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Thursday, June 3, 2010

We Malaysians are hard workers – the figures say so. But are we productive workers?


THERE once was a Very Important Person who was touring the construction site of his new office. At one point, he was shown a wall adorned with beautiful carvings. The architect explained how much time a skilled artisan had spent on it, and how unique it was. At the end of it all, the Important Person agreed it was nice, but glibly commented that it was a shame it blocked the view of a beautiful landscape behind it.

Two weeks later, the architect ordered the wall to be pulled down. I would have hated to be the craftsman who put in all those hours.

So, how many hours did you work last week? I would guess it would have been somewhere between 40 and 50 hours.

Now, how many of those hours was work you had to do because you chose to do so? Be honest. Perhaps you left the office late because a meeting chaired by an inept manager overran. Or it was work that magically appeared because of a last-minute decision made by somebody upstairs. Or maybe you completed a task according to the unclear instructions given even though you felt they were wrong – only to have to re-do the work because, hey, the instructions were wrong!

Well, if so, I would say that you are the one at fault for all that extra work you had to do.

Before I explain myself, let me first just say that I think that Malaysians probably work harder than many other people.

A study commissioned last year by global financial services company UBS AG compared prices and earnings in cities across the world

First off, although KL-ites are not the hardest working people in the world, as measured by hours of work a year, we are up there. The study reports people in KL work an average of slightly more than 39 hours per week.

Although Singaporeans are slightly higher (40 hours per week), we definitely put in more time than those in New York (less then 38 hours per week), London (34 hours per week) and, surprisingly, even slightly more than people in Tokyo (38 hours per week).

If you’re Parisian, you only spend 30 hours a week at work – that’s six hours per day on average!

This supports a conversation I once overheard in Provence, France. When a Frenchman was asked how hard it was to run a vineyard, he claimed to only need three days a week. What did he do the rest of the time? Indulged in the famous Gallic pastimes of eating, drinking, and shrugging shoulders with his friends, of course.

The pressing question gleaned from these statistics should be this: why is it that nations with a higher per capita GDP are able to be more productive even though they work less hours? Or, to put it another way: Going by an eight-hour work day, why is it Malaysians need to work for six and a half days to be able to buy an iPod Nano, whereas Parisians need only about two days to afford it?

My hypothesis is that is has a lot to do with culture. Think back over all those extra hours that you spent at work. How much of it was unproductive because of bad decisions made by upper-level management?

How many times have you thought, “My boss is an idiot”? And then followed it with, “Well, I’ll do the work anyway, it’s his decision”.

The truth is that Malaysians respect their elders and bosses and rarely argue with them. In sociological terms, we have a high Power-Distance Index (PDI). The PDI is an indicator of how much the less powerful members of an organisation expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. It shows how often we let the boss think he is right – even when we know he’s wrong.

The PDI for Britain is 35, and for the United States is 40. These are low values, which means subordinates are more likely to openly debate with and contradict their superiors. France is higher, at 68. Malaysia on the other hand, literally tops a table of 66 countries at a whopping 104. We’re higher than Libya (80) or Nigeria (77). (Figures available at

So, according to this, Malaysians are more likely to accept poor decisions made by those in authority (including Nigerian princes that e-mail you asking to use your bank accounts). “We just do-lah.... Datuk said already, what.”

This is a problem that expands out of the meeting room into everyday bureaucratic and administrative issues. Authority and power is concentrated in small pockets near the top of a pyramid. Because of a missing Tan Sri, an entire company can grind to a halt.

All those hours at work, just wasted away because nobody likes to argue with his or her boss.

Yet the PDI is about perception from the base, not the view from the top. The power to change this index comes from you, the individual.

When it looks like a dumb headed decision is about to be made, instead of agreeing, how about stepping up, and contradicting our PDI rating.

We Malaysians even have a tool to do this: the tactful disagreement. Any time in a meeting you hear something that makes you want to say, “no, but...”, say instead, “yes, and...”. As in, “Yes, I agree it’s a beautiful view, and that’s why we made sure your office opens out to it, let me show it to you.”

This is not to say that a high PDI is necessarily a bad thing (we are more peaceful than Libya and Nigeria...), but we need to recognise the weaknesses in this, too. Our propensity to nod in agreement even when we think otherwise may maintain harmony and peace, but at a great cost.

So stand up and challenge the status quo – if only so you can go back home early.

> Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make the best out of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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