Managing in Indonesia
Navigating a Diverse, Vibrant Culture
Indonesia has the world's second-highest level of biodiversity. The thousands of islands that make up this unique country have pristine beaches, mysterious rain forests and colorful coral reefs.
The people of Indonesia are just as diverse as the islands they inhabit. More than 300 ethnic groups speak more than 700 languages throughout the country.
Managing a team in such a richly diverse country is interesting and challenging. In this article, we'll look at how to manage an Indonesian team, whether you are working in the country or leading a virtual team.
There are hundreds of ethnic groups in Indonesia, making this workforce incredibly diverse. The advice in this article is therefore meant as a general guide only. Keep an open mind and take a flexible approach when managing an Indonesian team, and take into account differences in personality, religious beliefs and culture.
People and Culture
Indonesia is located in Southeast Asia. The country is made up of more than 17,000 islands, but only 6,000 of these are inhabited. Two of the islands share borders with Papua New Guinea and Malaysia .
Because of the vast diversity of regions, ethnicities and languages, the Indonesian government works hard to maintain unity throughout the country. The country's motto, "Unity Through Diversity," reflects this.
The country's official language is Bahasa Indonesia. However, many people also speak Javanese and other regional languages. There are more than 700 languages spoken throughout the country.
Although Indonesia officially recognizes several religions, 88 percent of the population is Muslim. Christianity and Hinduism are also widely practiced here.
According to the World Bank, Indonesia is one of the world's top 10 economies, and the country's export market thrives due to an abundance of natural resources. Indonesia has also become an outsourcing hub, thanks to its diverse population and relatively stable democracy.
Indonesia is made up of more than 17,000 islands.
Indonesia has a strict policy on employing foreign workers. As a result, you may be required to train or mentor a team member as part of your employment. The government is also introducing regulations which will require foreign workers to be able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia. This may delay people becoming effective when they move to the country.
Many of Indonesia's employment laws protect its workers. This means that dismissing an Indonesian team member, even on the grounds of poor performance, is a difficult and lengthy process. Before you can fire someone, you must give him or her three written warnings, each of which is valid for six months. After three warnings, you must seek permission from the Industrial Relations Court to dismiss the individual, which can take a further six months.
For more information on Indonesia's employment laws, visit the Indonesian government website.
Permanent employees are entitled to at least 12 days' annual leave, and unlimited time off for illness.
Indonesians celebrate numerous holidays throughout the year. Organizations may encourage people to take the Friday or Monday off surrounding a public holiday to create a long weekend.
The country's public holidays are shown below:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Chinese New Year – First day of the first month of the Chinese calendar; the date changes each year (February 16 in 2018.)
- Day of Silence – Date changes each year (March 17 in 2018.)
- Good Friday – Date changes each year (March 30 in 2018.)
- Labor Day – May 1.
- Ascension of the Prophet – Date changes each year (May 10 in 2018.)
- Buddha's Birthday – Date changes according to the Buddhist calendar (May 29 in 2018.)
- Ascension of Christ – May 29.
- Independence Day – August 17.
- Islamic New Year – Date changes according to the Islamic calendar (September 11 in 2018.)
- Christmas Day – December 25.
Indonesian cities and districts often celebrate other regional or religious holidays, so check with your organization to see which ones it observes.
Keep in mind that practicing Muslims do not eat or drink from sun-up to sundown during the holy month of Ramadan (dates change yearly, depending on the Islamic lunar calendar and the expected visibility of the moon). Be sensitive to this religious holiday: try not to consume food or drink in front of fasting team members, and don't invite them out to lunch or dinner during this time. Also, be aware of the fact that many Muslims will visit distant relatives during Ramadan, which can make organizing projects and scheduling meetings difficult.
The Cultural Custom of "Just to Please the Boss"
Indonesians have great respect for their superiors, and the country's culture promotes keeping them happy above all else. This custom is called "asal bapak senang," which translates as "just to please the boss," and you will find it in many families, groups and organizations.
The custom of "asal bapak senang" means that your team members are unlikely to share bad news with you, say "no," or speak up if you're about to make a mistake. Some people view this custom negatively, as they believe that team members are simply working to please their superiors.
