|Working Effectively with Your Lao Partner|
|You may have a tendency to be judgmental because so many
of your Lao experiences are different from those in your home country. Don't be
judgmental; it would be unfair, unproductive, and it could undermine your effectiveness.
If you are judgmental, you are likely to be perceived as arrogant by your Lao
When you first arrive in the Lao PDR, as a foreign business person or technical advisor, be prepared for a certain amount of scepticism, and aloofness on the part of your new Lao colleagues. Although courteous, some will not offer their sincere friendship at the outset while others may over-extend themselves. Your management methods may be viewed as impractical. You should concentrate at the outset almost exclusively on becoming accepted, trusted and credible. Ask your partner to tell you about their family, traditions, culture and home province or village. This not only builds the relationship, it helps you be effective because you understand your partner better. You know where he or she is coming from.
Keep in mind that Lao people are proud of their long and
well-established traditions. You will likely have to work hard to convince them that
you have something to offer. Quite commonly, they will ask you for advice on how
they can improve their management or organisation, for example. This may be a
courtesy designed to bring you face as the foreign advisor. They may not expect you
to take their request seriously. Indeed, they might be
Although it is dangerous to stereotype people on the basis
of perceived differences in personality traits, there are some commonly acknowledged ones.
As foreigners, we tend to promote ourselves and consciously attempt to improve our
public image both on and off the job. In contrast, Lao people downplay personal
The Lao are the ultimate last minute artists. To the Westerner, it appears they are not planning events. And yet, suddenly, at the eleventh hour, things suddenly come together in a miraculous fashion. In any case, to keep your ulcer under control, it is sometimes useful to invent an early deadline. This gets things moving in a time frame more comfortable to our Western notions of planning.
When new on the job, it is best to stay in the office.
Absence may be seen as non-fulfilment of your
Carry lots of business cards. Have them translated into Lao and printed up locally. A common practice is to have English on one side and Lao on the other. The exchange of cards makes it easier for you and your host to remember and pronounce names. At meetings, Lao people may arrange their guests' business cards on the table in front of them. It is a sign of respect and helps them keep track of names. You can do the same. You should, in fact, examine each card carefully and respectfully, and keep it beside you. Do not play with your Lao colleague's business card since this is disrespectful.
Field trips are an important event for the foreign advisor
who stays for any length of time. Many Westerners
For in-country travel, the daily allowance for Lao
colleagues may be much lower than your own. Sometimes this means they are unable to
check into the same hotel as you. If their accommodation situation is poor or
Foreigners often have difficulty with the policies and
budgetary constraints of their employer when in the field.
You may have to drink enormous amounts of alcohol when in
the provinces particularly when visiting villages.
In the Lao drinking tradition, one person, usually the
host, moves around the room offering a shot glass of
The moment of leave-taking is often problematic for foreigners. Be yourself. If you are enjoying the evening stay to the end with your colleagues. If you are tired, simply say so and excuse yourself while thanking them for a very enjoyable evening.
More and more donors are moving to what is called "National
Execution". This means the Lao Government is
As an advisor, capitulation in every situation would not be
right and would not be in the best interests of the
When you have strong reasons to challenge a national decision, think carefully about your options. It may be best broach the decision obliquely through another context. In all cases avoid open argument with your national project director. It will not achieve your purpose. Never go further than indicating that your donor agency may not be pleased with the decision.
Never become too attached to your project. This is
not the Lao way. The country has been around in various
Whether you speak Lao or not, you will find good
interpreters a treasure. They are extremely scarce. They can communicate in a
style that is acceptable to Lao people and can help you understand Lao responses, no
matter how subtle. The interpreter may also help you determine the power structure
or decision-making process in a
Here are some tips in dealing with interpreters:
Interpreters can also assist in sensitive matters. They can act as intermediaries, and may even help everyone save face (you can always blame inaccurate interpretation for the misunderstanding). You may not notice a good interpreter, but you will notice a bad one.
