Thai boy

9. Achievement-task orientation



Taken from: Suntaree Komin, Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Bangkok 1991, ISBN 974-85744-8-2, pp. 1-2. References and tables are available in the original. Typing errors edited.



This orientation is characterized by the achievement motivation need emphasizing internal drive towards achievement through hard work. According to McClelland (1961), the achievement need within individuals, would promote entrepreneurial achievement or the achievement of professional excellence, which in turn would propel economic growth, as he has successfully shown that economic growth in advanced industrial societies can be predicted by the high achievement motivation scores found in the people in the receding period. Believing that hard work alone will propel one on the road to success, Western work ethic has emphasized on personal achievement—what one has done or “achieved” through one’s best ability and hard work. And basic to this is the focus on the inherent value of work itself and work related attitudes for that matter, striving to attain professional excellence. To which extent the Thai score in this perspective, and what it the nature of achievement motivation of the Thai?



The research data showed that achievement value of being Ambitious and hardworking to attain one’s goals, has been consistently ranked as the least important value (the 23rd) in relation to the rest, with little variation across groups and over time, with the exception of two groups—Thai businessmen who ranked it the 19th, and highest of all Thai groups was the Thai of Chinese descendants who ranked it 13th. This finding evidently substantiated certain attributes of Chinese characters that accounted for their success story of from “rags-to-riches”. However, all Thai, without exception, ranked hardworking achievement value much lower than the group of social relationship values. Furthermore, this value ranking result was highly and consistently substantiated by the work achievement related attitudes and behaviours. For example, in a forced choice statement of choosing the importance between “maintaining good relationships” as opposed to “seriously devoted to work”, 61% of the total national sample perceived “maintaining good relationships” as more important than “work”, with only 15% seeing the reverse as more important (Table 7.26 and 7.27). A closer look revealed that 64.9% of the Bangkok Thai and 55.2% of the rural Thai perceived maintenance of good relationships as more important than work. It was interesting to find that government officials valued “work” the least (8.7%), while valuing “maintenance of good relationship” the highest of all groups (65.8%). And vice versa, it was the farmers who preferred “work” the highest. This confirms the accepted reality of the low performance—the Chao chaam yen chaam lethargic performance—of government employees who are more keen in paying lib-services, taking bribes, seeking good relations with the powerful others, etc. A good relation wins all, not tasks. However, the bottom 23rd ranking of this achievement value (as opposed to the 3rd ranking of industrial society like the United States), and the overall 61.0% preference of “relations over work” as opposed to the 15.0% preference of “work over relations”, are sufficient to endorse that according to the Western sense of achievement need which is based on the person‘s internal drive of hard work, the Thai achievement need score is very low. And this is because it is seen in the cultural context where social relations is of utmost importance.

What is the significance of the seemingly low achievement value findings. A closer examination of the empirical data helps to shed some light on certain misconception of Buddhist value influence on economic development, as well as the true nature of the achievement motivation of the Thai.



Buddhist Influence and Economic Development

With regards to this achievement value orientation, many writers both foreign and Thai, have for years talked about the Thai as having low achievement needs to work for economic and material gains, that they abhor hard work and value only what is sanuk and fun. And most, if not all, have cited Buddhist influence to support their statements. They stressed that Buddhism is a barrier to economic development for reasons which can be categorized as follows:

(1) Buddhism advocates detachment from material goods and goals, therefore, the Thai are contented with what they have and would not work for material gains and worldly possessions, as the increasingly strive to rid themselves from all kinds of cravings.

(2) Buddhism encourages fatalism in the sense that it encourages one to accept one‘s condition because it is the result of his past deeds—the past karma—therefore, the Thai lack the urge to work to move ahead. And this fatalism militates against progress.

(3) Buddhism stresses individualism, in individually struggling to achieve his own insight and wisdom—nirvana, therefore the Thai do not value community effort and cooperative undertakings as they would make merit to improve their own individual karmic status.

