Taiwanese Work Culture: Four Key Cultural Differences to Look Out For
It is common for foreign professionals to face some obstacles when adjusting to local workplace culture. Whether you are beginning a new job in a Taiwanese company, starting your own company, or simply engaging with businesses in Taiwan on a professional level, this article aims to explain four of the most common cultural distinctions that define a Taiwanese workplace.
Workplaces in different cultures are uniquely nuanced in the ways they communicate feedback—positive or negative. What stands out in a Taiwanese workplace? Non-confrontation.
Taiwan is a non-confrontational culture, so a direct and opinionated approach may fall short with colleagues and management. Negative comments or criticisms between colleagues, particularly between a manager and subordinates, can be awkward and embarrassing for everyone involved. Avoid giving negative feedback in front of a large group of people at all costs. This is where the concept of “face” is especially important, and any interaction that results in a colleague or business partner losing face can irreversibly damage relations.
This cultural nuance requires that an individual have a firm grasp of the context in which things are said: be sensitive to your tone, your words, and your seniority. For instance, criticism of others, however constructive, is a major faux-pas in team meetings in Taiwan. This can easily be misconstrued as an attempt to humiliate a colleague in front of the rest of the team and draw positive attention to yourself. However, praise in front of a large group of people is certainly welcomed.
You will more often experience criticism or feedback being expressed via text or email. While this can be a means to avoid confrontation in the short term, it is recommended that a face-to-face discussion is arranged ASAP in order to avoid potential longer-term misunderstandings. Tersely written arguments can be interpreted in a different way than intended, so it is in your interest to clearly communicate feedback or criticism in person. Furthermore, in-person communication provides you the platform to explain again (and again!) if you can see there is a misunderstanding.
Intimately related to the above concept of “face” is the notion of hierarchy within a workplace—your position and the relative position of the individual you are communicating with determines how a message is received.
If you are part of a local team, it is important to understand that if someone senior to you gives you a task, you are expected to carry out the task exactly as instructed. Another common misstep that foreign professionals in Taiwan are prone to is sharing an opinion or suggestion for improvement to a line manager. If you do this too early in your relationship, it could be interpreted as criticism or even arrogance.
Seniority is to be respected and abided by. In addition, when hierarchical systems are present in a workplace, it can cause an employee to feel that they are being micromanaged, or that obedience is expected above all else. Thus, keeping a strong and even personal relationship with your boss is key to long-term success within a company—it is important to give the impression that you are an ally.
On the other hand, if you are doing business with a Taiwanese company, it is in your best interest to find the person who can make executive decisions, as it may feel like communicating with someone lower down the hierarchy can delay communication. Establish a connection, or guanxi, with someone who has the power to make decisions as soon as possible.
Echoing the point made above about being liked by your boss, establishing deeper connections will contribute to longer-term professional success. Guanxi loosely translates as personal connections, relationships, or social networks. Having good, bad, or no guanxi impacts one’s influence and ability to get things done.
Being liked by all levels of a hierarchy will help you succeed. Although this point can be applied universally, in Taiwan it is especially true that a feel-good personal relationship can blossom into a fruitful professional relationship. This is not to say that you have to become close friends with all of your colleagues, but showing interest in their personal lives and building rapport is an excellent way to cultivate trust.
Take some time to get to know your colleagues around you—you may notice quite personal questions being asked of you, but this is an indication that someone wants to establish deeper guanxi. Try to avoid gossip and controversial topics when you can, as impressions and reputations travel far and especially fast. Offering gifts is a common part of showing appreciation and respect to your colleagues, so prepare to bring something back if you go on a trip or a vacation.
Structure over Flexibility
During the pandemic, it has become increasingly apparent that some established practices in Taiwanese work culture have been slow to change and are quite conservative compared to many companies globally. One such aspect is a lack of flexibility in work culture, and managers are often unable to trust their employees to work effectively from home, or according to their own patterns and methods. Seen another way, Taiwanese work culture can be seen as being entrenched in a culture of presenteeism, which means that employees must show up for 8 hours in the office (or more!) in order to be recognized for their efforts. This is one major adjustment that foreign professionals in Taiwan must adapt to. Productivity is measured in hours that one is present and supervised, and the prevalence of KPIs as a common performance metric is a reflection of this. As such, employee output and capability can sometimes be skewed by physical attendance. Consequently, such work practices can seem outdated, and one should not expect an open space in which your suggestions for better work-life balance will be welcomed.
Conversely, if you are aiming to start your own company and retain top talent, it may be a good idea to offer a flexible work culture that suits each individual’s desired work-life balance—consider work-from-home days and encourage workplace discussions on how to foster a collaborative work environment. Of course, there are many ways to organize a work culture, but the key consideration is the employee’s wellbeing. If that is taken care of, creativity and productivity naturally follow.
Written by Daniel Miller, co-founder of All Hands Taiwan and Taiwan Manager for Pagoda Projects.