Cross Cultural Management Guide – Sri Lanka


What will you Learn in this Guide?

In this guide, expatriate managers will gain an understanding of a number of key cross- cultural areas when working in Sri Lanka:

  • Hierarchy
  • Leadership style
  • Time and scheduling 
  • Communication style and; 
  • Negotiation style 


Gain an Expert Understanding:

Once you've read this guide, ensure the success of your Sri Lanka business venture by: 

  • Taking part in a two-hour live webinar, customised to meet your unique needs, with one of our Sri Lanka country and culture training experts or;
  • Contacting us in respect to our Sri Lanka consultancy services

Management in Sri Lanka

The business set up in Sri Lanka is very formal and intercultural management will be more successful if you maintain a degree of formality at all times.

  • Although the caste system no longer exists, hierarchical structure remains extremely important. This is a country where rank has its privilege. Defer to those in senior positions and treat them with dignity and respect. Never do anything to make a business colleague appear less in the eyes of others. Status is important and it is a good idea to seek situations where you can flatter your colleagues.
  • Patience will be a necessary cross cultural attribute. Things generally take longer than expected. The government is often consulted when making decisions, which adds additional layers of bureaucracy to the process. It may take several meetings to accomplish what could be handled by a telephone call in your home country.


The Role of a Manager

Cross cultural communication will be more effective when managing in Sri Lanka, if you keep it in mind that each person has a very distinct role within the organization.

  • People believe that their supervisors have been chosen because they have more experience than those they manage, and it is, therefore, unnecessary, and even inappropriate for them to consult with lower-ranking individuals when decision-making.
  • In Sri Lanka, as in other hierarchical societies, managers may take a somewhat paternalistic attitude to their employees.
  • They may demonstrate a concern for employees that goes beyond the workplace and strictly professional concerns.This may include involvement in their family, housing, health, and other practical life issues.
  • Since Sri Lanka is a hierarchical country where the caste system has left its mark, in general, managers speak kindly to employees, although they may also at times publicly berate them. This is not a behavior an expatriate manager should emulate.
  • The manager or boss is considered the ultimate authority and is to be treated with respect and deference. At the same time, the manager is expected to show paternalistic concern for his employees. Employees do not challenge the boss, even if they know he is wrong.


Approach to Change

Sri Lanka’s intercultural adaptability and readiness for change is developing all the time. Sri Lanka is seen to have a medium tolerance for change and risk. It is important for innovations to have a track record or history noting the benefits if they are to be accepted and implemented.

  • The fear of exposure, and the potential of embarrassment that may accompany failure, brings about aversion to. Because of this attitude, intercultural sensitivity is going to be required, especially when conducting group meetings and discussing contributions made my participating individuals.


Approach to Time and Priorities

Deadlines and timescales are fluid in Sri Lanka. Patience will play an essential part in successful cross cultural management.

  • While timescales and deadlines need to be set well in advance and reiterated carefully, it should be understood that these will be viewed as flexible.
  • Successful cross cultural management may require some degree of patience.
  • Global and intercultural expansion means that some managers may have a greater appreciation of the need to enforce timescales and as such, agreed deadlines are more likely to be met.


Decision Making

  • Decisions are made by those in a senior position within the company. Expect, therefore, for the decision making process to be prolonged whilst the decision making cycle plays out.
  • Don’t expect junior members of staff to be able to make decisions. Putting them on the spot and trying to push them towards a decision will lose both you, and them, face. Instead, be patient and build the decision-making process into your plans.


Boss or Team Player?

If you are working in Sri Lanka, intercultural sensitivity is needed and it is important to remember that honor and reputation play an important role. If you would like to encourage participation it is important first to clearly establish a non-threatening work environment.

  • It is important to qualify ideas that are raised in a gentle manner, protecting the reputation of those bringing up ideas, so no one is shamed.


Communication and Negotiation Styles

Personal relationships are crucial to conducting business. Relationships are based on respect and trust. You will need patience, perseverance and persistence.

  • The first meeting is often used to get to know you.
  • Do not expect any business to be resolved.
  • Decision making is a slow process. It is often difficult to determine who the actual decision maker is.
  • Expect it to take several meetings to accomplish what could be handled at home in one meeting.
  • Sri Lankans are very indirect communicators, which means that much of their meaning is wrapped up in the context of the situation. They do not always say what they mean, instead, they may communicate meaning in the use of body gestures, silence and in what they don’t say.
  • To avoid conflict, you may find that your Sri Lankan counterpart avoids telling you the truth. They may instead say what you want them to hear, which can cause considerable confusion to people who are not used to this style of communication.
  • It’s important that you don’t interpret ‘yes’ as yes, without first probing the matter further, using open questions and presenting them in different ways. Ensure your questions don’t cause someone to feel that they have been put on the spot.
  • You are unlikely to ever hear your Sri Lankan counterpart shout. Showing anger in this way is liable to cause them a loss of face. As such, messages are communicated subtly, and anger is often hidden.

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