What’s Holding Indonesians Back? Themselves.
18 min read

Many fellow Indonesians are smart, creative and good at heart; however, this is not necessarily how we are perceived.

In a work session with professionals from diverse backgrounds, I was confronted with a question – “What did you think of our team in Jakarta?” To give a bit of context, the work session was in Amsterdam, as part of a global project where Indonesia is one of the key markets along with other Asian and European markets.

I found myself struggling to answer the question, needing to take more time than usual to form a response. As all eyes were on me, I carefully crafted a sentence: “I’m sure they are good, but I wouldn’t be able to really tell as they didn’t say a word the entire day during the meeting.” That brief moment of reflection has brought me to systematically realize that it is true that many fellow Indonesians are smart, creative and good at heart; however, this is not necessarily how we are perceived. And what a pity that is. In a work environment, where everyone needs to shine, or at least demonstrate their relevance, we simply need to deliver. There are seven things that I have observed that are holding back many Indonesians from success.

External factors

More often than not, Indonesians count heavily on external factors in dealing with life. We thank God for our achievements and blame nature or circumstances when we are unable to keep our commitments, instead of giving ourselves credit when good things happen or taking the responsibility for the bad.

Monday morning is a classic example, when many employees arrive late to the office and the number of employees calling in sick goes up. We all experience the Monday morning sickness, or masuk angin, when the body is a little slow after a relaxing weekend. Despite understanding that this issue will always exist and we need a strategy to deal with it – for example, an early night on Sunday or getting up early on Monday – we do not anticipate it and therefore our Monday tardiness or absence becomes a pattern. Our dependence on the higher order, believing that “it will all be fine,” hinders us from focusing on our internal abilities to identify an issue and find a strategy to deal that issue. It is a pity, not because we should not believe that things will be fine, but because by doing so, we do not teach ourselves to avoid familiar issues or anticipate potential problems.

Working in an international environment, where people tend to plan, find a strategy to deal with issues or develop a system to make things work, has made me realize that this inability to anticipate and plan may be seen as incompetence. We Indonesians seem like an army of doers (those who need to be told what to do) rather than thinkers or leaders (those who take the initiative and action). This may cause people from other cultures to underestimate our competence.

The race to mediocrity

It is not said, but done. Indonesians do not want to fight to be the best or to be the first or to be the most. We are a culture where everyone is comfortable to be the average Joe. On one hand, it makes us noncompetitive, and, even better, we genuinely care about not taking credit from someone else’s work or achievement. We do not claim what is not ours, and whenever possible, we give way to other people to shine. Almost altruistic.

The trap is, though, without realizing, we often hide. We hide from speaking our minds because we don’t want to stick our heads up. We hide from our own abilities to excel. We do not want to be the person in charge, as this can mean too much responsibility or invite jealousy from others. We like to swim among with the mediocrity of the group, so we do not expose ourselves. The manifestation of this is seen in the classroom. Indonesian classrooms are very quiet, with not many students raising their hands when invited to answer questions. It is rare to see students who raise their hands for every question, as we prefer to keep our thoughts to ourselves.

When it comes to the workplace, this attitude persists. Take Tina, a talented statistician in a research company. Although capable of running challenging projects, and actually enjoying the work, she never expresses herself to her boss. After a few projects, her boss identifies that she is really good at her job and tabs her for promotion. Her boss proposes the promotion idea to Tina and is expecting that she will be excited about the opportunity. On the contrary, when receiving the news, Tina is shy and responds that there is no rush for her to go to the next level.

For Tina, being discreet about her above-average competence is about managing risks – the risk of being given too much responsibility by her superior or the risk of being judged by her peers for being too confident or arrogant. This attitude – the race to mediocrity – is not efficient for the company and slows its growth. It is also not beneficial for Tina because she slows her own growth for the wrong reasons. Tina needs to be brave and trust that she can handle more responsibility. This way, she can motivate others to grow and she will be part of the growth of the company. For more of us to grow, we need fewer of us participate in the race to mediocrity. There is no need to make unreasonable claims or to be overly competitive, and probably there is no need to be the best, but there is certainly a need to grow and be better. And for that purpose, let us accept that we are not all the same in our capabilities, and there is nothing wrong if we are better than others at certain things, as they are better at other things.

Go with the flow

It is a tendency to take things as they come. Indonesian is not a culture of anticipation or planning. As the sun shines for 365 days, if not 366, we like to leave it to “God” or “nature,” and the line between what is under our control versus what is outside of our control becomes blurry.

If we look at the Indonesian education system, there is little training of structured thinking. There is very little focus on performing research and collecting data to compose arguments. As a consequence, we are often unable to give structured answers to questions. As far as I have observed, Indonesians stop at the first layer of an answer, and then when further pressed, “Have you thought about this?” or “Have you done this?” the response is often silence. Because the truth is, the thoughts or solutions have not been exhausted. This also impacts the way we think about our own actions. As an illustration, when a boss asks, “What happened with the task I asked you to do yesterday?” Rather than explain what happened, such as, “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to complete it, and I have some questions I need to ask you, and right after that I can complete it,” many Indonesian just start to speak without thinking. For example, “Oh, yes” – a hanging answer with a thousand meanings and one hope, that no further questions will be asked.

