Tim Russell | Today's Manager
Knowing how to manage people at work is as important as knowing how to do your job. Having strong work relationships helps us achieve that.
Singapore is at a cultural, generational, gender, and technological crossroads. The days of hierarchical, command and control management styles are fast fading. We increasingly find ourselves managing people who might be older than us, technically superior, who do not work directly under us, or who we rarely get to see. Now, managing relationships and knowing how to handle your boss, peers, subordinates, vendors, and other stakeholders are becoming as important as knowing how to do your job.
There are parallels between managing colleagues and handling customers. Customers are much more aware, well-researched, and transient in their loyalty. They switch banks, airlines, and department stores (despite frequent flyer points and loyalty cards), compare products, services, prices, and terms and conditions online, and will specify what they want and when they want it. They are capable of querying every act/decision and spreading their concerns through social media channels.
Similarly, our working relationships with people from organisations in Singapore have changed dramatically over the years. One of several implications of this cultural and generational development can be seen in the area of staff management.
In older traditional Asian cultures, people joined an organisation as early as they could —straight out from school. Education was important but neither accessible nor affordable in large families with many mouths to feed. Working staff were usually rewarded for their length of service by way of promotion, so bosses were generally older than their subordinates and most of them were male. Life was slow. As one person retired, the next in line took over. People lived in the same neighbourhood or kampong* and most of them knew each other. Confrontations were avoided as an argument at work could cause schisms in the village. Work reviews were rare. Poor performance was tolerated as it was not common to fire someone.
These cultures were appropriate for their time and a generational handing down ensured that they were well-embedded. Asian children are still brought up to be polite, to know their place, and to respect older people and those in authority.
Yet Singapore’s economic success (given that it has no natural resources) has been built on a meritocracy, individual effort, and competition. Parents struggle to get their children into the best schools, and only graduates with the highest grades are considered for the top jobs. Students are pressured to succeed. This ends up impacting their behaviour in university through to employment.
The new employee now takes a position in a company with the intention of staying for a couple of years before looking around for the next advantageous move. Personal loyalty to a career often overrides loyalty to the employer and promotion is based on academic qualifications and achievement. Staff are set individual objectives and put into league tables of performance, as are their organisations.
Since older staff may not have had similar educational and academic opportunities, it is not uncommon to see younger bosses who have been in the organisation for a significantly shorter time. Subordinates in the meantime report to someone half their age. It is not easy for a middle-aged employee to report to someone half his age and have his annual appraisal conducted by his daughter’s best friend who, when she was a child, used to call him ‘Uncle’.
In traditional Asia, the elders probably did know best as they had so much more experience and wisdom. As change happened so slowly, the old, tried-and-tested methods just had to be handed down and learned. Now that change is so fast, we are always defining new paradigms. Globalisation and information technology (IT) render old ways of thinking redundant. We are challenging the old to create the new. For ascribed status cultures which link an idea to a person, the questioning of the idea can be taken as a questioning of the person and highly resented. Face-saving, which has held communities together and supported many generations, is now ignored by younger people who are encouraged to analyse and evaluate.
Now that we have colleagues and customers coming from six continents; five generations; and countless language groups, the need to work together and to understand each other; our values; and our pressures have never been more important.
* A traditional village of indigenous peoples in Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, or Singapore.
Mr Tim Russell is an international management and training consultant with offices in Singapore, the UK, and Australia. A psychologist by training, he advises major multinationals, in both public and private sectors, in how their people should handle other people. This involves managers, work colleagues, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders, cross culturally and cross-generationally. He is well-known in ASEAN for working with major organisations in air travel, banking and finance, and retail.
Mr Russell is an associate trainer with SIM PD.
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