Confrontation in the Philippines

Business Cultural Notes


Gandhi in the Philippines: Many Westerners are used to organizational cultures in which confrontation is the norm. In meetings, folks show their feelings, glare and gesticulate, criticize and even yell one another. But — hey, no hard feelings — they end up going out for a drink after work or watching a ball game together that weekend.

Not in the Philippines! A raised voice, the wrong intonation, the implication of incompetence, or excessive direct eye contact can do major damage. Although Mahatma Gandhi invented passive resistance in the fight for Indian independence, one might think it’s actually an indigenous Philippine phenomenon. Once you’re perceived as arrogant and pushy, you’re in interpersonal quicksand. Among the forms taken by passive resistance in this context: not returning phone calls, missing deadlines, misinterpreting instructions, failure to follow through. Most of the time you won’t even known what hit you until it’s too late.

The Philippine Business as Family: The family is always of vital importance in the Philippines; not surprisingly, most business organizations are modeled on the Filipino family. The boss and subordinate often exist in a bata relationship, basically like that between parent and child (bata literally meaning “child”). As a consequence, paternalistic management styles are the norm.

Further, the Spanish compradzago system, with its dense networks of godparents and other quasi-relatives, affects most business settings. The Filipino family is defined quite broadly, and includes many people who are called “uncle” (Tito), “auntie” (Tita), and “cousin” (Pinsan), even though they are not related by blood. In many companies, a good proportion of employees fall into this category, which means they are not likely to be fired for inefficiency unless they really make a mess of things. In larger corporations, the nepotism may devolve to the departmental level and may be less salient, but it probably still exists.

As you might expect, such a paternalistic and hierarchical management structure implies that decision making in most organizations is done at the top. And unless you have some excellent inside connections or referrals, your initial contacts are not likely to be with the decision-maker. Getting to someone who can and will act on a proposal (i.e., sign a contract, write a check) often has be done through one or more gatekeepers, a process that can take a seeming eternity. However, once you finally push your way through to the top, the gears can shift quickly and deals completed at warp speed.

Filipino Business Norms, Etiquette and Style
From Pearl of the Orient Seas, 1999, Clarence Henderson
Henderson Consulting International, Manila, Philippines

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