The inability to think in a simple structure – what happened, what have I done, what needs to be done now, and how do I communicate this – has led Indonesians to an unstructured way of operating. We often do things as we feel, we forget to prioritize, and that may lead to further issues. As much as this strategy of going with the flow, say what may come, works within the Indonesian context, it is not acceptable in many other cultures. Answering without facts, structured thinking or arguments leads to the perception of Indonesians being incompetent or unprofessional. People from other cultures need a coherent answer to a question because it gives them a sense of control. To understand what has happened and what needs to be done lets them anticipate what is coming. By giving an incomplete answer, we mess up their sense of understanding and control, and this is often frustrating. In many cases, it is actually quite simple – understand what happens, what has been done, what now needs to be done, and communicate this accordingly. This will set a standard that speaks to most cultures.


In this section, there are three terms that are used interchangeably:

inertia – the tendency to stay in a comfort zone; comfort zone – the known areas that make us feel comfortable; and mager – a colloquial Indonesian term that means too lazy to move. This cultural phenomenon of “being too lazy to move” manifests in our attitude, behavior and way of thinking. We are OK staying in one position if it’s comfortable. As a result, we often do not push ourselves to go beyond our comfort zone, despite being capable of it. We embrace inertia for the wrong reasons, and after a few years, we ask ourselves: why haven’t things changed?

In the context of the professional environment, the overindulgence in comfort (zone) is not always beneficial. Although it may seem that one is satisfied or grateful with their position, the trap of inertia (mager) is actually bigger that we think, because it is blocking us from new initiatives. As we are too comfortable with what is happening around us, we do not try different ways to approach tasks or solve issues, which too bad because Indonesians are actually very creative people. Where taking the initiative keeps us on our toes, and keeps growing our capabilities, a lack of initiative stops us from growing. Imagine a situation where we do our work the same way over and over again. Pretty soon we are on autopilot, doing it for the sake of doing it, with minimal passion and desire to grow. In the long run, this leads to dissatisfaction with our job, and we will probably start to blame a lot of things other than ourselves. Growth is a fundamental part of human nature, and growing makes us happy. When we give ourselves too much inertia, we deny ourselves from growing, and therefore deny ourselves from being happy with ourselves.

In Western culture, it is common to speak about outgrowing yourself. Mager is the opposite, as it is “de-growing” ourselves. Being comfortable in inertia may make us accept things in the wrong sense. If it happens for too long, it becomes a way of living, leading us to think that even (necessary) effort is overdoing it. We become unable to recognize that, next to those things given by God or that happen by nature, there are areas we can control or put in extra effort for better results. And when we break free from inertia, we are growing into new thinking, new ways of doing things and new skills. This will make us grow in our jobs, our relationships and, eventually, in life.

Take Raymond, an analyst at a multinational company. When confronted by his boss as to why he was not taking the initiative when dealing with clients, his answer was, “Well, I’m an analyst and I do what I should. I don’t do things outside of my responsibilities.” His answer is acceptable, but to the boss, this is a lost opportunity for Raymond. Had Raymond showed initiative, that he could take on greater responsibilities, the boss would have believed that Raymond could be trusted with more responsibility. For Raymond, it is probably safer to stay in the comfort zone, but for his boss, this attitude has hampered Raymond’s growth. Just remember that some things do not happen on their own; some things that happen in our lives do depend on us.

Lack of leadership

Leadership has many definitions, but in this case is loosely translated as the ability to anticipate, take control and give guidance and direction to the people around us. Lack of leadership is often the consequence of a lack of initiative. In a culture where people indulge in inertia, there are not many who are willing to break through and find new ways of thinking, doing or being. Leadership is often associated with taking risks, and Indonesians are not big on this.

As we are a culture that is easily satisfied with where we are, we do not often push ourselves to think of what’s next and what else can be done, what we can learn from an event to help us grow. The ability to analyze a situation or problem will help us anticipate problems before they happen. This is how the ability to take the initiative is honed. This ability to take the initiative, anticipate a problem and take control is the foundation of leadership.

Take Ratih, a young manager at a hospitality business who regularly deals with guest issues. Complaints from guests are a normal part of life, and that means there is an opportunity to identify recurring complaints and create a systematic way of anticipating or solving the issues. After being in the business for a couple of years, Ratih is still diligently reporting the issues to her superior. Given all the experience Ratih has gained, her superior is surely interested in what Ratih has done to solve or anticipate the problems. But as Ratih has not reflected on the problems and the causes, she hasn’t been able to identify solutions. Ratih has not taken the initiative to pause, review and take constructive action, and therefore she hasn’t been able to demonstrate leadership in her duties. A lack of leadership happens to many of us, and instead of taking the initiative, Indonesians often wait to be told what to do.

