[Blog 30] The Chief Guru Chronicles 106: Mind Over Matter

Adopting a global mindset is imperative in today’s world where conflicting interpretations of culture and values are inevitable. This encompasses a wide spectrum of dimensions and factors that can influence employee engagement, even coming down to ethnicities, religion, history and geographical locations. The perception of the world among various groups can either contribute to an organisation’s success or give rise to operational risks or challenges if not handled effectively.

A company that I was working for in the late 90s was experiencing rapid regional growth in the midst of a severe manpower crunch; so naturally, we were in dire need of able bodies to get the wheels turning. While HR was scurrying for creative means to expand our resources, I decided to take advantage of my prior work experience (on a Regionalisation Training Scheme) with the Economic Development Board and attained the approval from the authority to allow several hundreds of our staff from our plants in IndoChina to undergo a 6-months supervisory on-the-training in Singapore. These staff, many of whom have never set a foot out of their homeland, carried with them deep-rooted cultural beliefs and idiosyncrasies, thus posing a challenge to manage them. What I thought was a huge step for the company towards championing workplace diversity took a surprising turn on the very first day when the first batch of 40 trainees arrived at the Head Office for a familiarisation tour. For the purpose of context, the company operated in a 55-storey building with a Penthouse Boardroom situated on the highest floor, where a meeting with the senior leadership team was scheduled for the new staff. Concurrently, we were too expecting a delegation of high-level investors who were due to arrive on the same day.

After receiving a series of urgent messages from my team about a strike taking effect in the lobby, I frantically rushed down to the lobby to investigate the commotion and what greeted me was an unusual sight of 40 men seated on the floor performing their prayers. Feeling baffled and somewhat angry, I decided to confront the leader of the group, who then explained that our HR Manager seemed unreasonably persistent in demanding them to follow her up into the lift to the Penthouse Boardroom, even after the group profusely refused. “We didn’t come to Singapore to die, but to learn,” he pointed out while appearing genuinely anxious. I later learnt that ascending 55 stories upwards carried a whole different meaning to the men; it was equivalent to soaring to heaven to meet their ancestors to the point of no return. This made more sense to me after learning that much of where they lived were mostly occupied by 1-storey or the very most 2-storey buildings; the concept of skyscrapers, much alone being in a lift, were indeed alien to them. Fortunately, I was able to assure and convince them it was by no means a death sentence and although the leader was still reluctant at first, he eventually agreed to enter the lift with me while the rest of the group followed in pursuit, albeit praying for their souls. The incident later became the talk of the town for a while, followed by subsequent reports pertaining to the tardiness of the trainees who chose to cycle to work as it remained to be their preferred mode of transport. It came as no surprise that few of them have seen an automobile and being in one tend to strike fear and induce motion sickness among many of them.

As the above incident exemplifies, being in the playing field of the global economy requires heightened levels of territorial awareness and intercultural competence. Modern managers of cross-border groups have to be more sensitive of varying diversities in order to facilitate cross-cultural interactions with a more effective and sympathetic approach, especially with those from poor third world or less developed countries. More importantly, be prepared to embrace and assimilate cultural norms of countries other than your own to achieve an all-inclusive work environment.

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This article is part of a series of accounts of The Chief Guru Chronicles, a monthly column which recounts our Founder & Chief Guru Tommy Ng’s experience and encounters in HR management across various countries and industries. The purpose of this column is to provide helpful information on the subjects discussed, and to educate readers through challenges experienced. It should not be perceived and used as a professional advice. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, races, ethnic group, organisation, company, individual or country. In addition, we do not make any warranties about the completeness, reliability and accuracy of the information. As a disclosure, some names, information and situations were intentionally concealed or edited in order to protect the identity of the involved parties. Except as expressly consented, the contents may not be reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without HR Guru Pte Ltd permission.