Recruiters and HR managers say a non-confrontational communication style in the Indonesian workplace is contributing to regular misunderstandings.

The ‘sungkan’ culture, understood to be an indirect style of communication respectful to others, may mean a reluctance to reprimand an underperforming employee.

Aon Hewitt Indonesia's associate partner Saurabh Mittal said Indonesia's relationship-oriented culture was conducive for business, but when individuals were respectful they might lean towards being non-confrontational.

He said setting the right performance expectations and agreeing on accountability was crucial to avoid disappointment for employees and organisations.

“Indonesians cherish communication coming from their leaders, and with communication comes trust, which translates into higher engagement and productivity,” he added.

For Michael Page Indonesia's president director Olly Riches, it can be challenging to get an Indonesian professional to go into an interview and really ‘sell’ themselves.

“Even if they are very good at what they do, they are not used to highlighting their own strengths and talking about their achievements,” he added.

He said that as a mark of respect, Indonesians would not speak up directly to tell others if they were being overbearing or if they disagreed with colleagues or superiors. “Silence is often seen as easier than rejection, or sometimes the message is delivered in a roundabout manner which can take time.” But Riches believes the younger generation is changing that to a certain degree.

He added that for employers in Indonesia, understanding what motivates professionals was essential. “Similar to most countries, candidates will switch jobs for career progression, good compensation packages and a family-like office culture. They want to feel like a part of something,” Riches said.

Indonesian analyst Debbie Widjaja quoted a Harvard Business Review article on the sungkan culture to qualify her observations when she was former human capital analyst at Astra International.

She said the research showed Indonesian culture was much more top-down and hierarchical compared to Europe.

“In (the) Indonesian language, we have different ways to address people based on their positions versus ours,” she said, adding that she could directly email her superiors in Europe, a practice she would never do in Indonesia.

Widjaja, who is now an analyst with Facebook Dublin, said Indonesians tend to want to feel part of a group.

For example, she said, workers often agree with one another instead of having different views or prefer to fall behind instead of assuming contrary positions, which could isolate them from familiar social circles at work.

Digital recruiter Ekrut’s co-founder, Anthony Kusuma, said this cultural practice might hold truth in most organisations in Indonesia.

“We (are) afraid to hurt others' feelings,” he said. But lately, the Indonesian market has seen an influx of international employees and investors and that was influencing a change in the way employers communicate with their teams.

“We are now more open to share our feelings, like reprimanding others if they do something wrong,” added Kusuma.

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