Larry S. Persons, PhD
EVEN MORE CANDOR
Decades ago, as a young boy I found myself being dragged to see a dentist. Anesthetic gels and injections weren’t common back in the day.
In the waiting room I heard the awful, high-pitched whine of the dentist’s drill in the next room. I was absolutely terrified of the pain that was about to swallow me. When my turn came, I bravely climbed the dentist’s chair and braced for the horror about to begin. The split second he began to drill I felt a sharp pain and kicked into high alert, writhing and shrieking at the top of my lungs. A dutiful dental assistant was trying to hold me down so I wouldn’t squirm off the chair. I was winning that battle.
This pathetic scene dragged on with little forward progress. Finally, the dentist asked my parents to return home and leave me with him. Two hours later, Dad called for an update. In the background he could still hear me screeching and wailing.
I don’t remember how things ended that day, but for me, this memory gives special meaning to the idiomatic phrase, “That’s about as much fun as a root canal.”
The Pain of Candor
To argue that we need more candor—more honest communication—in Thai workplaces is to pick a fight you’re almost sure to lose. You might as well just put a sign up that says, “Free root canals (Novocain not available).”
Something else is equally clear. If Thai businesses do not begin to practice greater transparency and more frequent feedback loops, they will not be invited to the dance of companies that will soar in the new digital economy. Companies wanting to innovate must jettison old ways and embrace cultures of open communication. Feedback must begin to flow freely and frequently up and down organizations.
This calls for a radical transformation of how Thais usually communicate in the workplace.
But let’s be honest. Pushing for this change can feel much like an irresistible force colliding with an immovable object. The problem seems so intractable that many of us just shrug our shoulders and give up.
But we give up too early.
I’m willing to be a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ because the stakes are just too high. Top-down, multilayered, command-and-control organizations are just an awful fit for a future that will require us to ideate and create like never before.
As I learned at that dental office years ago, fear of anticipated pain can be almost as bad as the pain itself. And many Thais fear the very thought of increased candor in the workplace.
If we were to distill those fears down to their most basic essence, I can venture a guess about what we would find: a deep, dark fear of losing face.
Leaders often control information to protect their own faces (รักษาหน้า). Managers often temper messages to struggling subordinates because they want to be gentle with their faces (ไว้หน้าคนอื่น). Subordinates often keep quiet to save their own faces and to avoid selling the faces of their leaders (อย่าขายหน้าผู้ใหญ่). Everyone is fearful of crossing some imaginary line. Everyone is uncomfortable with the idea of radical openness.
But can I be perfectly blunt? In the new economy, Thais will have to lay aside their primal desires to ‘feel safe’ or ‘feel comfortable.’ Innovation is risky. It demands that we communicate in ways that stretch us WAY beyond our comfort zones.
That’s why the need for greater candor in Thai organizations is not going away anytime soon. The answer isn’t to bury our heads in the sand. A more noble response is to welcome significant levels of cultural discomfort for the sake of the joy set before us—boundless creativity and innovation that is well within our reach.
Why Thais Resist Negative Feedback
Let’s drill down into the subject of giving and receiving feedback. Just how DO we invite Thais to receive negative feedback not as a slap, but as an opportunity to improve?
Long-term answers to this are embedded in how Thai families raise their children and how Thai teachers deal with failures in the classroom. (I will tread lightly here. My comments are not research based.)
Clearly, our ‘guiding lights’—parents and teachers—need to abandon their penchant to use shame as a favorite tool for motivating little human beings (and those not so little, for that matter). This is a huge, complex area of social research that needs to be expanded, and it is certainly above my ‘pay grade’ to propose solutions.
But, as one example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a mother force her young child to comply by turning her back on the child and saying: “Okay, then, Mommy doesn’t love you! When you do that, Mommy doesn’t love you.” It matters that she’s lying through her teeth (that’s bad enough). Let’s not be ridiculous. True love doesn’t stop loving because it becomes annoyed or disappointed in the behavior of a loved one. But what is worse than the lie is the fruit of the lie. It teaches children to equate the message “I have done something bad” with the message “I am bad. My basic worth is at risk, and I am inherently unlovable.”
