A manager’s credibility in Indonesia
Among the different management aspects for which we study the influence of culture, there’s the question of the management “styles” which characterise each country. This article focuses on what it takes for a manager to be seen as “credible” in Indonesian society.
From 2003 to 2007, when researching my thesis, I interviewed almost 50 Indonesian men and women mostly working for the Total oil company in Jakarta and Paris, but also in a few cases in other foreign companies. This research helped me to retrospectively understand 11 years spent in the Indonesian corporate environment.
The Indonesian situation
To understand the way organisations operate in Indonesia, I feel it’s important to mention three factors:
The heritage of the Suharto authoritarian regime (1966 to 1998)
The way the public authorities operate is still often influenced by a mind-set in which subordinates await instructions from their superiors and implement them with no possibility to discuss them. This is not necessarily the way companies work.
The colonial heritage
Indonesia was created as a result of Dutch colonialism. The colonial government set up an administrative system which was then inherited by the newly independent Indonesia. The place and role of this administration were never questioned under the Suharto regime and, on the contrary, were actually strengthened. It was only following Suharto’s resignation in 1998 that Indonesia began reforming its administrative structure to make it more democratic. Today, we are seeing elected representatives at numerous levels, including governors, prefects and mayors of large towns and cities, who operate the administration in a democratic manner.
The domination of the world since late 15th century by the Europeans and their American offshoots continues to influence non-European mind-sets. This is all the more present in former colonies such as Indonesia. As citizens of a developing nation, the Indonesians are in the process of developing their own working methods and running modern organisations based on ideas from the developed world, i.e. based on American models.
What is expected of a boss in Indonesia?
The first thing people expect of a boss is that he should be competent and possess the necessary skills and knowledge for the job. However, skills, knowledge and competence are not necessarily associated with the same things from one context to another. In France for example, “to be credible, a manager must be technically competent” . From the French point of view therefore, the manager must know more than his subordinate, particularly as because when a dispute arises with subordinates the manager will possess the necessary credibility and legitimacy to settle the matter as “a competent referee of day-to-day conflicts”. In Indonesia, the key factor when considering the competence of the boss is his ability to help his subordinates solve problems.
A second reason is that competence is seen as a guarantee of coherence. In several interviews, it was stated that the manager should “provide the general direction”. The Indonesian word for “direction”, arah, has a purely spatial sense, and this not associated with the idea of command or management in any way, as is the case in France. We have to bear in mind that Indonesia is a maritime country. However, “providing a direction” is not sufficient. From the Indonesian viewpoint, it is important “not to change it all the time”, as explained by an engineer who was on a posting in Paris. This expectation contrasts with the French situation, where a decision can be questioned and reviewed, if it is considered logical to do so.
A third reason for which the manager requires knowledge is that he can then teach the subordinate. Various interviews showed that the Indonesians are more focused on the “development” of the individual.
A number of interviews associated clarity with management skill. From an Indonesian viewpoint, we see an association between competence, coherence and clarity. This association is different from what is seen in an American context for example, where the objectives set by the boss for his subordinate “must be clearly spelled out” . Philippe d’Iribarne demonstrates that from an American viewpoint, clarity makes it possible to overcome the unconscious fear of “being at someone else’s mercy” and to give you a sense of “being master of your own destiny”.
Approachability, warmth and kindness
Another expectation is that a boss should be approachable, pleasant and kind. The challenge is to understand the unconscious factors underlying this expectation. One of the best explanations comes from the assistant manager of the Indonesian subsidiary of Rabobank, who explains that her Dutch bosses have people call them by their first names which is “more pleasant and creates a greater sense of proximity”. In contrast, she was required to use formal means of address when talking to the French people working in the LCL subsidiary, where she was required to call them “Sir”. In particular, the description of her first boss who “was really like a warder, a jailer” is one of the factors which enabled me to understand a very specific Indonesian “fear”: that of being faced with something perceived as “closed”.
An ability to discuss matters
In several interviews, people spoke highly of bosses with whom “you can discuss things”. Here again, the most enlightening comments came from the assistant at Rabobank when she explained why she appreciated the fact that her boss was “close”: “I have more ideas, I can be more open when talking, and I can express what I feel”. Indeed, the word “open” explains something numerous other interviewees spoke of in different forms, a notion which seems to banish the “very Indonesian fear of being faced with something closed-off”.
The absence of references to the word “control” in the interviews, which were unguided and which used open-ended questions, suggests another characteristic which makes a “good manager” from the Indonesian viewpoint. A young engineer in Jakarta explained to me quite simply: “[ Young British or American bosses] give us the freedom to do things our way as long as we have the same intentions, […] and understand things in the same manner”. The only interview during which the word “control” was mentioned was with a sales engineer working at a company’s head office in Paris. When I asked him if someone gives instructions and controls him (I was the one who mentioned the word), he replied: “There are tools and systems for control purposes. […] It’s the system which controls you. So… I have a boss, but as I see it, the boss is more the system itself, the value [of the project]. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s my boss […]. If things aren’t going well with my boss, they tell me ‘that’s the way the system is’”. It’s possible that “control” is associated with the notion of the “jailer” of which the assistant at Rabobank complained. But here, I can only theorise.
The “bad boss”
The description of a “bad boss” from an Indonesian viewpoint can help us better understand their view of a “good boss”. When talking about the French bosses she’s had, an auditor in Jakarta explained that “the bad boss, the bad Frenchman, is […] the one who never takes the trouble to question why. […] Who doesn’t want to understand that there’s possibly something stopping the person they’re communicating with from explaining how things are in reality”. She concludes: “A bad boss, is one who doesn’t open the door”. The employee at Rabobank explained that her first boss was like a “jailer” because “his facial expression was always that of someone who didn’t want to be disturbed”. The bad boss is associated with the notion of being “closed-off”.
“In each society, the contrast between two experiences can play a central role” explained Philippe d’Iribarne. “On the one hand, a particular threat is seen as a serious threat to everyone […] resulting in a catastrophic situation. On the other, ‘means of salvation’ are seen as making it possible to eliminate this threat”. .
In an Indonesian context, this “particular threat” is that of being faced with something “closed-off”. The smile which comes so easily to Indonesians is in most cases not a sign of happiness or contentment, but simply an unconscious way of showing that they are not “closed-off”. This fear of anything which is “closed” has other implications and can be an expression of the fear of being “excluded”. In this case, the “means of salvation” may be a certain tendency toward conformity and also the search for “equality” within the group. In the world of work, this means that they expect the boss to be close to his team, clear in his instructions and perceived as being approachable and available.
Anda DJOEHANA WIRADIKARTA, consultant Akteos
 Philippe d’Iribarne, “Comment s’accorder”, Cultures et mondialisation : gérer par-delà les frontières, p. 103
 Sylvie Chevrier, “Le solide contre l’ingénieux”, ibid., p. 162
 Philippe d’Iribarne, La logique de l’honneur (1989)
 Philippe d’Iribarne, Penser la diversité du monde (2008)
 Philippe d’Iribarne, Penser la diversité du monde (2008)