A globally-integrated business world will still run up against cultural borders. The key is to be prepared before misunderstandings occur.

CHRISTIAN ROUTIN has a message for Vietnam-based CEOs: a lack of intercultural awareness continues to have a strongly negative impact on businesses operating in this country, and the measures taken to correct this problem often come too late.

“Because of that lack of awareness, nothing is done to prevent it from occurring,” says Routin, an executive coach and consultant in crosscultural soft skills who advises top-level leaders of international firms how to run their operations more smoothly in the Vietnamese environment. “The damage is already done, which is much more costly. So I would give a choice to companies— do you want to be fixing the problem, or do you want to be preventing it?”

Routin, whose Vietnamese-French background has given him a grounding in both local and Western cultures, has been living in this country for more than 20 years. It was after returning for the second time to Vietnam in the early 2000s and leading teams of local staff in international businesses that he began to notice a profound mismatch in Western modes of leadership and the expectations of Vietnamese employees. It’s a situation that has only marginally improved in the years he has lived here, if at all—CEOs still remain mystified about how to get the best out of their teams without realizing there are practical solutions to managing local workers.

“There are 14 distinct cultural differences between Vietnam and the West, and among those 14, there are six major ones affecting us at work”, says Routin. “So that’s a huge impact. And the problem is that a lot of people are not aware of what is cross-cultural in general. I’m training a lot of high-level expats in big companies, and most of them still believe that cross-cultural is about business etiquette, social etiquette, the do’s and don’ts. They don’t really understand what the mistakes are.

If you don’t understand people and their ways, you’re inefficient, right? Those guys are running after very tight targets on a timeline, it’s a heavy load. But if you don’t understand the way in which people are thinking, developing relationships, making decisions, the way that they prefer to be managed, then you’re wasting time and energy on something that is not efficient, because you’re trying to do it your own way, which may not be the way of the Vietnamese.”

According to Routin, a focus on some key insights about major differences in culture between Vietnam and the West can resolve common issues faced by international corporations. A key example is the different way in which the two cultures approach business relationships. While Western businesses value transactional relationships based on shared objectives, Vietnamese workers rarely see things in the same way.

“In Asia and Vietnam, we are relationship oriented,” explains Routin. “If you want to do business or anything with someone, you first need to develop a strong personal relationship, then they will support you, trust you, and share critical information with you—and then they will love you, because in the end a relationship means a shared affection. You love your friends, and then you trust them. It goes both ways. They will care for you and want to support you, and give you their loyalty. With Vietnamese staff, if you don’t have that kind of relationship with them, there’s not much you can do.

“Secondly, in the West, we are egalitarian in our leadership. The boss and the staff are equals. I’m empowering my staff and I accept and encourage them to challenge me with ideas, decisions, and solutions. It’s the opposite in Asia. People are hierarchical. The boss is at the top and all the way down are the staff. The boss has all the power, and the staff have no power, and they accept their position. We are hierarchical because it is one of the roots of our culture, it’s Confucian. So imagine you’re the boss in this situation, and you try to empower them. It cannot work. You’re expecting them to challenge you, but they don’t, they can’t. It’s because of the culture and the mindset of work. They push back the power.”

Nowadays, Routin is in high demand as a one-on-one consultant with executives as well as a workshop facilitator and a public speaker on cross-cultural issues. Delivering insights based on his own long experience in Vietnam, he covers major topics in cultural intelligence designed to bring awareness and understanding to leaders who may be posted to positions in Vietnam where they will need to navigate such problems for several years. He also designs and delivers leadership development programs to Vietnamese leaders, helping to equip and transform them in learning egalitarian management skills to match international business requirements.

“It’s good to understand,” says Routin, “but it’s better if you can solve these issues and bridge or reduce the gaps. Because when you have 14 cultural differences like this, it means that every time you meet the Vietnamese, there’s one or more of these gaps impacting you every second. Imagine all the consequences if you misunderstand, and you’re not doing the right thing. It’s better to prevent than to heal, but you can only do that if you’re aware of the problem.” [C]

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