Indonesia Expat
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Opinion: Understanding Indonesia’s Business Culture

Adapting to a new work culture is often challenging. In Indonesia, there are certain rules of thumb that expats need to understand when settling in for work or starting a business.

Working or doing business in Indonesia requires an understanding of the rules and etiquettes that must be learned and followed. Adapting to Indonesia’s business culture and its ever-changing regulations might prove trickier than it appears.

Indonesia may seem appealing to foreign workers as it has the largest economy in Southeast Asia with a GDP growth of roughly 6 percent in recent years. There are also many market opportunities in Indonesia, including  retail expansion, healthcare, financial, education and telecommunication services that have been booming for the past several years.

That said, approaching business in the country requires careful planning and perceptiveness towards its eclectic working environment. Comprised of diversity and multiple beliefs, working in Indonesia can seem strange to outsiders at first.

To avoid the pitfalls expats may encounter in the first few weeks or months of working in Indonesia, here are the basics to help you get by:

The many languages of “yes” and “no”:

It is widely known that Indonesian people can be very indirect in expressing their thoughts and opinions. Normally, when people say “yes,” it means that they agree to something. The same cannot necessarily be said for Indonesians, at least not in the workplace.

According to information from Emerhub, there are three kinds of ‘yes’ that expats may want to get used to.

  1. “Yes, I hear you talking.”
  2. “Yes, I understand what you said.”
  3. “Yes, I agree with you.”

The “yes” instances mentioned above do not always mean they agree with you and will therefore take action after the discussion. Indonesians are very polite and rarely say “no”.

This can be tricky if you are an expat working with Indonesian subordinates. The first “yes” may mean that they acknowledge what you’ve asked. However, they may still disagree.

Incidents like this, of course, often cause ambiguity between what is meant and what is heard. It is advised that before fully delegating work to subordinates, expats should make sure their subordinates align with the whole meanings of the discussions.

Strategic problem solving techniques

Another thing that expats may notice when settling in Indonesia is the unique way in which locals solve problems strategically.

Most Indonesian are indirect (please pardon the generalization), hence the most well-known method of solving problems is via a third party intermediary. As mentioned on the Living in Indonesia expat forum, most Indonesians will share the problem with someone in the office who has the ability to “mend” the gap. Each party can share their problems while having the opportunity to save face. Indonesian workers value harmony and tend to avoid conflict, which often results in this method of problem solving.

Another method expats should be wary of is ‘the appeal to authority’. Although this does not always happen, it is important to know. They will do whatever they can to make sure they look good in times of conflict. Some Indonesian subordinates seek out someone who has a higher position than their expat supervisors to express concerns. Living in Indonesia mentioned this as likely the fastest way to get an expat transferred.

Being less confrontational in general can help you avoid this situation. While not all conflicts can be avoided, expats may want to learn more about the local language. A working knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia can help minimize misunderstandings in discussions that may lead to conflict. Learning the local language is also important to helping expats understand local perspectives better.

Hierarchy is important

The Indonesian business structure may be in the form of hierarchy and status is greatly valued among local workers. Indonesians usually address their superiors with “Bapak” or “Ibu” (translated to Sir and Ma’am respectively).

Many argue the root of this value comes from the belief of psych research regarding natural born leaders and natural born followers.

Expats may be surprised that some Indonesian team members submissively do what is told without much concern for the outcome.

Indonesian subordinates may also do whatever it takes to make sure the leaders are happy. Expats may observe that subordinates rarely correct their leaders in meetings. Often, they send follow-up emails to notify the leaders that they might have presented the wrong information in a previous meeting.

A similar claim can be made for Indonesian managers. As mentioned before, Indonesian workers value harmony and peace over all else in the work environment. Therefore, Indonesian workers often avoid intense direct communication that may trigger a confrontation. This mindset drives Indonesian managers to be somewhat easily offended. Although not every Indonesian company adapts to this culture, expats may encounter this situation in more traditional companies.

Saving face is a life and death matter

If there is another thing that many Indonesian workers value, aside from a harmonious place of work, it is reputation. Otherwise known as ‘face’, reputation determines a worker’s life at work. It is linked to a person’s dignity, honour and value.

The main reason most Indonesian workers avoid conflicts and confrontations is to save one’s face. In the West, face might not be such a grave matter compared to Indonesia, as mostly Westerners appreciate team members who are direct and honest.

It is important for expats to understand that most Indonesian workers prefer any kind of criticism to be expressed privately. The smallest blemish on an Indonesian workers’ sense of pride could potentially push them to resign from the company.

Admittedly, most of what I’ve mentioned above are indeed generalizations that apply to older and more traditional businesses, really only meant to be taken with a grain of salt. But as a local, I do believe expats should consider cultural differences like this in the workplace.


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