This use of shame to gain compliance is one of the hallmarks of collectivist societies around the world, not just in Thailand. But in terms of early childhood development, when we ingrain in our children that there’s something wrong with them, not just their behavior, we prime them to resist all forms of critique and constructive feedback farther on down the road of life. We teach them to cast aside all negative feedback no matter how accurate or well-intentioned it may be.
In classrooms across this country, it’s WAY past time for teachers to desist in their efforts to get students to memorize and regurgitate the ‘right answers.’ This approach slams the door on creativity and teaches everyone to stay safe by ‘coloring only between the lines.’
This top-down pedagogy often contains a flawed message: failure is shameful. Hogwash!
Failure is a teacher. Failure is a friend. It presents us with opportunities to learn lessons we won’t forget so that we can grow. Success in life is not about being near-perfect, and it’s certainly not about being able to spit out the right facts. Success in life is about discovering the incredible, amazing ability we all have as human beings to solve problems creatively.
So much for my quick shot at deep cultural roots that are likely to predispose Thais to receive negative feedback as a slap. Now for a more manageable short-term answer.
Making Feedback Less Scary
Netflix’s guidelines for giving and receiving feedback are a promising way forward for Thai companies wanting to foster healthy feedback and lots of it. I believe this simple blueprint can help employees discover legitimate feedback as something good—good for them, good for their teams, and good for the whole organization.
Here’s a review of the “4 A’s” of giving and receiving feedback, with comments about contextualizing them for the Thai business scene.
1. Aim to Assist: Feedback must be given with positive intent.
Some Thais—perhaps many—will need help with this. Because so many are prone to stuff their frustrations and avoid confrontation, hurt and anger can easily build to the point that when they do finally confront, it can get ugly. No wonder they hate confrontation.
Negative feelings accumulate due to a faulty assumption: “All confrontation is bad. It feels bad and ends badly.” Confrontation feels out of control. It usually fixes nothing. So, they avoid it.
The problem, however, is this: if they ever reach the point where they can no longer keep silent, their goal in speaking out is clearly NOT to assist the object of their wrath. What they want is a pound of flesh, which makes the whole interchange go poorly and which (after the dust settles and all blood is mopped off the floor) only reconfirms their grid of expectation: all confrontation is bad.
Thai employees will need remedial communication skills training on how to deliver negative feedback as a gift—a gesture of help, not harm. But just as important, they will need to learn to sense the positive intent of others when they themselves become the focus of negative feedback. What is needed is a reprogramming of the entire feedback experience, both for giver and receiver.
The more often the guideline of ‘feedback with positive intent’ is taught and practiced, the greater the chance that both givers and receivers of feedback will feel better about stepping into frequent, appropriately honest feedback loops.
2. Actionable: Focus on what the person can do
This very simple guideline could go a long way toward disarming the defensiveness so commonly displayed by Thais when they receive negative feedback.
It is a pity that many Thais, when listening to constructive criticism of their behavior or performance, automatically default to feeling shamed. They tend to feel bad and become very defensive, very quickly. Not that they show it. Defensiveness often looks more like an expressionless stare.
What’s going on? When their performance is critiqued, Thais can so easily twist the message. They don’t hear, “Your performance is unacceptable.” They hear, “YOU are unacceptable. YOU are defective. Your inherent worth (saksi) is at stake. Either fight or flee, but don’t just stand there!” This typical outcome robs them of opportunities to profit from constructive comments.
This happens because in Thai society criticism of behavior is too often tethered to feelings of shame. If you were to say to me, “Larry, I’m asking you to see and address your behavior,” I might really listen. But if what I hear is, “Larry, you must address a flaw in your character, in who you are,” you’ve probably shut me down from the start.
If managers can learn to consistently practice this simple adage—focus on what can be done differently—perhaps they can help recipients of feedback to sidestep a common knee-jerk response that conflates unacceptable behavior with unacceptable character. The first message is difficult enough to hear. The second message is unbearable.
This guideline will require that Thais practice great discipline and positivity in their choice of words while delivering feedback. But if they can stick to talking about specific behaviors that need tweaking, they just might succeed in helping subordinates and colleagues to embrace actionable goals that bring real progress.