To which extent that these religious explanations are valid? Do they have scientific and empirical data to support, or are they in fact mainly speculations, since Buddhism provides a convenient explanation. If one traces back the origins of those writings, a clearer picture emerges. There is, more often than not, a heavy reliance on religious texts rather than clear-cut scientific data. For example, take Ayal’s often quoted article (Ayal, 1963), comparing Thai and Japanese value systems which constitute to the differential economic development achievements of the two countries. Given the contrasting economic development performances of the two countries, Ayal tried to find reasons from the social value systems of the two countries that might have enhanced or inhibited the economic activities essential for economic development—those values or predispositions that contain the propensities for accumulation of capital, diligent work, cooperation and innovation. She drew upon the value system mainly from religious and ethical teachings, in explaining these dominant characteristics, and to which the present researcher would present counter arguments with empirical data.



(1) With regard to cooperative spirit, Ayal stated that the Thai, unlike the Japanese, lack cooperative spirits needed for economic development. To find support for observations of “individualism” found in the early Corness study of Thailand project (such as Sharp, 1953; Wilson, 1962; and Phillips, 1965, etc.), which reinforced Embree’s “loose social structure” paradigm, Ayal cited Buddhist teachings from Luang Suriyabongs writing on Buddhism (1954) to suggest the strong Buddhist influence on Thai individualism—whereby each is working to improve own karmic status, as it is phrased in daily parlance: “Tham dii dai dii; tham chua dai chua” (Do go good, receive good; do evil, receive evil). Due to this influence, the Thai were therefore “deprived thereby of a compelling goal requiring cooperative action” (Ayal, 1963, p. 50). Relying on religious explanation here is inaccurate, or at best inadequate. The fact is, as shown in the interdependence value orientation section, that cooperative behavioural patterns are evident in rural communities—from building community temple, sharing water resources, down to interpersonal helps between neighbours.

(2) As for the accumulation of capital, Ayal stated that, instead of spending assets for investment, the Thai due to religious influence, tend to spend existing assets on merit-making. And, worse still, the poorer they are, the more they should spend on merit-making to catch up, because one’s present wealth is explained by one’s already accumulated merits. And this drives the poorer population further in poverty. This could not be true. The Thai are not such an oddity that they would not accumulate wealth and this-worldly possession, and would accumulate only merits by spending whatever they have.

In fact, data has shown that the Thai are very much material possession oriented. They do spend some money on merit-making according to various appropriate occasions throughout the year, but they spend much more on regular basis, for abundance of material possessions. Besides, they are constantly struggling for more. When the national samples were asked: “When one’s life is reasonably comfortable or liveable (Pho kin pho chai, meaning having enough to eat an spend), that should be enough, and there is no need to continue struggling for more”, more than half (63.7%) of the national samples indicated it is not enough, one should continue to struggle for more (Table 7.28. and 7.29). Examining the break down of various occupational groups from skilled workers, hawkers, farmers, up to government officials and businessmen, the degree of intention to struggle for more increases accordingly. This might indicate an increasing incentive or drive to struggle for more, when they see higher possibility of success as they move higher up the social ladder with higher education, status and money. It seems to be the spiral moving-up of higher education/status—higher possibility, higher drive, higher expectation, etc. This tendency was consistent in the rural and urban Thai, with the exception of the older people of 50 years and above, and the peasants of the North and the Northeast. The slackening drive of these groups is understandable. The old age would probably not drive against their decreasing energy. Whereas for the North and the Northeast peasants who are among the poorest regional groups of the country, they have to exhaust their ingenuity against the harsh nature of the most arid region and find themselves survive on such food like small frogs, silkworms, crickets, or the Kudjii (beetles) found in the buffalo dung, and the like (Bangkok Post, 1988, March 3). Even so, if to say that these poorest Thai are generally lazy, abhor hard work, and just want to have fun and Sanuk, how can one explain the fact that these poor peasants from the Northeast, despite their inability to speak any foreign language and with little education and skills, dare to go and work as un-skilled or semi-skilled laborers in totally alien countries lie, the Middle-east, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Singapore and Brunei, etc. One can hardly see Sanuk or fun in their plight. Not only that they do work to survive and to accumulate more monetary and material gains, they are thinking of making money all the time, particularly more than the governments officials who sit securely in the life-long employment of the government offices, enjoying their status, and through which in no hurry, they can make easy money along the way (Table 7.28 and 7.29).