Effective Management Styles
There is no one approach to being effective. Still, experience shows that people who are the most effective in the Lao PDR are flexible. They are willing to make compromises. This requires some thought about what things you might be prepared to sacrifice to gain acceptance for the most important parts of your programme. A good understanding of Lao culture and society sees the wisdom and value in the Lao way.
Lao people do things "step-by-step" as they
themselves say. Westerners may say the Lao are slow. But they
Be positive, patient, persistent, and always show goodwill.
Set reasonable tasks and go slowly. Celebrate
Resist the feeling you are being "taken" all of
the time. You may be reading more into the situation than is
It is important to "pick your spots." By
suggesting too many changes you may unnecessarily burden Lao staff.
If you are introducing changes based on your own country
experience, explain clearly why your country values
The most successful projects are those that have a sound
design and full participation on both sides from the
You may find your Lao colleagues willing to take initiative only if you accept full accountability for their actions, ensuring they will not be held responsible or blamed. Westerners, accustomed to strict invoice controls and audits, will discover that "bending the rules" or, in some cases, simply ignoring them is not necessarily wrong from the Lao point of view. Practices such as inventing receipts or invoices and offering "incentives" are often considered expedient in the Lao PDR if they resolve problems or benefit the project. (For example, project goods or equipment in the possession of individuals are made available for an inventory check or an inspection tour, and returned to the individuals afterwards.) As a foreign manager, you will have the difficult task of drawing the line on such practices in order to protect the integrity of your records.
In general, large gatherings in the Lao PDR are not an
effective means to generate discussion and make
Some of the greatest difficulties and misunderstandings between Lao and foreigners occur at meetings. The Lao find Westerners conduct themselves in an egocentric, undisciplined fashion at meetings, insisting on their point of view and standing out as individuals. This conduct is contrary to the deep Lao norms of modesty and group values. Lao people will voice opinions at meetings but only in the absence of their leaders. They may also speak up if they trust you to be discrete with their comments.
Lao meetings are often held only to give official approval
to or to announce what has been negotiated
Do what can be done, informally, face-to-face preferably
before an official meeting so that any problems or
The highest ranking person in your group should lead the
way in, and be the spokesperson. Do not make the
Meetings always begin with informal chit-chat over coffee and/or tea. The host will initiate serious talk, and then leave time for you to say a few words in response. Respect these exchanges of courtesy. Drink the tea that is served before launching into an explanation of why you have come. You might not even get to it at the first meeting. You may meet an important official only for a few minutes. Time is tight for senior people. Be alert for signals that the meeting should end. The signals include asking you if you would like more tea, beginning to sum things up, thanking you for coming, and leading you to the door. Don't be surprised if you meet for only a few minutes but are invited to dinner that evening. This is the beginning of your relationship. Business will come later.
Negotiations in the Lao context can be a grinding, slow process. Bear in mind that it is no different for you than for the Lao among themselves. Lao negotiating style is highly unstructured and unpredictable. Negotiations may play on your impatience and your sense of shame. They may threaten to take their business elsewhere. Be wary of the responsibility entailed when you become a "trusted old friend." An obligation has been built up. Do not confuse real friendship with business friendship.
Lao people view negotiations as important social occasions,
to foster relationships. They have to convince
Lao contracts are short, written in simple language, and
focus on principles. For the Lao, Western business
Expect lots of delays. If you encounter no immediate response, it is wise not to push it. Lao negotiators have little room to manoeuvre. Delays are often caused by the need for approvals at various steps along the way. Be patient. The Lao have a saying: "With one monkey in the way, not even 10,000 men can pass."
Positions may change during negotiations. If you see
a complete turnaround from one day to the next, you can be sure you are negotiating with
people who do not have the power to make decisions. If you have a good
|Understanding Lao Culture | Communication | Working Effectively with Your Lao Partner|
|Social Conventions and Protocol | Conclusions|