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 partners.

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
offended if you suggest improvements immediately.  Keep in mind that they just might regard you as a threat or nuisance, in much the same way Western consultants are sometimes regarded when reviewing organisations in their own country.

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 abilities,
achievements and contributions, promoting, instead, the attributes of their group.   Modesty is considered a virtue.  When asked to perform a task they are well qualified for, Lao people may belittle their own abilities and
profess inadequacy.  They will greet compliments with diversionary comments such as, "It was my duty."  In
job interviews, Lao people traditionally respond only to the questions asked.  Even their responses reflect
modesty; when their eyes are cast down they appear humble.

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
responsibilities.  Once your office colleagues have come to know and trust you, it is acceptable to leave the office for meetings and visits.

Business Cards

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

Field trips are an important event for the foreign advisor who stays for any length of time.  Many Westerners
encounter difficulty with these interesting forays.  Here are some common problems with field trips.

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
inconvenient you may consider taking a double room and having them stay with you, assuming they are the same sex.  You will be invited to lunches and dinners either in a restaurant or noodle shop.  Don't ask to share the bill.  Accept their invitation if they propose to pay for you and then host the next meal.  It is best to get your oar in first by inviting the team to join you for a meal.

Foreigners often have difficulty with the policies and budgetary constraints of their employer when in the field.
You should always be generous in festive occasions even if it means eating into your own pocket.  To refuse to
pay for something or to be perceived as being cheap is an enormous insult to the Lao and could do your
relationship permanent damage.  If a senior provincial official has invited you to a dinner it is important to return the favour.  Informal occasions such as this are invaluable in terms of building the relationship and finding out
more about the real concerns of your provincial officials.

You may have to drink enormous amounts of alcohol when in the provinces particularly when visiting villages.
Women may retire from drink after initial rounds but this is not acceptable for men.   Remember that for the
villagers this may be the event of the century and it is important to join in the festivity.  There are a number of
ways of dealing with this situation assuming you are not alcoholic in which case you are in heaven.  You can raise your glass at each toast but not consume when you put the glass to your lips.  You can ditch the liquid in the nearest bush at an unobserved moment.  Or if cornered into actually consuming the alcohol you can take it in your mouth and look for an immediate opportunity to spit it out when unobserved.  As a final avoidance strategy, you can remove yourself from the line as your host approaches and you will escape the current round.

In the Lao drinking tradition, one person, usually the host, moves around the room offering a shot glass of
whiskey to each guest.  The server is obliged to drink first and must be witnessed by all those present.  As a guest of honour, you can also take over this important position.  The host will be delighted.  But be careful.  While making the rounds you will be asked by each guest to drink from the glass first.  You may decline and avert their attention by a joke.  The best approach is to say, "I'm not as strong as you.  I'm counting on you to hold up the village tradition."

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.

National Execution

More and more donors are moving to what is called "National Execution".  This means the Lao Government is
given full authority for the execution of a project funded by the donor to whom you are the advisor - not an
enviable position!  Some donors are taking back some of the responsibility for execution due to unsatisfactory
experience with implementation.  In retrospect, the donor community moved to national execution without
properly preparing the Lao Government and results have been mixed.  There has been a tendency to delay
implementation, to micro-manage and sometimes to engage in dysfunctional project management.

As an advisor, capitulation in every situation would not be right and would not be in the best interests of the
country.  But be careful when and how you challenge any national decision.  A national decision which may at
first appear questionable may have a worthy hidden purpose.  For example, sending someone you consider
inappropriate on an overseas mission may be a strategic measure to get the person out of country for important decisions in the ministry.  If you challenge this selection, you are doing the ministry a disservice and damaging
relations with your colleagues in the process.

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
incarnations for over 2000 years and will continue long after you have returned home.   Your contribution is a
drop in the ocean at most.  Be modest.  Be quiet, patient, and cool.  It just may be the Lao way is superior to yours.


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
group.  In order for your interpreter to be an asset, however, you must first develop a close and trusting
relationship.  You must impress upon your interpreter that his role is to translate faithfully, not to filter or to
substitute his or her own interpretation.  This may take considerable time and effort on your part.

Here are some tips in dealing with interpreters:

Rehearse interpretation sessions and make sure the interpreter grasps your meaning and that any ambiguities are dealt with.   Put your interpreters at ease and express confidence in them.  Explain that you don't mind their requesting clarification during interpretation.  If you have a speech or presentation material, give a copy to the interpreter well in advance and go over the document privately beforehand.  If possible, have an independent Lao person review any Lao text to ensure the correct meaning has been conveyed.

Hand out a Lao version of your text in advance or at the time of the encounter if at all possible.

Avoid colloquialisms, slang, jargon, culture-bound humour, and cultural references.

Break frequently to ensure the interpreter has not lost their train of thought.

Engage more than one interpreter for long sessions.

Speak slowly, especially when referring to numbers and where possible write the number on the board or flip chart to avoid misunderstanding.