Value of material possession and wealth is the everyday blatant fact against the idealistic Buddhist teaching of detachment of “this-worldly” possession. This is why when directly asked of their agreement to the often taught religious teaching that “One should not be interested in the possession of these external materials and wealth”, the response was not clear-cut. The actual was here pitted against the ideal. Although there is a tendency to agree, there is an equal number of disagreement. And again, the North and the Northeast peasants tend to see worldly wealth highly desirable. It is clearer, when examining the respondents’ backgrounds. It was fund that older people who are more likely to seek religious consolation at the later stage of life, are the highest group to agree with the statement (Table 7.28 and 7.29). Therefore, if the Thai are really “other-worldly” oriented to the point of detaching from wealth possession and accumulation as have often been referred to, the results should show a different pattern.

(3) As for devoting oneself to systematic hard work, Ayal again made a deliberate effort to rely on religious explanation by using the concept of Choei (indifference) and Sanuk (fun) to support that the Thai generally abhor hard work and preferring only having fun. Ayal defined choei as a secular equivalent of the Buddhist concept Ubekkha which means impartiality and non-attachment, non-involvement, and keeping cool under all circumstances, but she did not elaborate how Choei relates to his statements of the Thai abhor hard work. She stated that “everything the Thai does has to be Sanuk, including religious activities… The Thai would stay away from activities (even meritorious ones) which are not Sanuk, and most economic activities are hardly Sanuk” (Ayal, 1963, pp. 47-48).

In actuality, do the Thai really abhor hard work as many foreigners have described? The low achievement value ranking should not lead one to interpret so. They do work hard, particularly those independent occupations, like small business, shops owners, skilled workers, hawkers, down to farmers. One would realize this fact if he would just take a look at the lower unskilled labour force circles, like laborers at any construction site, peddlers and street vendors, hawkers, shopkeepers, and Mae khaa (market women) in the fresh markets, etc., where most of them have minimum education, and 90% of them are women of all ages. A typical picture of the laborers at a construction site will illustrate the hard working drive of this lower less-educated class, where one can see some male construction workers working on the building, with a good number of children and women sometimes as old as 60s and over shouldering rackets of water, cements, etc., doing all the details work of mixing and paving the finished mixture. In fact, many from this hard-driving class have turned out to be successful entrepreneur businessmen, for instance, the millionaire “Pata Pinklao” owner was a hawker when he was young. They are hardworking, and are “this-worldly” material oriented, to struggle for more and to gain more. Data revealed that the rural peasants showed a higher preference of “material possession” to “fun” or “Sanuk”. It revealed that “fun” or “Sanuk” is more a characteristic of the Bangkokians, the government officials, students, and the higher educated, definitely not the less advantaged classes. This is consistent with the value ranking of the rural people who ranked Ambitious-hardworking higher than Fun-loving and Pleasure, where the government officials, students and the Bangkokians ranked the reverse.

Therefore, the Thai are “this-worldly” material oriented. They did struggle and work hard, even in disadvantaged adversary and “no fun” environments. Preference for fun or Sanuk has no correlation with hardworking value. This is also substantiated by the very low correlation between Fun-loving and Ambitious-hardworking, which was only -.02. This seems to disprove the over-claimed statement that the Thai would stay away from any activity (economic or even meritorious) that is not Sanuk.

(4) To say that the Thai are fatalistic as they accept their life conditions as a result of their past deeds, so they lack the urge to work and move ahead, does not seem to be true. As explained in the previous section on psychological function of religious concepts, the Thai resort to fatalistic concepts mostly only after the occurrence of negative events. Even the villagers do not have a wholly fatalistic approach to life. He often strives valiantly in the face o impending disasters. Only after his efforts to cope are not successful would he explain this evil lot as fate. In fact, it should be stressed that a Buddhist is fully aware that he can change his lot by his own deeds in the present, which in fact might well affect his present life as well as his future life. Only if one is truly lazy would he intentionally use religious fatalistic concept to justify or rationalize his acts.

