Why Your Teammates Aren't Speaking Up - The Asian Perspective

Picture the following: An American manager at a MNC is sat around a table with her team in Singapore; it’s been a long meeting regarding the proposal of a new operational policy and at the end of the session, she asks for feedback on the idea. Throughout the US, the new policies have been met with heated debate, yet in this situation, there is little more than silence from her coworkers.

Why does this situation happen so frequently? One simple perspective is that ‘it’s an Asian thing I guess...’ explained one of my Singaporean friends.

One problem we come across at The Change School in Asia is that managers are frustrated with the fact that often, their team members do not speak-up in meetings. Throughout my time in Asia, I have seen differences in meeting participation style vary widely both between and within cultures. In this article, I share views from friends working and living in Asia on the real reasons behind why some people stay quiet in meetings.

Four key topics emerged:

1. Personal doubt in your own abilities regardless of language issues
2. Language barriers
3. Cultural differences in communication styles
    3.1 Specifically, ‘saving face
4. Corporate environments

Firstly, a brilliantly open and honest response from one of my Chinese friends, who has been living in Singapore for 7 months:

‘As for me, it’s a little bit complicated. When I was in China, I spoke up depend on what kind of meeting it was. So like a very serious meeting, there is a saying that the more you talk, the more mistakes you make. So basically, many Chinese used to think carefully then to talk, especially when you have to take responsibility to what you say, or when many people are eager to express their ideas, I used to listen to all of them then to say something really important to meaningful. That’s what I do in China. But when I came to Singapore, things changed. When I stay silent in a meeting, there are two situations. First is I don’t get it… second is I’m trying to organize my works and my thoughts to ask questions. Bit I think I’m also a little bit afraid of being wrong… So in general, if a Chinese has no problem in oral English, but she/he is still in silence in meetings, that might be personality or culture problem.’

PERSONAL DOUBT

‘Those who don’t speak-up tend to be a follower with no stand of their own’ – Singaporean

‘They are often worried about not being able to speak accurately’ – Indian

‘I stay quiet because I have nothing substantial to add. I think self-consciousness plays a part too!’ – Singaporean

 ‘Maybe some of us are shy by nature’ – Indonesian

‘Introverts usually are too shy because they don’t want to say stupid things’ – Belgian

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

‘They are lost or have no idea what to say’ - Singaporean

‘Language can be a strong barrier when you are not able to articulate complex thoughts and it is in line with ‘face’ as you do not want to get embarrassed’ – Singaporean

‘Language barrier is there but I feel that lack of confidence is the main reason’ – Indian

‘For me, I can’t respond to the questions as fast as the others and I might not be able to react quickly (in meetings)’ – Chinese

CULTURAL COMMUNICATION STYLES

‘Singaporeans especially- they are trained from young not to question and not to speak-up. This kind of affects their confidence in public speaking. I think that’s the root cause’ – Indian

‘I don’t think (asking people directly, ‘what do you think?’) is effective or appropriate, in western cultures sure… but instead, after the meeting I build relationships individually and build answers that way’ – American

‘For Asians (especially Chinese and Japanese) it’s harder to question authority. We’re brought to simply obey instructions.’ – Singaporean

‘I was in a Chinese school for 4 years and generally no one asks questions in class. We prefer to ask our private tutors or our friends. Teaching styles in your formative years make a difference too I think.’ – Singaporean

‘Being active in class may be considered as competitive or showing off’ – Indonesian

 ‘For Chinese, the culture is like jade – shine through from the inside. Don’t like to show around (show-off). For Indian I feel like it is more like crystal – shining from the outside.’ - Chinese

‘I think especially in the expat world there can be an inferiority complex where an individual may feel someone in the group is smarter and that can be discouraging or cause people to clam-up’ – American

‘I guess you can say we have a very strong internal regulatory system. Only when the comment can pass the several tests, it gets articulated. If I know of something that I’m certain can add value… I will bring it up.’ – Singaporean

