One of the biggest differences between Thai and Western business cultures is in the hierarchical structure, and nowhere is this better exhibited than in meetings.
I have attended or chaired countless meetings in Thailand with different demographic ratios of Thais to farangs, ranging from situations where I was the only farang in a group of Thais to meetings where only one Thai was present in an otherwise all farang environment. In almost every instance, I have observed that, with the exception of senior figures, Thais will only speak in response to a question directed specifically at them.
After the early mixed meetings that I attended, I was confused as to why most of the Thais were in attendance because they never participated. In Western meetings, the philosophy is simple: if you are in a meeting, you are expected to contribute; otherwise, why are you there? However, most of the Thais would spend the entire meeting in passive observation and seemed to keep their eyes looking downwards as if they were actively seeking to avoid being drawn into the discussions.
Apart from on a couple of occasions when I was the only farang, the meetings were held in English. I, therefore, assumed that a lack of confidence in their English proficiency could be partly to blame for their lack of input, although I knew them to be fluent if not always accurate. Farangs would rather hear what the Thais had to say, even with some grammatical mistakes, than to not know their feelings on the topics being discussed. It seems that this lack of language skills is, indeed, part of the reason for the silence. Thais would often keep their counsel rather than risk losing face by not speaking perfectly. However, more sinister forces were also at play.
In all-Thai meetings, brainstorming or questioning proposals are new concepts that are gradually creeping into the meeting room from the West. Traditional Thai meetings are closer to lectures than open forums, with a single or a select few senior speakers spouting monologues about the decisions that they have already made. Thai meetings, therefore, serve primarily as the first step of the dissemination of information from the top down.
In a Western-style meeting, everyone is expected to give their opinions, even if that means disagreeing with the boss. If you can logically explain a better alternative, your input is valued. In a Thai meeting, this would be considered disrespectful of the senior person and would most definitely not be greng jai. As a result, subordinates are expected to do no more than listen respectfully.
To a farang mind, such passive obedience is hard to take and certainly appears counter-productive. Firstly, if the people on the front line aren’t giving their input, surely valuable data is being omitted from the decision-making process. In many cases, the people who will be implementing and performing the new policy or procedure will have many good ideas to contribute because they are doing this work every day. If an out-of-touch executive who has only been promoted because he has stayed with the same company all his career or his uncle happens to be the MD is entrusted to make all the important decisions, it will surely hold the company back.
As well as the missed input, the fact that the staff cannot challenge the decision but must obediently carry them out is bad not only for morale but also for productivity. The staff would surely feel that they are being neglected or devalued within the organization. The fact that they may also secretly disagree with the directive can only result in a less effective implementation.
However, these are farang perspectives. Thais I have spoken to about this have mixed opinions. Some agree with the farang democratic style of meetings, but others contest that senior figures have more experience and, therefore, are wiser. They feel that decisions made by senior executives will inevitably be the right ones and shouldn’t be challenged by young upstarts.
Some Thais who have studied or lived abroad seem to be more open in meetings, as do many Thais who have worked with farangs for a long time. However, others are stuck in their old-school ways and cannot be coaxed out of their shells.
It’s all very well encouraging people to give their opinions but if they merely remain passive until they are directly addressed, is it really worth having them in the meeting? Surely their time would be better managed by continuing with their routine work instead of attending meetings where they are mere spectators. They could be informed of the decisions equally well by reading the minutes. In fact, if we take that idea to its logical conclusion, why would a Thai company have a meeting at all and not just send out memos to the staff?
Most farangs attending meetings in Thailand are in senior positions and, therefore, expected by both cultures to contribute, so I will not address that issue here. However, if you find yourself in a meeting with Thais who are not contributing, there are two courses of action to take.
Firstly, try to ease the Thais into the discussions as much as possible by asking them for their opinions and, more importantly, their experiences. At first, they will usually find it easier to share anecdotal experiences than to actually express opinions. However, as they become comfortable, they will begin to share their thoughts more openly. Give them specific tasks to research, prepare and present in later meetings and then after their presentation, ask lots of questions. If you see that they are struggling to answer, throw the question around or hypothesise yourself in order to take the pressure of your Thai colleague and avert the possibility of lost face which would send them deeper into their shell for future meetings.
The second option is to replace the passive Thai colleague with either a farang or another Thai who is more interactive. Personally, I would always take the former option as I glean great satisfaction from helping someone to develop their raw potential. It might be easier to manage the finished article, but it’s a lot less rewarding.
Of course, if you have an autocratic bent, you may prefer the unspeakable third option of following the Thai model.