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Top 10 tips for working with Myanmar colleagues and more

HANA BUI 23 AUG 2019 (in the Myanmar Times)

The article has been shared extensively on Linked In and Facebook.

Myanmar is one of the last frontier markets which just opened up after decades of being under a dictatorship and isolation. Expats coming to work in enchanting Myanmar usually bring with them great expectations about reaping fabulous success.

Nonetheless, they have often found lots of oddities, quirks, idiosyncrasies and challenges working here.  These challenges tend to occur when working with Burmese people due to cultural differences. In fact, cross-cultural leadership is the biggest management challenge of expats working overseas, according to the Economist.

According to the majority of the fifty Myanmar professionals who participated in my survey for the book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates Can Succeed in Myanmar”, issues/conflicts between expats and Myanmar nationals are most often derived from issues of communications and relationships. They say “Expats normally do not understand Myanmar”.

Thus there are certain benefits to follow the below top ten tips for working with Myanmar local colleagues:

Check back to see if your local colleagues really understand your words

Expats can find situations when “yes means no” in the Golden Land. Myanmar people are often very kind and helpful so they are very much hesitant to say “no” to someone, especially to their superiors. Even if they do not understand fully what you say, they can still say “yes”, and “yes”. You then get frustrated to see the assignment is not done when the deadline clocks in, or it is not done as per your instructions. So, “check back”, please!

Use simple language to make it work

You may be in a situation where the majority of local colleagues are not fluent in English, so simple English is good enough for them to understand. Avoid using subtle words, or using the “negative-form questions” such as “Don’t you want to do this?” They complicate your message and lessen the chances of being understood. 

Get help from an interpreter 

Using a local interpreter (from your team members) can be of help. Local colleagues can understand your speech/assignments more easily if they are conveyed in Burmese. Interpreters can also use local contexts to explain the more nuanced aspects of your message. 

Utilise the power of positive language

Many local colleagues want to learn new skills and gain knowledge to improve their performance. However, many expats find that criticism can be very detrimental in Myanmar. It is not a good way to help them realise their shortcomings and make improvements. They can feel embarrassed or “lose face”. It is better not to criticise their mistakes but calmly explain all the consequences of their errors and how to prevent it from happening again in the future. 

Give compliments, and encourage them whenever possible!

Avoid “Out of sight, out of mind”

Expats can very easily be misunderstood in the workplace, especially when briefing large groups of people during meetings. It is sometimes best to have face-to-face meetings to communicate your message. You can quickly see that the receiver understands your message, and explain/correct them if they don’t understand completely. 

Shouting is totally unacceptable

Myanmar people are often very gentle, polite and friendly. If a foreigner shows strong negative emotions, it will affect the relationships at once. His colleagues will be scared off, and will avoid further communication with them. Avoid raising your voice, and shouting at all cost! There are lots of stories about how a raised voice can negatively affect the workplace in Myanmar. 

Be soft, polite and smile!

Show your care and kindness

In Myanmar, the corporate environment is often a place where “the heart wins the mind”. It’s a feminine culture, where emotions rule the rational mind. They focus more on building good relationships and maintaining a friendly atmosphere than on pure results-orientate achievement and competiveness. 

Thus local colleagues are motivated when they feel they are cared for. This means their managers show kindness (kyin na hmu) to them. Kindness can be shown when managers try to understand the difficulties of their team members, and help them to overcome problems.

Pay respect

Myanmar colleagues naturally have respect towards expatriates who are often their supervisors or managers. They expect respect in return. 

Respect means respecting the Buddha (90 percent the population follow Buddhism), not pointing at anything with feet, not touching anyone’s head and not using strong language. Respect can mean not shouting or yelling at people. Most importantly, respect means following the Survival Rules of “hierarchy” and “anadeh” in Myanmar. (More can be found in the book “When Global Meets Local”)

Employ “micro-management” tactics

As Myanmar has just opened, many of your local colleagues may not be familiar with international standards of professionalism. These standards are often well beyond their experience, education and imagination. That is why detailed instructions and coaching is needed. 