Therefore, on Buddhism and economic development, Ayal’s main reasons of argument that, due to Buddhist value systems, the Thai lack the propensities essential for economic development, are questionable. To her concluding statement that “without the appropriate value system, a favourable environment would not bring about development”, if by value system meaning those Buddhist values she used, then the present researcher would say, that in this respect it is more of the environment that is not as conducive and favourable to bring about development. What is the obstacle for economic development is not so much of their religious believes, or their fun-loving attitudes, but rather it is their lack of knowledge, and lack of opportunities that are their first major obstacles. This is evident when they were asked in an open-ended question: “Thai people are poor because…”. The responses were content analyzed and revealed that in the cognition of all concerned, government officials as well as peasants, the perceived causes of poverty in general were due to lack of knowledge and lack of opportunities (Table 7.30). Particularly, peasants from the North and the Northeast perceived these two factors as their main obstacles. However, it is interesting to find that the peasants were also cognizant of the fact that they have been exploited and oppressed as well as deprived of equal opportunities. This fact indicates certain degree of political consciousness on the part of the rural people. Therefore, it is not surprising to find in this matter, that peasants from the Southern provinces who have often been known as highly politically conscious, perceived their causes of poverty as due to oppressions, exploitations, and unequal opportunities, more than other factors.

Nature of Achievement Motivation of the Thai

The general low achievement value of the Thai should not be misinterpreted as abhorrence of hard work, but that in the context of Thai social value system, hardworking alone is not enough. What is the nature of the achievement motivation of the Thai? For the Americans whole culture is characterized by high individualism together with high freedom and equality, achievement means one perseveres aggressively towards one’s goal and succeeds in a rags-to-riches, self-made man manner. Understandable, the American achievement value was ranked 2nd and 3rd (Table 6.5) by the national samples and was positively correlated with competence and assertive values. On the contrary, in the Thai context, task achievement value was ranked the bottom 23rd, and was negatively associated with all the important social relationship values. For the Thai (Table 7.31), it is Hardworking through Competence (r=.16) and Education (r=.15) to attain Social recognition (r=.16) for Success in life (r=.15). However, in the process, it seems to disrupt or seen as negatively related to the important social relationship values like Caring-considerate (r=-.20), Kind-helpful (re=-.20), etc., and also negatively related to the time-honoured Asian value of being Obedient-respectful (r=-.20). This means that while the Americans having task itself and professionalism as achievement goals with self assertive efforts as means, the Thai give prestige and social recognition as goals for success in life, with work and relations as necessary means. With social recognition as an important underlying motive for success, achievement in Thai is more social in nature. Also it is very rare that work along would lead one to the Thai sense of achievement. Instead, it has always been the good relationships, with or without work, that guarantees this Thai sense of achievement, exemplified in the majority of government position holders.


Motivation Values in Private Sector

Despite the overall low task-achievement value, the group which constitutes the lower class of Thai society like farmers, hawkers, skilled workers, although they shared the average 85.2% with all other groups in seeing the importance of social relationships, they relatively referred “work” over “relations” when given a forced choice. They are more hard work oriented. This is understandable as the nature of their work is mostly independent. There is a rare chance where work would be in conflict with relations. A look at the lower skilled and unskilled labour force at local markets, construction sites where children and their grandmothers are seen carrying buckets of cement mix, etc., can illustrate the hardworking drive of this less-educated class. In fact, many from this hardworking class have turned out to be successful entrepreneur businessmen today, for instance, the millionaire “Pata Pinklao” owner who was a hawker working his way up, or the CP Corporations started from a small shop selling animal feeds only years ago. Indepth interviews of successful cases like these have shown not only the hardworking driving force but also the relationship oriented paternalistic management style with system oriented outward looking vision.

