Building team culture in Vietnam

by Rita Nguyen

Since returning to Vietnam I seem to be having the same discussion with everyone about staffing in Vietnam. So many of the expat leaders I talk to have the same complaints about their Vietnamese staff. “They” are too lazy, irrational, incompetent, etc, etc. It was the same as when I first moved to VN 2 years ago to join a tech start up, I was told over and over that building a flexible, relaxed tech culture was not possible here. There were all kinds of excuses given as to why Vietnamese organizations looked more like a daycare (complete with lunch ordering and nap time) than a company filled with high-functioning adults.

I call bullshit.

I guess that one of the biggest issues right off the start is that so many expats I met just didn’t believe there were enough high-functioning adults in the country. And while, I have seen and heard enough to know that there’s certainly some justification to this, I do have a problem painting everyone with that same brush. In many cases, we are talking about a lack of training and expectations, versus stupidity or an unwillingness to learn. As a matter of fact, I would argue that there are far too many expats in the country who are not nearly as experienced as they would like to have everyone believe, especially when it comes to leadership and management.

The reality is that in Vietnam we have creative directors who were graphic designers in their home countries or restaurant managers who used to fry chicken wings. Without having any foundation of management skills, the default MO seems to be to fall into line with what everyone else is doing – usually this means micro-management, lots of yelling and bitching. Has it ever occurred to these managers that they failed in the first rule of management: be clear on your expectations right off the top. One of the first conversations I ever have with a new staff member goes something like this: “I hired you because I think you’ll be great at this job and will be a fit with the team. That means that I will treat you as an adult and help you however I can to set you up for success in this role and for your future. In return, you will act like an adult. So you’re welcome to come and go as you please however you will meet your commitments and do your job. If you have a meeting, you will be on time and 100% there. No answering the phone, no texting, no Skyping. If you have a deadline, you will meet it. If you can’t or don’t know what to do, you will talk to me about it BEFORE that deadline, not 2 days after. Capiche?” I will usually go on with a few more specifics of the job, but you get the general idea.

Let’s be clear, I don’t believe that everyone in Vietnam would shine in this kind of culture but then I’d say the same for the US or Canada. That’s why unions exist. However, my underlying logic is this: despite all the apparent differences between the cultures, humans all have the same basic needs. My friend Chris explained it best: All humans have the same fundamental needs but the “culture” layer refracts this into different patterns, much like sunlight through a prism. That being the case, it stands to reason that people in Vietnam would also value being treated with respect, understanding and frankly, like they aren’t the fat kid picked last in a ball game.

Having worked here for the past 2 years, I’ve come across countless young Vietnamese who have the same brains, ambition and drive as their counterparts in the Silicon Valley. There are a particular few who shine brighter than many I’ve worked with in North America or Europe and those are the guys who continue to give me hope for Vietnam.

I know that many who read this may find me too idealistic, which is kind of funny since no one who knows me would accuse me of being a kind or empathetic person. So while you may dismiss this view point as unrealistic, first ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to help your staff meet your expectations as opposed to bitching about how they’re failing you.

One final point, my basic management style holds true for all levels of the organization. Even my personal maid and I have a strong working relationship. She knows what she needs to do, I stay out of her way and she lets me know if she runs into any hiccups. Yeah, we still have regressive moments but they are pretty far and few between these days. And remember, a little patience and a few deep breaths go a long way when dealing with staffing issues, wherever in the world they may reside.

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