincts, and knowing for a fact that the data support your position, you take a deep breath before asking a series of hard questions that leave Mrs. Santos with very little wriggle room. She gives evasive answers, and everyone else around the table suddenly becomes quite uncomfortable. People are shifting around in their chairs, looking out the windows, a drastic shift in mood. You immediately realize that you have made a major blunder, but it's too late to back off, so you press ahead. After her third circular and avoidant answer, the EVP clears his throat rather loudly, then interrupts: "Perhaps we should move on with the meeting. These little details can be worked out later."
Within a month the project has fallen completely off track, precisely as you would have predicted. However, rather than taking action to put things back on track, top management decides to re-think the whole project, including their collaboration with the outside consultant (that being you). At the recommendation of the EVP, they pull the plug entirely after the design phase. They thank you wholeheartedly for doing such a sterling job on the project design, reassure you that they're anxious to work with you in the future, and cancel the project as it was their contractual prerogative to do. In parting, the EVP tells you: "Our staff feels that they can really carry this out on our own, and management agrees. Your work has been first-rate, but you know how things can change. Call me if you ever need a reference."
What Really Happened: Filipinos place tremendous emphasis on personal relationships; any organization has within in many interlocking and complex networks of allegiance and reciprocal obligation. Virtually everything in the Philippines is personalized; just think of the phenomenon of cronyism. Although there is now (out of necessity) a gradual move towards a more Westernized management style, ability and merit continue to be secondary considerations to the more important relationship dimensions.
In this case, Mrs. Santos had been with the company her entire career, and everyone there must have gone way back with her. Perhaps the EVP had been mentored by her when he first came on board. For all you know, she might be a godmother to one of the CEO's children. You do not criticize someone in that position; if you do, you are criticizing the rest of her network as well. You are also shooting yourself in the foot.
Your biggest mistake was that you criticized her in front of her peer group. NO NO NO -- never, never, never do such a thing. Amor proprio, basically self-esteem, is vitally important in the Philippines. Filipinos demand to be treated as esteemed persons rather than as objects. The ex-pat manager/executive/consultant runs a high risk of being perceived as arrogant if careful attention isn't given to proper respect to others. Filipinos have a deep and fundamental sense of personal dignity, and woe betide the poor schmuck who violates it. Just because you see that something is ill-advised, or downright incorrect, doesn't mean you can say so. Diplomacy is absolutely necessary, and if you don't have the patience for that sort of thing you probably shouldn't be trying to do business in Manila.
Related to this is the concept of hiya, translated loosely as "embarrassment." Face is vitally important to Filipinos, and one simply does not criticize them openly. They will hold it against you, fundamentally and probably forever. The feelings of inferiority, embarrassment, shyness, and alienation that result from open criticism are intolerable in Filipino culture, and this applies in the business world just as much as in the social world.
When you criticized Mrs. Santos in front of others, including her peers and subordinates, you caused her tremendous hiya. And it was not only she who was hurt -- everyone in the meeting felt her pain and they almost certainly sympathized with her far more than they did with you. Your so-called documentation and concern with rational project management were decidedly secondary considerations.
A final cultural concept that comes into play in this scenario is that of pakikisama, which refers to the key role played by group processes in the Philippines. Filipinos enjoy doing things in groups, and the loner is generally considered a little bit weird and incompetent. In a professional workplace, tremendous value is placed on consensus; call it joining the bandwagon in order to maintain the sense of group unity. You were rocking the boat more than you should have, especially for a first-time consultant.
All of these concepts make it clear that confrontation is never, ever the way to go in the Philippines. Indeed, the naive Westerner who is up front with criticism -- witness the poor, naive consultant in our example -- will be seen as boorish and crude. You have to realize that Filipino businessmen can and do go to incredible lengths to avoid confronting a problem head-on, even if it means sacrificing other business objectives. The bottom line: if you insist on sticking to your hard-nosed, Western-based business strategies, you're likely to encounter significant obstacles in your quest for success in Manila.
In closing this discussion, however, I would hasten to add that these (and many related) cultural values by no means render it impossible to do business in the Philippines. For example, the norm of pakikisama suggests that work teams can be highly effective in the Philippines. More generally, the foreign businessperson who puts a good faith effort into establishing and maintaining sincere relationships and tiwala (trust) with prospective business partners is greatly valued by Filipinos. And that hard-earned valuation and esteem can help the astute and persistent foreigner capitalize handsomely in the rapidly recovering Philippine economy.
|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
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|See also Clarence Henderson's Philippines Capsule and Prospect Reviews at Asia Market Research dot Com|
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