As for the middle class business sector, where task achievement value is more highly price, they also realize that keeping good relations is very important and very functional in Thai society. This is shown by their ranking the achievement value second highest after the Chinese-Thai, and their preference for “maintaining good relations” second highest after the government officials. As keen businessmen, they know that outside their organizations in dealing with government agencies and other organizations, good relationships and connections are extremely important for their organizational success. Within their organization, they know that through good relations with their Thai employees besides fair treatment, they can elicit higher job performance from them. While at the same time, they have to let relationship value overrule task goals when dealing with employed who are children of some influential people of the society, or powerful government personalities invited to sit in the company board. As successful Thai managers, they keep the tight grip of work demanded, manage with a fair merits system, and with a “soft” approach in dealing with their employees. Therefore, in the private sector under the successful management climate, task achievement value is not socially inhibited and more justly rewarded and often results in superior job performance. This explains the high work efficiency and productivity of the agriculture extension workers in most of the related private firms in the Bangkok Metropolitan areas, as opposed to the generally known poor performance of agricultural extension workers in the Ministry of Agriculture (Deewaca, 1986). It the government sector, task achievement is more socially inhibited.


Motivation in the Government Sector

Government officials scored the lowest in task achievement value, and highest in preference for “relations over work”. To understand the achievement motivation of Thai government officials, it is meaningless to focus on individual achievement drive alone, because their motivation is tremendously affected by social relations factor inherent in various work environment and organizational actions such as reward system, supervision, conflict management, group influence, organizational climate and leadership management style (Table 7.32).

In government offices where rigid hierarchical structure goes hand in hand with autocratic leadership along the line of command, there is a likelihood of conflict between work value and social relationship value for the employees. The conflict generates from the way the leader sees himself and what he expects from the subordinates, and his management style (i.e. through cliques, ingroups, with or without merit system), all combined to account for the degree of organizational effectiveness. As a Thai who generally cannot separate ideas/opinions from the person, an autocratic government superior once assumes his position, likewise, views his position as an extension of his “ego” self—the power derived from the position rather than its accompanying responsibilities, duties, and tasks. This sense of power aggrandizement, derived from and expressed in signing his signature on papers passing through his desk, is so encompassing that it increases the degree of self-importance. Basically, he is an unquestioned boss, highly sensitive to criticisms, expecting respect and submissiveness from his subordinates to please him, and work to boost his ego “face” and prestige in public. With position power at hand, he reaps benefits both up and down the hierarchical structure. On the one hand, he makes easy money, the so-called Kin taam nam (“taxing along the way” or the regular bribery), through signing or not signing his signature, including making good or bad reports on his subordinates for advancement. He has total power over his subordinates. On the other hand, he plays favouritism upward by pleasing his higher-ups, and cleverly siding with the winning influential others according to situation. He pleases high higher-ups with visits and expensive gifts, ranging from expensive jewellery for the wives, golf sets, antiques, cars, furniture, building of certain parts of the boss’s house, to sponsoring the travelling expenses and expenditures for the boss’s family on the occasion of the boss’s daughter going abroad for study, etc., depending on his position level. With such expenses to be spent, he sometimes Ria-rai (“collect”) money from his subordinates to do so (See Saengchai, 1987, for detailed accounts of government officials behaviours). This is the common pattern with variations in degree of corruption and merits system approach, that differentiate effective leaders in government sector. But all without fail is the characteristic social relationship approach.

Under such social relationship oriented working environment and leadership management style, task achievement value alone hardly means much. Generally, task achievement oriented alone subordinates do not please the boss, for they are often seen as hard-headed, disobedient, disrespectful, unhelpful, and inconsiderate, etc. For when any task get accomplished, the superior would expect to be given the benefits, either in terms of money or credit or recognition. When this is not done (i.e. like in the case of a rural teacher who refused to put the governor’s name as co-author on his research publication), the task achievement oriented subordinates will see endless obstacles and no smooth future in the organization, because the superior would do whatsoever in his power to the detriment of the subordinates in various ways. What the superior can do, ranging from causing difficulties and obstacles in all undertakings, to transferring to unimportant “dead” posts, usually under the ambiguous pretext of “appropriateness” (Phua khuam moa som), etc.

From the perspective of task achievement value and motivational behavioural patterns of Thai government officials, one can possibly categorize them into three major groups:

(1) The high achiever group. As task achievement alone is not functional in Thai organizations, high task achievement oriented employees are often at the fringe or outside the power circle. With or without rewards, they work, participate, and contribute to their organization conscientiously. They are usually not power oriented. This group includes those true independents who would not succumb to unreasonable power but could efficiently work for a good and fair leader, and those who do not like conflict, and would rather choose to succumb to, and occasionally let themselves be exploited by the superior. The high achievers in government sector have to rely mainly on their intrinsic motivation as their main strength, and it is their superior task per se that would finally earn them a considerable degree of professionalism.

