While observing the interactions of different groups over the years, I have hit upon an answer as to why:
1. Some Asian parents provide a lot for their children but wonder why they are unable to bond with them (I know this isn’t in all cases but it’s happened in enough observations to warrant mention on this blog)
2. Some Governments may provide a lot for their citizens and may have much higher standards than Governments of many other countries, yet are criticised more often than complimented
3. Restaurants may provide decent food and good value, but customers are still unhappy
4. Project managers may be good at getting the job done but wonder why their team members do not support them fully…


The general answer that we place too much emphasis on getting tasks done, at the expense of relationship-building. Some parents believe that the most important thing is to provide for the child – education, food, shelter… when sometimes the child needs quality time and a listening ear more than any of these. Likewise, citizens need to feel engaged – that they have played a part in the decision-making process, and that they are being listened to. Of course, this presumes that constructive feedback is also given, rather than one-sided complaints 😉
Waitstaff here are very task-oriented. Admittedly, some restaurants are understaffed; some waitstaff are not well-trained, supervised or compensated; turnover rate is high and we are not naturally very service-oriented as a people. The foreign waitstaff I like the most are the Filipinos, who don’t just get the job done, but bother to take the time to listen to you and treat you like a human being, not an annoyance. They also smile. In fact, by this stage even if they made a small mistake I probably wouldn’t mind as much. However, if I was served by a surly-faced waitstaff (which happened just a few weeks ago), I wouldn’t be as comfortable – or forgiving.
A couple years ago, I was asked by a senior person for ideas to make people get along. I said the best way was to let them know each other first, on a more informal basis, before making them work on projects together. Over the past couple of months I have seen my own advice take root, when [urgent work](http://vantan.org/archives/2010/08/a_letter_of_tha.php) came up and the people I had to work with were those I knew in more informal circumstances first. They understood where I was coming from (and vice-versa), and there was plenty of trust and respect for our areas of expertise, which made piecing things together much easier. Even if mistakes were made, with such close relationships a lot more is forgiven and forgotten, and the focus is on working together for a common goal, rather than going on the defensive.
Beyond treating people like human beings – which is easy to say, but given pressures and personality issues, is not the easiest thing to do – here are other elements which I believe are important:
**Communication.** It’s important to communicate often. In urgent situations, it is better to over-communicate the right information than to under-communicate. Also, the message must be sent in a suitable format for the audience. Face to face communication is my de facto mode. Those who are more task-oriented may think it’s a waste of time, but I get a better picture and it helps me bond better with participants and garner their support. Phone calls are second best, and emails are effective when the relationship has already been established, or if notes need to be recorded in some form of writing. I believe as far as possible in meeting or calling someone up before sending an email about a new project, even if it takes more effort.
Bad news, like retrenchments, should be conveyed face to face first, rather than email, which comes across as a form of avoidance to the other party. And the party receiving the bad news should be one of the first to know (if not the first) – I recall how terrible it felt to have overheard from a rival media company that my team was being laid off, in my very first job. It’s also like hearing from friends that your partner has decided to break up with you.
**Timeliness.** Feedback should be given promptly, not months after the incident. This applies to performance appraisals, where the staff has barely any recollection of the offense committed. Excuses like “I had no time to tell my subordinate earlier…” don’t hold water. Of course, this must be done in the right context. If someone’s done the work 99% right, don’t harp only on the 1% that could have been better – give praise where praise is due. Today, right after a meeting, I walked straight out and conveyed a compliment from senior management to a junior assistant who had done a good job.
Likewise, if a problem has occurred, the swiftness of the response should match the seriousness of the situation. Otherwise it indicates to the other party that little importance is placed on this relationship or on solving the problem.
Structurally, the organisation must also cut down the red tape to enable staff to respond in a timely manner. Staff should be given some level of autonomy to handle the situation quickly on their own, be properly trained and take ownership of the situation rather than constantly deferring to a superior for clearance during emergencies. I was told of an incident where a friend’s daughter was in a life-threatening situation but no action was taken for hours as the people involved waited for superiors to make a decision.
**Culture.** We think most of the battle is won when we speak a common language, eat the same foods and visit each others’ countries, but it isn’t that straightforward. Some cultures are better able to handle confrontations and direct criticism, while others shy away. Cross-cultural conflict occurs more often than we realise, e.g. when someone from a more individualistic and direct culture appears to impose himself on someone from a more consensus-driven culture. At INSEAD, it was easier to resolve problems like this, as we were cognisant of the differences and were more open to receiving feedback. This helped to nip most problems in the bud so that we could at least get the work done.
Unfortunately, in the real world, most people are not trained to be culturally sensitive. We do not always consciously adapt our styles or thinking to that of the people we are negotiating with, to see where they’re coming from. As a result, for instance, Asians do not always say what they really think, and Westerners are baffled that so many issues were swept under the rug when they could have been laid out for discussion earlier on. Following which, more distrust is created than the relationship actually deserves.
When that happens, it is saddening to see the breakdown of a partnership that could have had so much potential. I can only hope for conflict to occur at the beginning, so that things are ironed out and the project will be fruitful at the end.
As someone who is 50% feeling, 50% thinking (MBTI), I find myself constantly straddling the line between wanting to get things done, and maintaining good relationships. I hope to apply the right approach at the right time. But overall, given how small this world is, and how intertwined the industries we work in are, I tend to believe in ‘give and take’. Given my background I know what is legally right, but also what makes business sense in the long run and is worth taking a risk for, or closing an eye.
Once again, getting to know the people I’m dealing with on a more informal basis – developing the ‘guanxi’ – is ideal as it puts me in a better position to communicate things that are difficult to get across in formal meetings and documentation.