Why Don’t Western Interventions Work in Asia?

Western management and people-development practices often don’t work well in Asia. There are a number of areas to modify to fit better with local cultural practices and behavior when working in East Asia. I’ve outlined some generic areas for consideration. It’s also important to look at country-specific norms. Each country is different and each individual is also different.

  • Religion — Spiritual beliefs are central to the ways of doing things in many parts of Asia.
  • Pace of change – Slower in Asia. More time is needed to get people aligned.
  • Family – The family unit is the primary unit. The extended family, the clan, the language or dialect group are all important. Effective managers know about the personal lives of their team members and help each person to be successful in family life.
  • Learning style – More rote learning than ‘creative learning.’ In China, Japan and Korea, learning how to read and write characters inculcated a mastery of technical aspects prior to creativity.
  • Business, economic and political environment – Extremely varied in Asia. Each country is different and often localities are also different.


  • Collective – the group is more important than the individual. People norm to the group. Transformative potential is in the group.
  • Hierarchy – Seniors and elders are respected and their face is the face of the group. Seniors are expected to take care of juniors. Juniors norm to the views of seniors. Managers find it harder to ‘empower’ people and tend to want things to be done their way. Titles are important symbols and give people face.
  • Relationship orientation – People form relationships and through them accomplish tasks. Establishing group networks and reinforcing a sense of belonging to groups (the workgroup, a factory, alumni groups) motivates people. Position people when they are new to roles or are being introduced. Building trusting relationships is the foundation for success.
  • Consensus and harmony – it’s important for everyone to give input, understand and then norm to the prevailing view.
  • Face – give and maintain face. Find alternatives so that people can decline without saying ‘no.’ Don’t put anybody in a position where they might be in the wrong or look foolish in front of others.

Interventions that work, from projects to retention practices to learning and development initiatives, tend to take Asian values into account.

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