Theravada Buddhism and the workplace
How religious traditions can have an effect on a work environment
One factor leading to success that is constantly brought up in the academic literature on expatriates is the need to understand the culture environment one is working in. This would also seem to apply to those of us working in international education. An often overlooked source of cultural values comes from religious traditions, and these values are found throughout society and the workplace even as religion takes a less central role in many people's lives in our modern societies.
Christian values play a role in shaping working environments in Western countries (Anderson et al. 2000; Cornwell et al. 2005; Vinten 2000). Islamic values influence the business, economic, educational and political environments in countries with majority Muslim populations (Abbasi et al. 1989; Ali and Al-Owaihan 2008). Confucian values have been associated with work practices in ethnic Chinese firms (Wang 2004; Yan and Sorenson 2004). Along these lines, it would appear Theravada Buddhism values and philosophy shape many features of secular life in Thailand, including work and study practices found in schools..
In my latest book, Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Theravada Buddhist Countries, Routledge Publishing, I proposed the influence of Theravada Buddhism encourages the creation of the following four features in workplaces in Southeast Asian countries where Theravada Buddhism is the principal religion: (1) hierarchical, but paternalistic in nature; (2) flexibility; (3) an internal locus of control; and (4) moderation and taking the middle path.
Many scholars and observers have found the belief in karma as well as other core Buddhist values create a relatively higher acceptance of a social hierarchy (Jackson, 2003; Kaw, 2005; King ,1964: 64, 231; Stuart-Fox, 2002: 10). This acceptance of the existing social hierarchy can be difficult for foreigners to adjust to, especially those of us from Western societies where egalitarianism is more highly prized. It is not unusual for Western teachers to have troubled professional relationships with their Thai bosses at work and at least some of these conflicts probably come from having different viewpoints over how relationships between superiors and subordinates should be handled. On the other hand, Theravada Buddhist values and tradition indicate responsibility comes with a higher position in society. Therefore while the primary leadership style in Thailand is less democratic than what is found in Anglo-American cultures, it would not really be fair to call the style autocratic. Instead we see a very paternalistic style of leadership in much of Thailand where leaders are not expected to be directly challenged by subordinates, but where leaders are also expected to look after the best interests of those they feel responsible for.
Another common source of friction for teachers working in Thailand is the perceived lack of detailed planning. In order to create detailed plans, one needs to feel fairly confident of being able to predict the future. However a core feature of Theravada Buddhism is the acceptance of impermanence and the constantly changing nature of all things. Buddhists believe, "The whole kosmos - earth, and heavens, and hells - is always tending to renovation or destruction; is always in a course of change, a series of revolutions, or of cycles, of which the beginning and the end alike are un-knowable and unknown" (Davids,1894: 88). Therefore, it is not surprising Thais are generally quite comfortable with ambiguity about the future and sometimes replace detailed planning with flexibility. If the key thing one believes about the future is it will be different from the present, detailed planning will take on less of a priority. Thais often feel confident that the job will get done, even if not yet completely sure how it will get done.
Theravada Buddhism's concept of karma leads one to believe, to some extent, one's fate, has already been decided and one has little control over the future. Which differs from a core value in many Western societies where having free will and controlling one's own destiny is taught. However, Theravada Buddhism also teaches individuals have some level of free will as well being a slave to one's karma. King (1964: 19) explains this Buddhist belief "to a great extent my present existence is filled with and determined by my past, yet each moment is new and contains ele¬ments of freedom with that newness." Also, popular, not doctrinal Buddhism, as practiced by the majority of the population in the region places a heavy emphasis on the influence of supernatural spirits on day to day activities and successes and failures. Much of what one does on the job depends to a great extent on one's expectations of the outcomes. If an individual has an internal locus of control and feels his or her efforts will have an impact, that individual is more likely to work towards change. On the other hand, if one thinks that fate, karma, supernatural sprits and other factors the individual can not control play an important role in the outcome (an external locus of control), one is less likely to try to force major changes by his or her own efforts. I can not count the number of times while teaching at a Thai university seeing, on the morning of a major exam, students lined up to make offerings at the school's shrine in order to help them have success on the exam. While I am thinking, with my Western internal locus of control worldview, a better use of their time would be in hitting the books. A clear demonstration of a cultural difference in views about locus of control.
While debatable, a case could be made that the core Buddhist belief that has the most impact on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people living in Thailand is the teaching of the "middle path" and the avoidance of extremes. Although this concept originally came from the Buddha's teachings to his followers to avoid both "the extremes of an austere asceticism and a spirit of worldliness" (Saunder 1922: 37) in order to reach enlightenment, the concept also has application in secular life. In daily life, the middle path means to be serious in one's work and studies, but not too serious, and to ensure one also enjoys one's life. It means one should be virtuous, but one does not have to be without sin. This may be shown by Thai students rarely having the single-minded devotion to studying one might find more often in Confucian inspired East Asian countries, but that does not indicate Thais do not value education. It could be speculated that spectacular success, and failure, comes from going to extremes. On the other hand following the middle path may lead to better mental health and more happiness. A cultural trade-off one should not think is automatically inferior.
As always, when referring to cultures of entire nations it is important to be aware of the limitations. Obvious not every Thai fits the cultural stereotype presented here. Thais, like Americans, Germans, and others, are all individuals with their own personal beliefs and quirks. However, culture does matter and in "general" Thai culture and religious values will result in Thais having some distinctly different work practices than do individuals from other countries.
In no way should this be considered a criticism of Thai culture. Different does not have to be better or worse. Acknowledging cultural differences does not have to imply any culture is superior to another. It is true some foreigners adapt to working in Thailand better than others, but this has do with the flexibility of the individual and has nothing to do with the value of Thai culture. If Thai culture is measured against the benchmark of one's own culture, naturally, as it is different, it will never measure up. On the other hand, examining the culture and the effect of this culture on the work environment in a non-judgmental manner can help individuals become more successful and enjoy their work in Thailand to a greater extent.
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Wang, M.C. (2004) ‘Greater China: Powerhouse of East Asian regional cooperation', East Asia, 21 (4): 38-63.
Yan, J. and Sorenson, R.L. (2004) ‘The Influence of Confucian ideology on conflict in Chinese family business', International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 4 (1): 5-17.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.