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Intercultural Management - Malaysia

Being a Manager in Malaysia
Management Guide Malaysia


To ensure successful cross cultural management in Malaysia, you need be aware of the strict protocols and rituals that exist.

It takes time to understand the nuances of communication because much is conveyed subtly and non-verbally. Since it is imperative that you not do anything to make a Malaysian lose face, observe people's facial expressions and body language. There are often rules of behavior governing specific business situations. Although this is changing, it is still common for employees to behave harmoniously and subjugate their personal desires to the needs of the group.

The Role of a Manager

In Malaysia, as in other hierarchical societies, managers may take a somewhat paternalistic attitude to their employees. They may demonstrate a concern for employees that goes beyond the workplace. This may include involvement in their family, housing, health, and other practical life issues.

Approach to Change

Malaysia’s intercultural adaptability and readiness for change is developing all the time. Malaysia is seen to have a medium tolerance for change and risk. It is important for innovations to have a track record or history noting the benefits if they are to be accepted and implemented.

Failure in Malaysia causes a long-term loss of confidence by the individual as well as by others. Because of this attitude, intercultural sensitivity is going to be required, especially when conducting group meetings and discussing contributions made my participating individuals.

Approach to Time and Priorities

Malaysia is a fluid time culture, and as is the case with many fluid time cultures, it is also very relationship-oriented. People in Malaysia will not want to upset others in order to force adherence to a deadline.

When working with people from Malaysia, it’s advisable to reinforce the importance of the agreed-upon deadlines and how that may affect the rest of the organization.

Global and intercultural expansion means that some managers may have a greater appreciation of the need to enforce timescales and as such, agreed deadlines are more likely to be met.

Decision Making

Although the most senior people have absolute decision-making authority, they generally develop a consensus before making a final decision. This is especially true if several departments must work together to accomplish a goal. Malaysian managers are treated with the same respect subordinates show their parents. In more entrepreneurial companies, or those where the management team has been educated abroad, the line of demarcation between manager and subordinates may not be as extreme, but they still believe that rank has its privilege.

Employees are never criticized publicly; they are counseled in private in much the same way a father would speak to a child so for successful management some cross cultural sensitivity will be essential. Managers show a paternalistic concern for their subordinates. In turn, subordinates view looking good in the eyes of the manager as important since it indicates a good relationship. Publicly criticizing the boss would cause both the boss and the subordinate to lose face.

Boss or Team Player?

If you are working in Malaysia, it is important to remember that face and reputation play an important role. The risk becomes amplified in a team or collaborative setting and if you would like to encourage participation it is important first to clearly establish a non-threatening work environment and communicate fully that their participation is desired.

Cross cultural sensitivity is essential and you must avoid exposing or potentially embarrassing anyone in public.

Communication and Negotiation Styles

Cross cultural management will be more effective if you understand the importance of adhering to strict protocols. Remain standing until told where to sit. The hierarchical culture has strict rules about rank and position. Business discussions usually start after a fair amount of small talk and it takes time to develop a comfortable working relationship. You will need patience, perseverance and persistence. Decisions are reached by the person with the most authority; however, they will generally reach a consensus first, which slows down the decision making process. Saving face is important. If you lose your temper you lose face and prove you are unworthy of respect and trust. Malaysians may pause up to 20 seconds before answering a question; therefore, do not immediately start to speak or take their silence as agreement. Summarize and clarify points frequently during negotiations. Negotiations may continue after a contract has been signed since contracts are not viewed as cast in stone. Personal relationships are more important than written agreements. If you are signing a contract with ethnic Chinese, the signing date may be determined by an astrologer or a geomancer (feng shui practitioner).

Want more? We run a Malaysia Cultural Awareness Course that can be tailored to management specific insight.

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