Silence May Not Mean Consent
I have previously written that Malaysian employees can seem to be shy and somewhat passive in their face-to-face communications, especially with expat managers and colleagues. However, that is quite often not the case when it comes to serious unspoken – but quite possibly written – grievances.
Shortly before setting foot in Malaysia as the new GM of a European MNC in 1998, I was given a copy of a letter that the majority of local employees had signed and sent to our company’s CEO – requesting that several recent local decisions be explained, and some local organisational changes be made. When I questioned local senior management, they explained that this was not the first time such a letter had been sent over the years.
So when I arrived – right in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis (those of you who were here at the time will recall just how difficult a time that was), definitely a heightened time for employee upheaval – I was thrust into a “textbook case” calling for open, honest, and crystal-clear employee communication. Unfortunately, my predecessor (who was a first time expat GM at an admittedly very challenging time) had rather optimistically assured the staff of very limited consequences and negative fallout, despite the companies’ steadily worsening performance in a rapidly and dramatically declining market. To me, as his successor chosen to clean up quite a mess, this perspective was extraordinarily naïve at best, and completely wrong at worst. Accordingly, we assessed, we communicated our conclusions, and then we retrenched and reorganised.
Afterward, as time went on following the retrenchment, I gained a better understanding of why these frustrated employees had taken this extreme letter-writing step, and I realized that it all stemmed from a feeling of being talked down to, misled, and even insulted. Seemingly every company in Malaysia was retrenching staff, and virtually all employees had family and friends losing their jobs. As incredible as it may sound now, this was not what actually upset everyone. It was this: when they were told not to worry about pay cuts or layoffs, they felt like it was condescending, illogical, and unprofessional. “Just tell us the truth,” they said “and we’ll respond accordingly.” And they did – some found new jobs, some joined family businesses, some started new companies, some went back to school. And no more letters were written to the CEO.
KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS EXPERIENCE:
1. I have seen several companies experience these “letters of discontent” written to the CEO and/or other senior managers expected to be sympathetic, from groups working under both local and expat leaders, in good times and bad. Those Malaysian employees that you thought were content – silence does not necessarily mean consent.
2. Although not exactly welcome, these letters can be useful as a clearly frustrated cry for help. It doesn’t mean that you should do anything differently just because of this letter-writing tendency, but it may serve as a reminder that you should never forget your commitment to your local team. Unfortunately, I have known expat managers operating as “kings in their local kingdoms”, who felt that they could do just about anything when so far away from HQ, as long as HQ stayed happy, ignoring requests from the local team.
3. This writing tendency simply reiterates the need for good organisational fundamentals – including ongoing interaction and feedback. The very basic elements of an organisation – posted organisation/position charts, job descriptions, and regular communication forums in the form of dialogue (i.e., two-way conversation) with staff – will create an atmosphere and channels for issues and potential problems to be discussed before they explode in such a high-profile and potentially damaging manner.
4. Of course, this does not mean that you accede to every request that comes your way. Clearly not! But it does mean that you are aware of requests, and have addressed them in a thoughtful and logical manner – one that can be explained to anyone, at any level, in your organisation. That’s good local leadership.
As an epilogue to the 1998 story, while we did retrench quite a few staff, we later had a bit of a happy ending as we were able to hire back several employees when business began to recover, and we were rated quite well in a subsequent employee survey – mainly, they told us, because we had clearly explained the rationale behind our actions.