Many expats in Myanmar find themselves operating in “micromanagement” style which they had not expected. They have to furnish their reports with detailed instructions, coach them, and monitor the process even though the task has been delegated. 

Attend intercultural training

As mentioned, cross-culture management is most challenging for expatriates. Organisations in Myanmar offer attractive packages for expats coming to Myanmar. They are willing to allocate part of a budget for intercultural training for expats – a good way to protect their huge investment. 

Proper intercultural training can aid expats effectively in achieving success. They can equip you with the local cultural values, daily life and social etiquette, business practice and etiquettes, and how to work well with Myanmar staff. 

Hana Bui is an intercultural trainer and author. Her book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates Can Succeed in Myanmar” is the 1st time popular guidebook for expats on how to work well with local staff.

Conflict and hierarchy in the Myanmar workplace

Published by Interculture Myanmar on 21 June, 2020

HANA BUI 15 MAY 2020 (in the Myanmar Times)

A survey from 68 countries indicated that 90 percent of senior executives see “cross-cultural leadership” as the biggest management challenge of this century, according The Economist. Up to 40 percent of managers sent on overseas assignments terminate early. The cost to employers of each early return is between US$250,000 – $1,250,000. In most cases, the reason is cultural issues rather than professional or technical skills.

Expats in Myanmar are not exceptions. Even the cultural challenge they face here is tougher, since Myanmar opened its economy to the world less than ten years ago, as one of the last frontier markets in the world. Like it or not, Myanmar was in isolation from the outside world for over five decades. Thus, expats working in the enchanting Myanmar have often found lots of setbacks – oddities, quirks, idiosyncrasies due to cultural differences. These cultural differences can create a dreadful barrier to communication between expats and Myanmar people, affecting expats’ ability to build connections, motivate and collaborate with local people. “What is different is dangerous”, Geert Hofstede – the leading scholar in intercultural theories states.

Dr. Geert Hofstede,a psychologist, published his “cultural dimensions” model more than forty years ago, based on a decade of research. The model has become an international standard for understanding cultural differences. He identifies six cultural dimensions that help distinguish cultures from each other, in terms of the attitudes and relationships. These dimensions can be measured, and are identified as: Power Distance, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long-term Orientation, and Restraint. This article will focus on the dimension of Power Distance, an important orientation to understand in the Myanmar workplace.

Power Distance – The East vs the West

Power Distance refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions accepts and expects that power is distributed unequally. Power distance describes how people belonging to a specific culture view power relationships between people– superior/subordinate relations. The Power Distance Index (PDI) measures the degree to which the members of a group or society accept the hierarchy of power and authority. PDI has had a substantial influence in intercultural training.

A society with a high PDI score indicates that it accepts an unequal, hierarchical distribution of power, and that people understand “their place” in the system. On the contrary, a society with a low PDI score means that power is shared and is widely dispersed, and that society’s members do not easily accept unequal distributions of power.

For example, Asian countries normally have high PDI score, while lots of Western countries have a low PDI score. According to Hosftede’s Insights, the PDI score of China is 80 out of 100, Singapore is 74, Thailand 64, while the PDI score of America is 40, Germany at 35, The Netherlands at 38. In America an individual can criticise the president and his/her party publicly, but an individual would face a tough situation or even danger if they publicly criticised the president and government of China, for example.

Hofstede’s Power Distance Index map. The lighter green countries are generally more egalitarian, and darker green ones showing a higher degree of power distance.

How power distance can cause problems

Intercultural differences between makers of airplanes Boeing and Airbus (from small power distance countries) and pilots from South Korea (a large power distance country) caused a major accident in the late 1990s.

Airbus and Boeing produced planes which are supposed to be flown by 2 pilots without a significant power distance between them. Being on equal-par, in terms of status and power, one pilot is supposed to correct the other when necessary. With pilots having a large power distance between them, the airline increases the risk of accidents given that the co-pilot is less likely to correct the more senior colleague.

