In an attempt to boost Thailand's prospects in the world marketplace, the country's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has emphasized re-invigorating the Thai economy. In 2003, the Thaksin government even enlisted Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, a competitiveness guru, to advise Thailand on improving its ability to win business in the global economy. Since then, Thailand has made some progress; it now ranks 29th in the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) worldwide competitiveness ranking.
One of the major challenges in building a more competitive economy is creating a significant human-capital advantage. This is key to Thailand's "becoming a knowledge-based nation" -- a stated goal of the Thaksin government. Achieving this goal requires several important initiatives, including increasing employee productivity, improving employee contributions to profitability, and enhancing how workers are selected and developed and how their talents are used. In effect, the task is to significantly raise the level of engagement and commitment among employees who work in Thailand's many public- and private-sector enterprises.
But if the Thaksin government is counting on Thai employees to fuel a vibrant, progressive economy, it should be forewarned that these efforts may remain stuck in neutral, especially if employee engagement remains at its present levels. A recent Gallup Employee Engagement Index survey in Thailand revealed that "engaged" employees -- a company's most committed and productive workers -- make up only 12% of Thailand's employee population.
In sharp contrast, the overwhelming majority of workers -- 88% -- are not engaged or actively disengaged from their work. While the percentage of "actively disengaged" employees (the disenchanted and disaffected who are often vocal about their negative attitudes toward their work and employer) is only 6%, the percentage of "not engaged" employees -- those who aren't really negative, but aren't really positive, either -- is significant: 82%. (See graphic "The Three Types of Employees.")
Not surprisingly, disengagement has a big impact on the Thai economy. Gallup Organization experts estimate that the lower productivity of disengaged workers costs the Thai economy as much as 98.8 billion Thai baht ($2.5 billion U.S.) each year.
Benchmarking against the global workplace
How does the level of employee engagement in Thailand compare to that of other countries where Gallup has conducted surveys? The percentage of employees who are engaged ranges from 29% in the United States to 9% in Japan and Singapore; the percentage of actively disengaged employees ranges from a low of just 6% in Thailand to a high of 31% in France. Only Singapore, however, matches Thailand's level of not-engaged employees (also 82%); these levels are 15 percentage points higher than in Japan, where the percentage of not-engaged employees is 67%. (See graphic "Engagement Index by Country: Asia/Pacific Region" and "Disengaged Employees Cost Singapore $4.9 Billion" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
With a base of engaged employees to build on, however, Thailand could well enhance its competitiveness -- both within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region and worldwide. And boosting employee engagement among not-engaged employees is a good place to start.
But how can Thailand create and sustain the momentum for building engagement? Gallup's research into employee behavior in that country offers some key insights.
Managing for change
Managers must play a key role in the change process. Gallup research shows that managers who engage their employees also significantly enhance their workgroups' success. This remains true whether such business success is measured through sales, revenues, or outcomes, such as reduced turnover and enhanced productivity.
But the real agent of change is, and must be, the employee. The term "employee engagement" suggests that employees willingly contribute their energy and ideas, perform at consistently high levels, and are passionately committed to moving their company forward.
For Thai managers, improving employee engagement is a significant challenge. Thai workplaces have historically followed a traditional production model: a "top-down" or hierarchical system in which managers treat employees as tools to carry out assigned work. But as Thailand moves toward a knowledge-based economy, the management emphasis must shift from seeing employees as cogs in a machine to enlisting workers as active contributors.
The manager's toolkit
Gallup's research has uncovered strategies that will be crucial to Thai managers' success. Indeed, Gallup has found that 12 key employee expectations form the basis of employee engagement. (See graphic "The 12 Elements of Great Managing.") These 12 items show linkages to a variety of business outcomes, including retention, customer engagement, safety, and productivity. For Thai managers who want to boost engagement in their workgroups, focusing on the following areas is a good place to start:
- Set clear expectations. According to Gallup research, "knowing what is expected" is one of an employee's most basic needs. Employees cannot hope to perform their roles acceptably -- let alone at excellence -- if they don't know what they're supposed to be doing. Yet, according to the Gallup survey, only 1 in 5 Thai employees can strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work.
To counteract this, Thai managers must pay greater attention to communicating expectations to employees. The first step is for managers to meet with workers to set key performance indicators for their roles, then actively partner with them to set realistic, achievable goals. Once these expectations are set, managers should check in regularly with employees to review performance and to guide employees in the pursuit of their goals. (See "The First Element of Great Managing" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
- Demonstrate a sense of caring. Great managers genuinely care about the people with whom they work. They treat employees as individuals and help them see the connections between the work they do every day and the organization's mission and business results. But few Thai employees (1 in 5) strongly agree that there is someone at work who cares about them. The situation is worst for government officers: Only 1 in 10 feel cared for in their workplace.
This seems surprising, because traditional Thai values, such as bunkhun (which, broadly stated, means kindness and care, or reciprocity) are deeply embedded in the culture of many organizations, whether private or public, Thai or multinational. Employees, however, crave more from managers than acts of kindness; they want managers to contribute to their professional lives and "set them up for success" by motivating, encouraging, and promoting them based on their talent and contribution to the workplace. (See "The Fifth Element of Great Managing" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
- Help employees realize their potential. About a third of Thai employees feel that they have an opportunity to do what they do best each day at work. This is a solid percentage, considering that few employees know what is expected of them at work or feel that someone at work cares about them.
Managers can help more employees do what they do best by nurturing their development. Traditionally, most managers (in Thailand and elsewhere) have focused on fixing people's weaknesses. Gallup's research shows that employees are most productive when their managers help them discover and develop their talents while providing support, guidance, and partnership to help them manage their weaknesses. (See "The Third Element of Great Managing" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
According to the Employee Engagement Index survey, about half of the employees in Thailand report that they have a "best friend" at work, while more than a third feel that their organization's mission or purpose makes them feel their job is important. These two survey items are strong indicators of the strength of teamwork in the workplace.
High levels of teamwork are perhaps unique to the cultural ethos of Thai workplaces, which include values such as greang jai (which, in broad terms, refers to an attitude in which individuals restrain their own interests or desires in an effort to benefit others, even at the cost of their own discomfort). Strong friendships with coworkers could help mitigate the effects of an unsupportive manager. However, they could also lead to an unspoken but profound "us versus them" mindset that could polarize managers and employees.
Successfully bridging the gap between the workplace realities of today's Thailand and the demands of growing Thailand's economy will require more than the collective leadership acumen and vision of government leaders and their advisors. As Thailand moves forward, corporate leaders, managers, and employees will share the responsibility for making the dreams and aspirations of a nation real. Thailand's success -- or failure -- in moving to a knowledge-based economy will depend on whether its employees can rise to the challenge and become active participants and co-creators in building the country's economic growth.
Results of this survey on perceptions about work life in Thailand are based on a nationally representative sample of 1,600 Thai citizens and permanent residents between the ages of 18 and 65 who are currently employed full time. This Gallup Poll was conducted using in-person interviews in November 2004. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be ±3 percentage points. For findings based on sub-groups, the sampling error would be greater.