Always address your remarks to the person you are talking to, not the interpreter.  It shows your respect for the other party.

Listen attentively to the response in Lao, even if you don't understand a word.

For a variety of reasons, your interpreter may not be accurate.  If there is evidence you are being
misunderstood, express your message a different way.

If you are negotiating a contract or covering technical ground, try to find a trained technical interpreter.

If you have colleagues in the audience, check with them during a break to see if the interpretation is accurate.  Ask questions that would reveal whether your message was understood.  One Western technical advisor spent half a day talking to 30 people who did not understand a word he was saying.  The interpreter was not technically competent, but the audience did not want him to lose face by pointing it out.  At lunch, the Westerner found out what was going on, thanks to a colleague.  The interpreter was told that he must have been very tired after the morning session, and that someone else was willing to help out.   The colleague took over for the afternoon.

Always have a de-briefing with your interpreter after a discussion to clarify responses you did not understand or agree with to ensure you understood what was said.

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
are also steady.  Westerners should keep in mind the famous children's story of the race between the tortoise
and the hare.  The slow and steady tortoise wins the race.  Tasks should be delegated in some detail and
overlapping responsibilities should be avoided because they could create difficulties for Lao colleagues.  Check with them often to ferret out any problems.  Lao staff are frequently reluctant to mention difficulties.  For Westerners, this means managing with a more hands-on approach than usual.  But that's in large part why you are here.

Be positive, patient, persistent, and always show goodwill.   Set reasonable tasks and go slowly.  Celebrate
accomplishments.  Maintain your personal integrity.  Be yourself but also show respect for and deference to the
Lao way.  When there is trust in the relationship most transgressions will be excused as, "Oh, that's just
another Westerner doing it their way again."

Resist the feeling you are being "taken" all of the time.  You may be reading more into the situation than is
actually there.  Try to find out more about the Lao agenda through a third person you trust.

It is important to "pick your spots."  By suggesting too many changes you may unnecessarily burden Lao staff.
Some changes may not be essential to what you want to achieve.  You may burn up good will and be unable to
influence things that really count later on.

If you are introducing changes based on your own country experience, explain clearly why your country values
doing things in certain ways.  Do this so that no one loses face.  Some foreign advisors have used proverbs and stories from Lao history and culture to rationalise management changes or new practices and procedures. People may be more inclined to accept a foreign perspective or innovation when it is explained in images that fit the Lao social reality.

The most successful projects are those that have a sound design and full participation on both sides from the
beginning.  It is crucial that everyone in the organisation is on-side and committed.   A project that is poorly
designed, or one the Lao never really wanted, will always be difficult to manage effectively.

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
decisions.  Unfortunately, this is general Lao practice.  People use meetings as opportunities to sleep and
day-dream and generally tune-out.  Those who attend are not expected to contribute or listen carefully.  This is a well-honed technique developed over many years of having to sit and suffer through political meetings, where the speaker at the front of the room drones on, without pausing for discussion.  Meetings like this could best be described as opportunities to demonstrate group harmony, take a group photo or have a social occasion afterwards.

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
beforehand.  There should be no surprises or new material introduced at such meetings.  Partners attending the meeting may not have the authority to commit to binding decisions and will be embarrassed or lose face if they are pressed to do so.

Do what can be done, informally, face-to-face preferably before an official meeting so that any problems or
decisions are worked out beforehand.  Meet in plenary only when necessary.  Take written notes and confirm with your counterparts that what you thought happened at the meeting really did happen.

The highest ranking person in your group should lead the way in, and be the spokesperson.  Do not make the
mistake of shaking hands with the interpreter first.

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
themselves about the suitability of the partner, and nurture the kind of interpersonal sensitivity, harmony, mutual obligation, and durability that ideally characterises all Lao relationships.  They learn much about their prospective partners from casual situations, such as a tea/coffee break or a long ride in the car to some meeting, where their guests are more relaxed and likely to reveal themselves.

Lao contracts are short, written in simple language, and focus on principles.  For the Lao, Western business
language is obtuse and legalistic.  The two conflicting perspectives are major obstacles when conducting business.  Lao people believe Westerners spend too much time negotiating details which, in the end, may prove irrelevant.  They view the contract as the starting point and have no inhibitions about putting demands on the "relationship" or suggesting changes later.  The terms and conditions of a specific contract are not necessarily binding because the contract applies more to the relationship.  If circumstances change, even long after the contract is signed and work has begun, the agreement may become meaningless.

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
relationship with your partners, they will help you navigate through the red tape to the best of their ability.
If you must break off negotiations, do so carefully.  Do not close the door on future cooperation.  Seeking legal
counsel is public admission that the relationship has failed.  You both lose face as a consequence.


Foreword | Lao PDR | Introduction | What is a Partnership? | Working with a Lao Partner

Understanding Lao Culture | Communication | Working Effectively with Your Lao Partner
Social Conventions and Protocol | Conclusions