Leading Change in Singaporean Teams: Why Culture Matters

An Expert's View about Cross-Cultural Communications in Singapore

Posted on: 5 Apr 2012

Managing a team and leading change in Singapore is similar to that in other countries. However, there are some clear differences due to Singaporean culture.  During an executive coaching session with a VP of a British bank working in Singapore for six months we discussed his challenges with moving change forward.

“Brian, I have a feeling that the team of Singaporeans I manage are not in sync with the new changes we have put in place for this year”

“Tim, why do you say they are not in sync with the new changes?”

“We have a wonderful enthusiastic group that is diverse in terms of talents, perspective and cultural backgrounds but I am noticing some limitations that come along with certain Singaporean ways of thinking and doing business compared to my home country.”

“What kinds of limitations?,” I ask.

“Singapore is a very modern, hi-tech,  cosmopolitan country moving and changing at a fast pace. It is a reflection of the society, right? Then why do the people I manage seem to have a closed mindset when it comes to creating new initiatives  and implementing them quickly?”

“Why do you say that Tim?”

“In our team meeting I suggested we brainstorm about changes we can make to improve our systems. They were very unwilling to share or have open discussions with me about suggestions. It is a real challenge getting them to think outside of the box.

In the end I came up with the new initiatives and asked the team to decide how to implement them.   Today I find out they have implemented nothing and when I ask them to explain I get resistance or no response at all!

“What should I do?”

“What do you think?,” I ask back.

“I don’t know that’s why I ask!”  Tim says, becoming frustrated.

“Let me share with you some ideas from the New York Times Bestseller, ‘Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard’ by Chip and Dan Heath.

In their book they state that “Successful changes share a common pattern. They require the leader of change to do three things at once. To change someone’s behavior, you’ve got to change that person’s situation…[handling change] is hard because people wear themselves out. And that’s the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion…If you want people to change, you must provide crystal clear direction…resistance is often a lack of clarity.”

They argue that they “found the answer in the research of some brilliant psychologists who’d discovered that people have two separate “systems” in their brains—a rational system and an emotional system. The rational system is a thoughtful, logical planner. The emotional system is, well, emotional—and impulsive and instinctual.

When making a decision we are typically torn between our rational, logical reasons and our emotional, intuitive feelings.  The most important of these are the Rider (our rational side), the Elephant, (our emotional and instinctive side) and the Path (the surrounding environment in which change initiatives will be conducted).

The challenge is to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path to make change more likely, “no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant…If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can happen even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.

For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your team. Picture the person (or people). Each has an emotional Elephant side and a rational Rider side. You’ve got to reach both. And you’ve also got to clear the way for them to succeed.”

“Brian, I can see I need to apply a different approach with my team.”

“Tim, in addition to the rational/emotional side of change there is also the cultural element that should be considered.  I think your team is out of sync with the new changes partly because you are out of sync with the cultural differences in the Singaporean workplace. Culture affects  many aspects in the workplace including the way we approach change, take on new tasks, and speak up in front of others especially when the boss is asking the questions.”

“So now that you have heard these ideas what do you think you will do differently Tim?”

“I should put into practice what I learned from our last session on group oriented cultures and saving face. I will call a meeting and explain my concerns and then ask them to work out some ideas together in a meeting on their own.  As a group they can then present their ideas to me so no one feels singled out.

I also need to give clear direction and work on building a better relationship with them. This should help me to understand what motivates them to get the team on board with our new changes.”

“That sounds good to me. Next week, let me know how it goes. And I hope the Elephant-Rider-Path metaphor helped you see how to manage change in a new light.”


About Brian McDermott, GTP Senior Consultant

With over 20 years of international business experience, Brian has delivered a variety of global leadership, intercultural and teamwork programs for both senior and first line manager levels. During his career he has worked with Fortune 1000 companies in North America, Europe, South America, and Asia: Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

For information about GTP workshops contact us at info@gtpworldsite.com and visit www.gtpworldsite.com

Posted: 05 April 2012

See more from Cross-Cultural Communications in Singapore

Expert Views    
Reflecting… What We, As Leaders, Should Think?   By Patrick Kim Cheng Low, Businesscraft Consultancy
Managing Across Cultures Training Singapore - GTP   By GTP - Global Training Partners Singapore
Asia Cross Cultural Gift Giving Etiquette: Singapore   By GTP - Global Training Partners Singapore
Effective Cross Cultural Communication in the Workplace   By GTP - Global Training Partners Singapore
Hot Tips    
5 Tips For Delivering Effective Presentations In Asia   By GTP - Global Training Partners Singapore