‘In China, students tend to remain silent in class’ - Chinese

SAVING FACE

‘I think ‘face’ is very important, hence if you notice in class, the Chinese students tend to ask their questions during break. To them that is a more private domain hence they feel more open’ – Singaporean

‘The thought – ‘what will others think of me?’ People with and without language barriers are equally tied down because of this.’ – Indian

 ‘People are afraid of the limelight, afraid to be wrong, afraid of being noticed’ – Singaporean

‘Afraid of looking stupid’ – Indonesian

 ‘I think they are conscious about people judging them about their idea, like ‘what if the answer is wrong?’’ - Indian

 ‘They may be afraid of lose face when say something wrong’ – Chinese 

CORPORATE CULTURE

‘Do upper management really listen? Perhaps at the start people share their thoughts but when they realize that they are not heard, they tend to quiet down’ – Singaporean

 ‘They don’t want to ask questions or raise questions as a subordinate’ – American

‘Meetings tend to be a monologue with no dialogue. Not sure to what extent it can promote group discussion’ – Singaporean

‘Depending on the length of interaction, I would argue that in a long drawn setting, a certain power structure is created whereby some opinions will defer or have deferred to others’ – Singaporean

‘I have asked ‘what do you think’ in a group setting but find that people will just say what they think is the right thing, instead of presenting new, creative ideas.’ - American

 MOVING FORWARD

There are many factors influencing why people may not speak-up in meetings- from language issues, to self confidence problems to completely contrasting cultural norms, and for those working in Asia from more outspoken cultures or backgrounds, this can be a confusing area to navigate.

Here are five tips to encourage teammates to speak-up in meetings:

  • Get creative with communication by sending out background information via email and asking your team to prepare written comments prior to meetings. This will allow those who are less confident in their language abilities to digest information and contribute to the best of their abilities.
  • Be personal in your management or collaboration style by discussing issues and ideas in private during 1:1 sessions before or after meetings
  • Listen and make changes in response to comments or ideas your teammates bring to the table to show that it is worthwhile to contribute
  • Never openly criticize an idea or issue raised by a team-member in front of others, instead acknowledge their thoughts and gently move on, speaking in private at a convenient time
  • Try not to fight culture. For the manager from an outspoken background coming into certain Asian corporate environments, the differences in working culture can be confusing and frustrating. However, it is important to bear in mind that the individuals you are working with are likely to behave the way they do due to a lifetime of experiences and it is unlikely that a manager is going to change this anytime soon…

Overall, we suggest that managers learn to adapt their leadership style; becoming aware of and respectful towards local customs. These adaptation skills are where cultural intelligence comes into play.

 CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE & THE CHANGE SCHOOL

Cultural intelligence, the ability to adapt behaviours across cultures, is linked to improved performance in multicultural work groups, expatriate assignments and overseas study programs (13). With corporations blazing ahead on paths to globalisation, we have seen a need for cultural intelligence like never before. Navigating dynamic cultural behaviours, norms, beliefs and values has become the next great challenge for managers and employees. 

Our programs on cultural intelligence bring you the tools to adapt your behaviour across cultures to work with new partners, be smart about the way you approach new markets and also addresses the need for cultural intelligence within diverse teams to improve overall performance. At The Change School, our corporate programs can be tailored to the needs of your team or situation – from a 2 hour Culture 101 to help you introduce the concept of CQ to your colleagues, to a week long team retreat in Bali to address diversity, company culture and adaptation, we have the expertise and flexibility to help on a bespoke level.

Please say hello to Josie at josie@thechangeschool.com to introduce yourself and find out more about our cultural intelligence team programs.

- For those of you interested in finding out more on the topic of teammates speaking up in a general context, I would recommend taking a look at the following article: Harvard Business Review - Why Your Employees Are Afraid To Speak

REFERENCES

Each quote was taken directly from WhatsApp messages (in July 2015), where I felt people were more open about their views and where I was less likely to bias their response! A huge ‘thank you’ to my colleagues, friends and classmates for your open and honest feedback.