Feedback shy

While in some parts of Indonesia, such as North Sumatra or North Sulawesi, where a certain degree of confrontation is seen as positive, fear of confrontation seems to be rooted in the Javanese, the dominant culture in Indonesia. In Javanese culture, many decisions are dictated by pakewuh: the feeling of discomfort or hesitation to say or act in a way that will offend or make others feel uncomfortable. When someone feels pakewuh about saying something or taking action, that person will usually choose just to remain silent.

Indonesians tend not to want to unnecessarily disrespect or hurt others. But if we look deeper, the discomfort is very much rooted in ourselves. We do not confront others because we are not comfortable confronting ourselves. We are not trained to look at confrontation as a way to improve. In the workplace, the culture of confrontation avoidance has resulted in us being feedback shy. The ability to give or take feedback is one of the keys to success. Unfortunately, in Indonesia, we shy away from giving or receiving feedback because we take it personally or emotionally.

Take Bobo, a young executive at an IT startup in Jakarta that was bought by a large Dutch company. Since the takeover, Bobo has struggled because there are new procedures being put in place, and one of them is a weekly feedback session. The objective of the feedback session is to understand how the team is coping with ongoing projects, and also to understand if there are improvements needed. For Bobo, the feedback sessions are dreadful because she feels exposed. In Dutch business culture, where everyone is taught to be as honest as possible so the team can achieve common goals, giving and receiving feedback is key to success. Feedback is seen as a rational process to find better ways of working; not an emotional judgment of job performance.

Once we understand that the point of feedback is to achieve common goals, to recognize our strengths and weaknesses so we can construct a better way of working, then we can take feedback rationally instead of personally. Try listing your strengths and weaknesses, and what areas need improvement. When we are able to systemize feedback, we can then focus on and minimize unnecessary points. This way, we can learn to not be feedback shy and embrace feedback as a constructive way of working and growing.

Too much acceptance will kill you

Acceptance is certainly a dominant culture in Indonesia. We accept mistakes and say “ya, udahlah” (loosely translated as, “It’s OK, let it go”) more often than not. We let go of things in the blink of an eye, and we have a lot of understanding when someone does something they are not supposed to. We are a culture of acceptance, and therefore it is important not to linger on someone’s weaknesses or mistakes, because it feels wrong to be unaccepting.

On the one hand, this super-accepting and forgiving culture is positive and saves us from constant conflicts; on the other hand, it leads us to being inconsistent, indecisive and defensive.

Inconsistency is the quality of being unreliable in what we say or do. And this happens a lot in our daily lives in Indonesia. Many people say one thing and then something else in the next sentence. We do this because we know the other person will understand, so we don’t have to explain what we really mean. At work, being inconsistent in the way we do things is also quite common. But when confronted over these inconsistencies, Indonesians often feel pressured and judged.

An example of this comes from a soto (Indonesian soup) shop in the neighborhood where I live. It opened around 7 am and people sometimes lined up in front of the shop before breakfast as the soto was delicious. After a few months, the shop started to open a bit later. When people asked if they were open yet, the shop owner would say that they weren’t ready yet. Eventually, the number of customers fell and the owner had to close the shop.

Indecisiveness is the inability to make decisions or lingering in a situation without any direction or decision. As it is acceptable for us to delay making a decision, on the assumption that other people will understand or they can wait, we do not train ourselves to be sharp in making decisions. We linger in indecisiveness, hoping that things will sort themselves out on their own. At work, this can cause inefficiency and shows a lack of leadership. We think we can get away with not being decisive because other people will understand, but in reality, other people will lose respect for us.

Defensiveness is the quality of not wanting to admit our weaknesses or mistakes. It is rooted in our perception that in the end, other people will understand our mistakes, so there is no need to admit them or to discuss them. An example comes from a class where I recently lectured. One of the students got upset when I jokingly said that many of us did not read our emails and therefore did not know if a homework assignment had been sent. Without checking her email, the student protested that this was an untrue stereotype. Despite the fact that she later learned a homework assignment had been emailed to the class a few days earlier but she had not read the email, she chose to be rather uncooperatively during the entire class. This particular example points to defensive behavior that is not constructive to our growth, because we believe our mistakes will be accepted so we do not think we need to change and become better.

By accepting mistakes too quickly, we do not enable people to grow. When we see inconsistency, indecisiveness or defensiveness without pointing it out, we will not learn to improve and do things in a better way. It is good to be accepting and forgiving, but it is also important to not be accepting when we know we can benefit from a bit of a push.

Yes, there are things that are out of our control, which belong to nature and the higher order. But there are also things that are under our control. Like how our muscles or memory can be trained, we can also train our ways of thinking and behaving that are rooted in our culture and may be holding us back from success. When we are able to identify this, we can train ourselves to develop strategies to help us be successful. Every small thing that helps us change our behavior for the better will help us grow. We are probably not a culture that speaks about outgrowing ourselves, but we are a society that loves to progress. It is fine if there are no quantum leaps, but let us not underestimate the impact of small things in our life. It all starts with the first step that leads to the next ones, and that’s how we progress.

Priscilla Henriette is an international consultant who focuses on decoding cultures and why people do what they do.

Priscilla Henriette, Partner & Business Humanizer

Article Published in Strategic Review, April Edition, 2018.