"Asal bapak senang" also serves to "save face," which is known as "malu." Your team members would rather let you make a grievous error than correct you publicly and cause you to lose face. This can be considered a sign of honor and respect, although it won't help you avoid mistakes!
You can do several things to work successfully within this cultural norm. First, build good working relationships with other managers within your organization. Your colleagues are more likely to be up-front with you about bad or negative news, because there is no hierarchical tension between your ranks. Always ask them privately for their opinion.
In the Bahasa Indonesia language, there are 12 ways to say "no," and several ways to say "yes, but I really mean no." These subtleties of communication are often lost in translation, so make an effort to learn this language, so that you can understand what your team members mean more clearly. (Our article on cross-cultural communication has further tips and strategies for communicating successfully with people from different cultures.)
It's also important to learn how to read people's body language. Many people exhibit predictable physical cues when they're uncomfortable; and by learning how to read each team member's individual body language, you'll be able to spot when something is amiss and investigate further. In Indonesian culture, it's common for people to suck in air through their teeth; this can often indicate a problem or a negative response.
When working with Indonesian team members, watch out for verbal qualifiers. For example, if someone on your team says, "Yes, but…" or "This might be difficult…," there's a good chance that he or she means "no."
Working With Your Team
Manners and politeness are exceptionally important in Indonesian culture. Always show respect to team members, and brush up on local etiquette to begin your relationships positively.
Build good working relationships with your team through personal interactions. Visit team members in person to make requests or give them feedback, rather than calling them or emailing them.
The cultural norm of "just to please the boss" means that your team members expect you to have the final say in decisions. However, Indonesian employers often encourage group discussion, as it strengthens relationships and builds group cohesiveness. Again, keep in mind that your team may be unlikely to criticize any of your ideas. During debates and discussions, watch your team members for signs that their opinion differs from that of the group.
Always be aware that everyone on your team wants to save face. Never single someone out for public praise or criticism. Thank your team members in public, but offer constructive feedback in private.
Learn how to manage your emotions before you begin working with an Indonesian team. Indonesians value emotional control, and you'll quickly lose the respect of colleagues and team members if you display anger or frustration.
Hierarchy is highly important here. Indonesians won't feel completely comfortable speaking with you until they're sure of your position and status, so don't feel offended if people ask you personal questions about your job history, education, current position, and even your salary.
During conversations, give Indonesians plenty of time to respond to statements or questions – 10 or 15 seconds may go by while they formulate a response. Be respectful of this time, and avoid jumping in to break the silence. This shows sensitivity and good cross cultural business etiquette.
- Indonesia is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which means that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common. A tsunami ravaged the country in 2004, and many regions are still recovering from the disaster. Before traveling, always let friends, family or your government embassy know your destination, and when you expect to return.
- Indonesia has a tropical climate, and the weather stays warm and humid throughout the year. It also has two monsoonal wet and dry seasons. During the wet season, rainfall can be torrential, so pack appropriately to stay comfortable.
- Business dress in Indonesia is casual for men and more conservative for women. Men often wear business slacks and a light-colored shirt and tie. Women should wear darker, muted blouses, skirts or business suits. Blouses should cover the upper arms, and skirts should fall to the knee.
- Handshakes in Indonesia differ from those in Western cultures – they're typically very gentle and they last for 10 to 12 seconds.
- Greetings in Indonesia are slow compared with Western ones. You can avoid making a cross-cultural faux pas by taking time over your greetings – rushing shows a lack of respect. The greeting process will vary depending on your new acquaintance's religion, ethnicity and position.
- Muslims and Hindus consider the left hand to be unclean. Whenever possible, do everything with your right hand. They also consider the feet to be unclean, so don't show the sole of your foot to others (especially when sitting with legs crossed), and never use your foot to touch or move anything.
Indonesia is one of the world's top 10 economies, and it has become a major hub for outsourcing. The country is rich in talent and natural resources, and tourists often visit its islands and rain forests.
To work successfully in this culture, be aware of the cultural norm of "just to please the boss." Your team members will be unwilling to criticize your ideas or decline your requests, so keep an eye on their body language to see when they want to say "no." And, remember, there are also several phrases that you should translate as "Yes, but I really mean no."