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Top 10 tips for working with Myanmar colleagues

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.

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