Paradoxes in Vietnam and America: "Lessons Earned"-Part III

Article excerpt

Vu Van Than, Lecturer at the National Economics University Business School in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nancy K. Napier, Professor of Management and International Business and Director of the International Business Consortium at Boise State University's College of Business and Economics, Boise, Idaho.

In previous issues of Human Resource Planning, we indicated that all cultures and countries have their own set of inconsistencies or paradoxes. We rarely identify them in our own cultures but instead see them as something that "others have." Our past discussion focused on three paradoxes:

Paradox 1: When losing face isn't

Paradox 2: Good collectivism does not breed good teams

Paradox 3: Calculative relationships versus friendship

In this issue, we conclude with two final illustrations of such paradoxes and how employees who work abroad and their organizations can use these inconsistencies as a way to better understand and work within an environment that is not their own:

Paradox 4: Power--real and perceived

Paradox 5: "Step by step" versus wild experimenting

Paradox 4: Power--Real and Perceived

I sat in a meeting where the president of the company got her own coffee, where employees argued with her in front of everyone, and where all workers called each other by their first names.

Vietnamese who worked in an American software firm

One of the problems in our (Vietnamese) office is that assistants don't always show proper respect. They should never just put a paper on my desk and walk away. They should hand it with two hands to me, slightly bending.

Vietnamese manager on employees in his organization

When someone has a great idea, that will save money or make money, that will bring prestige to the organization, and the ministry is encouraging it to happen, why doesn't the director of the unit just tell people to do it? What's all of this talk about getting everyone to agree?

American working in a Vietnamese business school

Another dimension that is often bandied about as distinguishing cultures from one another is the degree to which hierarchy exists and the "distance" between levels of hierarchy in organizations or families. Sometimes this is reflected in language or in the extent to which managers have and use "power" over subordinates. For example, the limitless ways in the Vietnamese language to address and categorize people ("my #1 brother" to refer to the older brother in the family, "my older sister" to refer to a revered teacher), the extensive use of titles (Professor, Dr., Mr.) and the hierarchy within offices and families are signals of "power distance," according to cultural variables. In America, the use of first names, the informality in the work place, the give and take between managers and employees, suggest a lesser distance between workers and managers than in Vietnam. While the surface conditions suggest that American managers and employees have less "distance" between them, some Vietnamese observers have th e perception that "below the surface" the reverse situation is more real.

Vietnamese colleagues are baffled by what they see as surface informality but the apparent ease with which an American manager makes a decision and employees will (must?) follow it. Regardless of discussion and argument about some point, the manager in the United States holds the right and expectation of making a final decision, particularly if there is not consensus among employees. Some firms have agreements that within the firm or team, disagreements can be rampant, vehement, and strong. But once a decision is made, the team will band together and present a unified front to the "outside." Thus a manager may make a final decision and employees will rally behind it. This, to Vietnamese, suggests that the power and hence distance of the manager is in fact stronger than in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, they claim, the surface power distance exists, but a manager rarely wants to or can "make a decision" alone or in a formal way; instead the manager would seek, informally, full consensus and agreement from all key players before moving. …