Are Taiwanese workers dumb? Managing Across Cultures

The August edition of Centered on Taipei magazine is now out, and in it is my latest Ask Taiwanxifu article.  This one was a little controversial.  At least I think so.  I addressed an issue of why some (foreign) managers sometimes believe that their Taiwanese staff lack initiative.

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There are probably many managers — in Taiwan and elsewhere — who complain that their staff don’t show initiative.  But the controversial thing is that many foreign managers in Taiwan complain about this in relation to their Taiwanese staff, and in particular note that almost every little decision is delegated upwards for approval.  And I also believe that most Taiwanese staff themselves feel stuck in a hierarchical and bureaucratic cycle, and long to be able to approach their work with greater autonomy.

The solution?  Read my article on page 32 for some suggestions to enhance communication.

Have you experienced this cross-cultural issue?  And have you tried any of these strategies?  What works?

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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19 Responses to Are Taiwanese workers dumb? Managing Across Cultures

  1. Jenna Cody says:

    Yes, I have noticed this, and I think that in the vast majority of cases what you suggest really is the reason behind it, and it can be bridged with a little cross-cultural communication (I am sure from the other angle that Taiwanese working with foreigners probably think we do inexplicable things or, rather than act what we’d call “dumb”, we act “socially dumb” in that we might come across as clods or boors or stubborn complainers).

    And of course there are the few cases when the person in question really is just dumb or has no ideas or creativity – in every culture there are bright people and not-so-bright people, creative people and stodgy people and that is not different in Taiwan.

    Then there is an issue I can’t quite put my finger on in which administrative assistants, specifically, act like idiots when I know they’re not (at the very least they are average). Doing things like, well – I asked for the admin on one of my seminars to make sure our kit included a laser pointer so I could demonstrate to students in a presentation seminar what poor body language with a laser pointer looked like, vs. good use of a pointer. I was very clear about this, and the reasons why. When it was time to do this, I asked for the pointer, and she gave me a slide changer. It had a laser pointer in it, but it had been broken for awhile and she knew that (she even confirmed that she knew). So why did she pack that for me, and not an actual laser pointer? I knew she wasn’t a moron.

    At first I thought it could either be: 1.) a brain fart (forgiveable – we all have ’em) or 2.) some passive aggressive way of telling me she was mad at me (but she was new, we had no bad blood or any blood at all between us?)…so I had no idea.

    Another admin has a tendency not to communicate things – like, telling my husband on Friday that his new intensive, which would have started Monday, is postponed for a week to sign up more students. Except they’d never told him he was going to have an intensive at all, and this was two days before the original scheduled start time.

    Again, I know she’s not dumb, and there’s no bad blood between her and my husband, so what gives?

    The best I can do is think, well, when I was an admin assistant I wasn’t very happy in my job, underpaid and always tired because I couldn’t afford a car, so I had to wake up at the buttcrack of dawn to catch a bus (I am a natural night owl and 2 years of this didn’t change me). It wasn’t the company – they were fine – I just didn’t enjoy the work. As such, I wasn’t motivated and without motivation I couldn’t do my best. So, perhaps I made mistakes like that too but was never called out on them. Perhaps, having moved to Taiwan in my twenties, I hadn’t had much of a chance to see this sort of thing in the USA so I had the mistaken impression that it was less common. That maybe the issue was that the admins were overworked, underappreciated, underpaid (that was certainly true!), stressed out etc. or just plain didn’t like their jobs but thanks to the sluggish economy, were having a hard time finding something better (or just weren’t suited to admin work but were pigeonholed as ‘secretaries’ because they were young women – certainly this happens in the West where you walk into offices where all the support staff are women and all the managers are men).

    So, there’s that.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      I’m sure the Taiwan staff in our office often thought that I was coming across as a clod or just not getting things. Except I would never know because they would never tell me. Just a sense, sometimes, of things not being quite right but not knowing why.

      What a funny story re the laser pointer! Maybe the reason could have been that she couldn’t locate a real, working laser pointer (or it was too much of an admin process to get approval to buy a new one), so she tried to fudge it because she was too embarrassed to admit she couldn’t get one? I’m guessing here, and often even if you do speak the language/have been in country a long time (and I’m sure you are more qualified than me on both these counts) you still don’t always know.

      But I did find with work contacts in other organisations, that if I took them out to lunch and we were speaking candidly in Mandarin that they would open up a lot about some of their internal challenges and politics. It helped to make sense of some of their at times nonsensical views or decisions. The workplace was more complex and harder to navigate, but sometimes I would get glimpses of interpersonal stuff going on in the background that helped to explain things (e.g. who didn’t like who or who felt on the outer etc etc).

      • Jenna says:

        Yeah, you never know…perhaps the boss told her I didn’t need a laser pointer (nevermind that I did) and she didn’t know how to tell me that little piece of BS (boss was a jerk – a real one), knew how I’d react, so just freaked and played dumb.

      • taiwanxifu says:

        You never know. All sorts of stuff goes on that is never passed on because people worry about the reaction to bad news.

  2. thelostswede says:

    I’m sorry to say this, but most of the problems comes down to two things here, upbringing, or lack there of, and education.

    Most parents here are so busy working that they neglect their children so they grow up not knowing how to do day to day things, they don’t know how to communicate with people and they end up being introvert geeks. This is more true of the men than women here. When it comes to the education system, you’re not actually learning anything, as it’s a mild form of brainwashing to make you past yet another useless test.