3. Appreciate: Fight the instinct to protect your ego; listen carefully and show appreciation for feedback.
For frequent feedback loops to really bear fruit, receivers of feedback—not just givers—must also practice healthy guidelines. And here’s a tough one.
“PARK YOUR EGO and open your ears.” In fact, after you’ve listened carefully, genuinely thank the giver of feedback for his or her help!
Thais are ego protectors par excellence (see my book, The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital). They come by it honestly. Just look at prominent Thai leaders today. What examples do they set when they are criticized, if indeed criticism is even tolerated? Well, what do you expect, then? Unfortunately, too many Thais have learned well from their leaders.
Big egos have clogged ears. This is one of the prominent reasons why Thai leaders fail to improve over the course of time.
But even with egos pushed aside, it may be quite a challenge for the receiver of feedback to really listen. She will have to be admirably attentive, allowing words to really find a landing place. In a society where facework is so often agonistic, it is easy for receivers of feedback to feel a loss of face anytime someone has something unflattering to say. That can shut the ears pretty quickly.
Curiously, expressing appreciation for negative feedback may not be the most challenging thing for Thais. Expressing those words and really meaning them will be the real struggle. Under duress, Thais often simply say what you want to hear, which means that you have no idea whether your constructive feedback was truly received. At times, the lack of sincerity is simply astounding.
One more noteworthy thought. This principle posits that negative feedback should not be anonymous. Receivers of feedback need a person to thank. Anonymous feedback is an unhealthy coping mechanism that usually lacks enough specificity to catalyze change. It can also be so cowardly.
This third guideline is critically important for the Thai scene. Why? Because in innovative organizations, negative feedback must flow both upward and downward. For that to happen in Thai organizations, people at every level will need to ‘grease the skids’ by practicing the skill of verbalizing thankfulness for feedback.
Attempts to introduce more workplace candor must always begin with the senior leaders of any organization. They must practice the habit of inducing evaluative feedback on their leadership. They must model humility by listening to, learning from, and consistently thanking others for that feedback—even negative feedback.
If leaders do this consistently, as a lifestyle, their followers might FINALLY begin to believe that critiquing upwards is a good thing. It’s not just a safe thing to do. It is desirable and honorable.
4. Accept or discard: You are required to thoughtfully consider feedback, but you’re not required to follow it.
This one will make heads spin. Thais can easily imagine that a superior can choose not to follow feedback from below. No problem there.
But if you’ve been ‘pickled’ in a culture of profound hierarchy, the thought of a subordinate considering a superior’s feedback and then blowing him off is, well, unthinkable.
Let’s remember that feedback flows all the time in traditional Thai hierarchies. The problem is that it flows only in one direction: downward. Subordinates usually process feedback as more than advice or an idea to consider. They hear it as a command. To discard your boss’s feedback is to piss off your boss.
This has conditioned Thai subordinates to not think for themselves. That’s a HUGE problem.
Creative, agile, innovative organizations need employees with courage to think for themselves, to challenge the status quo, and yes, to disregard feedback from a boss if, in the end, their own expertise tells them to do so. But for this to occur, bosses are going to have to grant them true freedom to make decisions on their own.
Netflix’s guidelines are helpful: “Don’t seek to please your boss. Seek to do what is best for the company.” Clearly, the boss is not always right in that organization.
To practice this guideline of trusting their own ideas and expertise, Thais will need to tap into a very centered assurance of their own unchanging self-worth (saksi). They need ‘a place to stand.’ They need to grow confident in making decisions on their own—even risky ones—for the ultimate good of the company. Because smart bets often pay off and yield huge dividends.
If Thai companies want to flourish in the new economy, business leaders must open the gates to a radical shift in rules of engagement for internal communication.
These top leaders and their managers below must give up the myth that the leader or the boss is always right. Frequent feedback loops must surface and flow continuously in all directions through the organization. Everyone must get better at having difficult conversations.
The new norm will be this: employees at every level thinking for themselves and a stream of ideas floating ever upward in organizations. That’s how we will step toward a more innovative future.
This evolutionary process will push us out of our comfort zones, but so what?
Think about it. What in life usually demands our greatest courage, tenacity, and sacrifice? The things that matter most.