(2) The low achiever group. This low task achievement oriented group can be further divided into two—the apathetic low achiever, and the political low achiever. The apathetic low achiever are those who perform their routine duties indifferently, unenthusiastically and minimally. They are passive and press no threat, living day by day securely in this life-long employment job, while occasionally finding loopholes in the system and corrupt when opportunities open up. This group constitutes quite a majority of government employees. The political low achievers are the followers of their power leader. Some are quite loyal to their leader. Others are more situation oriented, shifting to side with the influential others from time to time, but are always at hand for political use. They often gain throughout the process, political-wise as well as profit-wise. If lucky, they might be promoted to higher positions faster than others, even if they are not appropriately fitted ability-wise.

(3) The high power-need group. This high power-need group with low to medium task achievement oriented group constitutes a majority of government officials occupying administrative positions at various levels, is typically motivated by the motive to achieve prestige and power, with rank and richtes being their instruments, and through the typical administrative behavioural pattern described earlier. Their ultimate concern is usually to be “big”, to have “face”, and also to have money for manipulating and accumulating Baramii (influential and charismatic power) and entourage. Task achievement per se is meaningless, but to serve social relations purpose. When presentation of task is needed, the superficial “window-dressing” or the so-called Phakchii roi naa (deceptive display) operation is often involved. This is one of the major reasons of the failure of most development projects, on the part of the government officials. It explains why when the higher-up officials take their supervisory inspection tours in the provinces, they are given impressive reports and demonstrations of progress, but soon after the visits end, evidence of development and progress also disappear. These often “dressed up” reports often fail to match with the opposite reality. Such discrepancies cause no concerns, because the officials get by with the impressive presentations, which may very likely promote them up and out of the province—and thus out of their responsibilities. Evidently, task achievement means little among government officials. It is only with good and just superior, who can effectively utilize the high achiever employees, that quality tasks can be expected.

In such government offices, one can say the achievement motives are generally social and political. Mulder’s power paradigm analysis seems to perfectly fit this high power need group of government officials, which he concluded that “the achievement motive is social par excellence” (Mulder, 1978, p. 114), in the sense that it is power and prestige as the basic motive, not work or professional excellence. Because in the process, through money and power, this group can get whatever they want. Since they are basically social and politically motivated, they usually would do anything whatsoever to keep their power base. They would tenaciously fight against any source or change that they perceive as a threat to weaken their power base, regardless of how logical and beneficial the change is for the overall organization. Such is th case of the educational institution cited earlier under the section of “person” and “clique” over “system” and “principles”. Mulder’s analytical frame fits appropriately to explain that, in the Nak-leng (or hooligan) system of behaviour, the one who possesses power uses it both to preserve his status and position as well as to take advantage of those who are afraid of them and are prepared to avoid confrontation and to accommodate. He knows he can always emerge victorious by not abiding by any kind of rules of game in an Anthapaan or a hooligan manner. He presses, while his adversaries retreat and side-step, trying to avoid direct confrontation. They dissemble, wary and concerned, unable to deal with such naked abuse of power. The hooligan realizes he can easily gain his ends, by being thick faced and not caring whether he is logical or not, or whether he annoys or angers anybody. Because he knows they would not put up a fight against him, and would ultimately succumb to his demands anyway. Mulder’s “power” frame makes sense in analyzing a number of such power-oriented government officials. Although there are a majority of government officials who are not like these power hunger groups, they lack the courage to stand up and be counted, and thus, in a way, help to perpetuate the existence of such a power oriented value-behavioural pattern in government offices.

In conclusion, for the Thai, task achievement value is usually inhibited by social relationship values. While submissiveness and good relations, with or without work, has always paid off, task per se or worst still, task which seen as threat or without submissive relations to superiors, does not lead to success in life. In the Thai cultural context, achievement in the Western sense would not fit, nor are those management theory that have no place for a culture of larger power distance with strong social relations.



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