    I’ve worked with all sorts of people over the years I’ve lived here and it never ceases to amaze me how ignorant the great bulk of people are here. It’s as if nothing around them exists. There’s also something of a herd mentality here which doesn’t help.

    Are all Taiwanese like this? Far from it, but the ones I’d consider “normal” in a Western sense is less than one out of ten. In many cases this is never an issue, but working with people that are barely capable of doing one thing at a time and then gets it wrong 50 percent of the time is very frustrating.

    On the other hand, one of the guys at my current company is one of the most amazing multitaskers and most flexible people I’ve ever met. Luckily my girlfriend is another one of these people, but the rest of her family is very far from being anything remotely like her.

    I guess I’m lucky as I work in a company with a very mixed team of people, but some local hires have had a very hard time fitting in, as apparently we’re “too western”. Funny thing considering the owner is Indian. I guess we’ve been lucky and found some very good people here though, but it’s not easy finding people that’ll fit in in and environment like our company in Taiwan.

    I really wish things would change here for the better though, as there’s a lot of potential here. I guess one other thing that it comes down to is that a lot of people here just have a job because they need a job, not because they’re doing something they want to do. Understandably not everyone can have their dream job, but I feel like a lot of people go to work just because. At times I’ve had jobs that I haven’t been overly fond of, but I still didn’t have the attitude that the job sucks and I’m going to do as little as I can get away with, which is something I’ve seen a lot of here.

    Having visited Japan, the attitude is very different, even people doing very low-paid jobs like a street cleaner is seemingly happy they have a purpose in life, or at least they come across that way. I can’t say I’ve ever come across that in Taiwan, although I guess I haven’t seen that in many other places either.

    What we find being the biggest issue when we hire people is to find those that are proactive and can think for themselves and do things without being told what to do all the time. It’s not always bad having people like that around as long as they do a good job, but we hired a senior member of staff that was very well paid, yet was utterly and completely useless at his job. He was supposed to manage other team members and train them as well as handle several projects. He wasn’t even able to handle a single project on his own and he was useless as a team manager and a mentor.

    On the other hand I’ve met people here that at first sight was a “oh no, not another one of those” moments, but then managed to blow everyone away at how good they were at their job and how well they knew their products.

    Taiwan is definitely a world apart, but it’s not that different from other places I’ve lived sometimes, at least not when it comes to the lack of interest or poor education when it comes to actually being able to perform the tasks assigned to them. I guess I’m one of those people that always tries to do my best regardless of the job, but then again, not everyone’s up for that.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you work with an interesting and diverse team.

    • pockytrader says:

      If I didn’t know better, I thought you were describing the US.

    • Jenny Fried says:

      I completely disagree.

      Then again, I’m not your traditional expat that’s stuck in the expat bubble as the majority of my friends are locals and I can also speak Mandarin.

      So perhaps that’s the biggest difference. I find that when people know I can understand and speak Mandarin, then they will open up to me in ways they wouldn’t when they just assumed I was a clueless foreigner.

      Most of the Taiwanese I have worked with are really smart and creative when you empower them and don’t constantly micro-manage them.

      However I can see why some expats would assume the Taiwanese lack initiative. It’s because they often only interact with the upper-middle class Taiwanese. The ones that are grew up just following the rules.

      So of course they are going to be like your typical office worker.

      Most expats rarely will talk to the blue collar workers or the street vendors (either because it’s outside their bubble or they simply don’t have the language ability to). It’s these people–the ones that are fighting to make it to the top–that show initiative and cleverness.

      • Jenny Fried says:

        @taiwanxifu

        Sorry, I just wanted to add that I agree with your article.

        I was disagreeing with @thelostswede’s characterization that “normal” Taiwanese act that way.

        Considering that the majority of Taiwanese are still relatively poor and most are blue collar workers, those in the service business, or entrepreneurs. Basically people that are working hard to succeed, and I’ve seen them do it in amazing and innovative ways.

        So hope I didn’t come across as too confrontational! It just upsets me when I see fellow expats say that when it’s likely they rarely interact with the regular, poorer people in their native language.

      • I completely agree with this. :)
        plus even people in upper middle class can have a lot of initiative, especially those in business or insurance.

  3. MNRC says:

    That was sensitively titled “Are Taiwanese workers dumb?” But the same could be asked of American workers as well.

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  5. Taipeir says:

    offices do attract types that prefer the steady stable and air conditioned.

    I thinks Taiwanese are very poor in interacting in an ‘international’ environment and hold a lot of misleading impressions and prejudices about foreigners, who are just regular people like them.

    Takes a lot to knock that shit out of them.

  6. Taipeir says:

    I’ve often interacted with the ‘regular’ poorer people. Lits of decent folks out there, not sure I would credit them with much ability to change their ways though.

  7. Taipeir says:

    Old people here are especially set in their ways, very superstitious and addicted to praying for money.

  8. CannotstandTaiwaneseworkders says:

    yes, Taiwanese think they are smart. But seriously they are really dumb. Scared of senior leadership. Follows blindly.

    I work for a regional team based in Taiwan. Seriously, I am vomiting blood every single day.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Sorry to hear that. I found that most of my Taiwanese colleagues were hardworking, trustworthy and good team players. The issue was a cultural one of abiding by group think rather than expressing creative individualism. Differences in expectations could generally be overcome by communication.

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