Solutions

7 work lessons you can learn from your foreign colleague

Your foreign co-worker might have rubbed you the wrong way a few times, but there's actually much you can learn from him.
 

Look around you in the office and chances are, you will find someone who is of a different nationality than you – be it Mr Nair from Chennai in the IT department, or Ms Almario from Quezon City who just joined the marketing department, or Mrs Johnson, the human resource trainer who hails from Toronto.

And it looks like it’ll continue to be commonplace – currently, there are 900,000 foreign white collar workers here, according to the Department of Statistics.

Having such employee diversity is a boon for bosses – different cultures and backgrounds often bring fresh ideas and innovation to the table. But it’s not just the bosses who benefit – Singaporeans say they, too, have picked up valuable work lessons from observing their foreign colleagues.

Being vocal improves productivity
One of the most common views is that foreigners tend to be more vocal, compared to Singaporeans, who are a lot more reserved. And this has many advantages.

For one, Claudine*, an investment adviser with a Swiss bank, believes being vocal helps improve productivity. She says: “It’s easier to understand some of my foreign colleagues because they say what is on their minds. Even if our discussions get heated, problems get resolved faster as they will openly state their case and rationale, and propose constructive alternatives. In contrast, some of my Singaporean co-workers will nod and agree with me when we are face to face, then complain and grumble later.”

Jean*, 26, a trader with a local brokerage firm, agrees. “My foreign colleagues are definitely more outspoken and proactive. They are not afraid to ask questions or to show that they have opinions.

“This creates a better impression with the bosses as it allows them to be ‘more visible’,” she adds.

Bernadette Ang, a channels manager for an international fast- moving consumer goods company, points out that being vocal is especially important during meetings and presentations. She says: “My foreign colleagues tend to be excellent at front-end presentations, getting their ideas and vision across with clarity and confidence. They are also usually better able to anticipate questions, and clearly articulate and provide solutions.” In comparison, she has noticed that Singaporeans tend not to be as good at getting their points across.

While it might be a generalisation to attribute this to a difference in culture, Anthony Ung, country manager for Jobstreet.com, feels that there is some truth in it. Anthony believes that Singaporeans tend to have a “the boss is always right” attitude and prefer not to second-guess their supervisors, give voice to opinions or grievances.

But being outspoken doesn’t necessarily mean your foreign colleague has the upper hand when it comes to presenting proposals or wooing a client. Ian Grundy, management consultant for Adecco Singapore, a human resource solutions company, argues that ultimately, “the ability to follow through and deliver what you have promised is more important than eloquence”.

More discussion = more creativity
Bernadette points out that while Singaporeans may find all that extra talk a waste of time, one result of having more discussions is that “sometimes, wandering off the path opens the discussion to creativity and new ideas”. She adds: “This creativity can be harnessed by having separate meetings for those who enjoy these discussions, so that they come to the larger project meetings, where it’s more about processes and addressing issues, with feasible ideas instead of doing the brainstorming then.”

Anthony believes that employers do value such openness. “Gone are the days where bosses just want employees to do as they’re told. Now, they want people who are able to think for themselves and who can bring something to the table. The final decisions may still lie in the bosses’ hands, but new ideas are now more than welcome.”

The big picture
Another thing we can learn from our foreign counterparts is how to see the “big picture”. Singaporeans, in general, say some, tend to be more task-oriented and focused on operational details. On the other hand, our foreign colleagues are more visionary and think about the future direction of the business.

It’s a useful trait, says Lisa*, 35, a human resources consultant and trainer at an international firm which specialises in employee management, as she has noticed that big picture thinkers tend to have better coaching skills and are less likely to micromanage.

She explains: “My boss, who is a foreigner, is very hands-off and gives us the ownership to do things; he appraises us on our outcomes. There is a general climate of trust and many like that sense of ownership.”

Yet, she also agrees that some workers do need hand-holding. She says: “They may think that a hands- off approach shows that the boss does not care enough.”

Anthony believes this trait is more related to the employee’s personality than his nationality or cultural background. “There will be some employees who are more comfortable with more guidance, and others who are independent workers and who will have no qualms about diving right in.”

Tough as nails
One other lesson Claudine has picked up from her foreign co- workers is their sense of resilience. She says: “I’ve noticed that they have a high degree of perseverance because they come from tougher environments. They work very hard and don’t give up easily. They are also more open to dealing with issues objectively and are far less likely to take things personally.”

She recounts one incident when she had given her staff feedback as some of their work had not been up to par. “They were very keen to find out what the issues were so that they could do a better job.”

Anthony says this is possibly because many foreign employees here do not view Singapore as a permanent resting ground, and this affects their mindset about work. He explains: “Most of them will return to their home country, sometimes within a couple of years, so they might feel that they do not have as much to lose as their Singaporean colleagues. It is more likely that they would be willing to take risks to maximise the opportunities they have here. As a result, they tend to respond more positively to feedback. They don’t take it personally and instead, view it as a means to improve themselves.”

A little respect
Adam*, 35, an architect who has worked in the UK and in Singapore, believes Singaporean workers can also learn from the way their foreign co-workers view titles and hierarchy – with less emphasis. But he doesn’t think this means they are less respectful of their bosses; it’s simply that they treat people of all ranks with the same level of respect and courtesy.

It’s a good thing, he points out. This makes them less afraid to raise problems or voice their opinions to their senior managers.

Work-life balance
Jean also notices that her foreign colleagues are better able to achieve work-life balance. She says: “Staying late in the office is a norm for us. But that’s just counterproductive because at times we become so tired, we lose concentration and it backfires on efficiency. My foreign colleagues manage to get their work done during working hours and they leave promptly when it’s time to go. This way, they manage to avoid a burnout.”

Ian puts it down simply to the fact that “it’s not so much that Singaporeans have got their priorities wrong, but that they do not know how to properly manage them”. He adds: “More discipline and effort are needed to ensure that we have work-life balance. It doesn’t just happen, we need to work at it.”

Social butterflies
Financial analyst Rena*, 28, finds that her foreign colleagues seem more sociable and are apt to treat their co-workers as friends instead of just mere colleagues. On the other hand, her Singaporean colleagues prefer to maintain a professional distance in the workplace.

Anthony believes that many foreign employees here may have relocated here on their own. “As such, they are freer to socialise outside work. Singaporean employees, however, go back to their families at the end of the day. Also, Singaporeans tend to be slightly more ‘clique-ish’, whereas foreign employees tend to be more inclusive.”

 

This article was originally published in Simply Her January 2012.

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