Indeed, ignorance of the power distance in the workplace would lead to dreadful consequences – for example, Korean Air flight 801’s missed approach to Antonio B Won Pat International Airport in Guam on August 6 1997, killing 229 people on board.

Myanmar Survival Rule # 1 –Hierarchy

Whether it’s at a monastery, in the classroom or at home, Myanmar is a high power distance culture. Myanmar is a hierarchical country as opposed to egalitarian Western countries. Though other religions make use of hierarchy, Myanmar Buddhism encourages people to submit to five most important entities in society: Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha (Community), Parents, and Teachers. “Don’t disrespect the Buddha” is a vital law. There is the body hierarchy too, meaning that the head is the purest part and the feet the dirtiest. Hence why people take their shoes off inside the pagoda and house, and never touch someone on their head.

High power distance is also reflected in the work place, especially in local companies or businesses. The organisations are centralised with the business owner making decisions without real delegation to subordinates. The organisational structures reflect complex hierarchies. We would also see autocratic leadership, paternalistic management style, many levels of management and large numbers of supervisory staff. Subordinates expect to be told what to do, and how to do it. In Myanmar, there is also a special respect for elders and seniors.

These values can often conflict with those in international organisations, which may have a structure. In some places, supervisors and employees are considered almost as equals and the manager may even converse with the cleaning staff. The authority at these multinational companies may be decentralised, so decision making is delegated as much as possible. There is a participative management style and a smaller proportion of supervisory staff. Thus hierarchy plays a role in many conflicts between Myanmar businesses hiring overseas managers and workers, and international companies working with Myanmar staff.

What does it mean to expats working in Myanmar?

If expats work with local business partners, or for a local organisation, it is good to acknowledge a leader’s status. Whatever you do, don’t push back explicitly. The owner normally makes all decisions – so beware. There may not be real delegation so you may need to go to the top of the organisation if you want answers.

When expat managers lead a team in an international company, be aware that many Myanmar people are used to the high power distance culture, so they may expect you to make decisions, or expect you tell them what to do. You need to provide detailed instructions, and follow-up closely. “Be less demanding, and provide more coaching” is a good mindset to have.

In many meetings, expats would feel frustrated because local colleagues do not speak up, raise opinions – preferring to keep quiet or agree with whatever their manager/supervisor says. This is because of the power distance orientation in the culture. At Myanmar universities, lecturers are also the ones to provide all knowledge about particular subjects. Students are seldom expected to question this.

Elders and seniors are highly regarded in Myanmar society. In a meeting in an organization, younger people infrequently express opposing ideas to their managers. It would be considered inappropriate. As such, a younger manager may face some difficulties managing her older subordinates.

Many foreigners say they do not understand why there is such respect given to elder colleagues, without any particular reason. There is indeed a reason – age links to wisdom and knowledge. As a local proverb puts it: “The older the person, the wiser his brain” (Shar bin o-lay a-hnit pyit-lay).

Understanding the social custom of paying respect to seniors is essential for people in an organisation in Myanmar. For example, a junior does not dare to “ask back” when in the boardroom. That would be considered challenging a senior, which violates the hierarchal relationship. In fact, a very habitual behavior of local colleagues in Myanmar is to hesitate when responding to an expat supervisor. Even if they do not understand what is being said, it would violate the hierarchy of respect for them to seek clarification and understanding by questioning the person.

It is not an issue that can be solved easily and quickly. Basically expats should create an environment that their local colleagues feel “safe” to speak out. They know and may experience that even their ideas are different from their expat supervisors, and areappreciated. In the long run, it requires that they have the ultimate “trust” on the expats so that the local colleagues can dare to raise their voice. Stephen Covey, author of The Speed of Trust, writes “Trust is the glue of life. It is the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It is the foundation principle that holds all relationships.”

Many Myanmar people may find expats interesting too, because of the differences in cultures. They may desire to break out of their cultural conditioning, but to even attempt this requires building trust.

Hana Bui is an intercultural trainer and best-selling author. Her book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates Can Succeed in Myanmar” is the first-time popular guidebook for expats on how to work well with local colleagues. Hana can be contacted at

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