China: Right and Wrong Ways to Do Things

China: Right and Wrong Ways to Do Things

John Q. Manager convinces the worrywarts in marketing to accept his new e-mail standard, chews out Owens over his coding screwup and issues a concise 30-word memo on his decision to reconfigure the delinquent-accounts workflow. All in a day's work for an aggressive, take-charge manager. Tonight, despite his complete ignorance of middleware messaging, he will fly off for a three-month stint in China to find out why the heck the integration project is so late and to whip those IT fellows into shape.

Mr. Manager's bold, get-it-done style may be effective, if somewhat off-putting, in the United States, but in China such behaviour would shatter taboos and trample several culturally sensitive issues. In short, Mr. Manager is doomed. So is any other leader who fails to realise that the Chinese are relatively new to Western business ventures and that their culture predates by several thousand years The One-Minute Manager and other so-called seminal Western management tomes. Mr. Manager has skipped the first step: Understanding and respecting Chinese business culture will go a long way toward ensuring a successfully managed IT operation in China.

In general, managers coming to China should ratchet up their sense of formality without becoming stiff-the key concepts are respect and professionalism, not ceremony. These simple ideas will help in guiding an executive through any strange situations, advises Frank Luijckx, director of IS for Europe and Asia-Pacific for the global polyethylene and hydrocarbons product lines at Dow Europe SA in Horgen, Switzerland.

Decisions, Decisions

The biggest specific difference between Western and Chinese business culture is in decision making. Quick decisions are alien to the Chinese. Rapid decision making, incorporating quickly gathered and processed information, is a sign of an aggressive, highly competent manager in the West. But to the Chinese, haste is the sign of an idiot.

The Chinese prefer to deliberate longer, even on decisions that might take Western managers five minutes, says George Koo, who has facilitated joint ventures between Chinese and Western companies since 1978 and is currently a senior consultant at Meridian Resources Associates Inc. in San Francisco.

Discuss the issue, ask for feedback and explain your decision's rationale, he advises. This way, the staff will be more accepting and respectful of the decision.

The Chinese want to be included in the decision-making process at a degree of collaboration that to a Western manager may seem unnecessary for relatively simple points but is nevertheless important in this culture. "A snap decision to them is an insult," adds Richard Loi, a Singaporean who is managing director of the UPS Parcel Delivery Co. in Beijing, United Parcel Service of America Inc.'s China joint venture. "They want to feel honoured that you bring issues to them and ask what they would do. Even if you think it's a simple decision, mull it over and talk to them about it." The results -- buy-in, compliance, good feeling -- will be worth the extra effort.

When "Yes" Means "No"

It's practically a cliché that Chinese people do not like to say no in a business setting nor admit that they don't understand something. Unlike in the United States, where we've been told since grade school that there are no dumb questions, the Chinese have not been encouraged to express puzzlement.

Misinterpretation of these cultural norms by a Western manager can undermine the effectiveness of an IT department.

Winferd Tsai, DuPont Co.'s IT manager for Greater China and a veteran of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s well-regarded operations in Taiwan, understands the nuances of the Chinese affirmative response. Often when a manager explains and assigns a task to a staffer, the person will respond, "No problem," Tsai says.

Sounds reassuring, but that answer may be a product of the cultural tendency toward politeness and reluctance to disappoint. A "No problem" usually means "I'll try." Tsai warns, "You will still need to do a lot of follow-up with them. They also may not tell you if things start going wrong."The Chinese people's desire not to disappoint also manifests itself in a technical perfectionism that may mire an IT project. Trying to make everything technically perfect, the IT staff will come up with a thousand reasons to delay a project, regardless of the deadline, Tsai says. "You have to balance that and try to get them to focus not just on technical perfection but to think from the customer's perspective and the realities of business."Because they have not been exposed to the Western business culture that allows for risk taking and mistakes, "We have to work with them side by side, give them encouragement and show them that mistakes are acceptable," Loi says.

Personal Style

The Western mode of teaching, which encourages students to question and challenge the instructor, is unknown to the Chinese. In China teachers lecture and students dutifully take notes -- no exchange is heard. For a Western manager attempting to instruct IT troops or train users, this silence can be unnerving. The Chinese must be urged to ask questions and interrupt, says Meimei Fox, a Meridian Resources consultant. Providing material in advance gives staff a chance to review a topic and think of questions. It will also help put as much of the information into visual form as possible. This not only helps overcome language barriers, it plays to the Chinese tradition of pictorial representation. Fox also advises her clients to emphasise hands-on training to encourage the Chinese, who are strong theorists, to connect theories to applications in the real world of business.

Above all, don't feel that it's condescending to repeatedly explain a new concept, direction or process. It's the best way to ensure understanding and compliance, according to several Western managers and consultants in China.

"The people are intelligent and proud, and they will adapt to processes if they understand why they are being done," says Ian Shiers, president of Polaroid Asia Pacific International Inc.

If a hard-boiled Western manager publicly chastises his Chinese employee, he may as well write his ticket home. It is an unforgivable offence to cause a person to "lose face." A public slight, such as passing someone over for an anticipated assignment, can be a relationship killer.

IT innovation in China is still very much technology driven, as opposed to business-process driven as it is in the West. A new-style CIO from the West, with a strong business background and only a working knowledge of technology, will not fare well in China. The people are eager to learn leading-edge technology once they are persuaded of its value; therefore, they expect their managers to be technologically adept. That's the reason many Western companies view the Taiwanese as a good choice among expatriates to take technology management positions in China. "The young generation here knows and respects Taiwan's ability in technology," says Elwood Chen, the Taiwanese corporate systems project manager for Aetna Life Insurance Co. of America's new venture on the mainland. "IT managers from Taiwan are mostly technical people, and they have been successful here and win a lot of respect." Fraternising after business hours may be becoming increasingly uncommon in the don't-do-or-say-anything-that-can-get-you-sued environment of the West. In China, gaining staff loyalty and peer support depends on breaking through the professional formality to form friendships. The Chinese expect a boss to be a leader both inside and outside the organisation, says Meridian Resources' Koo.

That means organising social events for office personnel. Favourite activities include:-- Dining (formal banquets, lunch or dinner at outstanding restaurants)-- Bowling-- Karaoke nightclubs-- Picnic outings-- Soccer matches (But leave your golf clubs at home. Koo says golf is still tainted by bourgeois connotations because of its waste of valuable land.)ConnectionsThe business culture's high regard for relationships applies to people outside the company as well as inside. In fact, the very viability of a business depends on relationships with vendors, distributors and, most important, the municipal, regional and central government ministers whose disfavour can cripple a company. Entire books are written on this art of the relationship, known as guanxi (gwan-zhee), or connections. Guanxi can take the form of a night of karaoke with the local fire department regulator in order to get a new computer room plan approved. Or it could mean hosting a banquet with a customs official to make sure precious hardware shipments arrive at some point in the 20th century. At the highest levels, it could mean bringing your CEO to China to shake hands with the minister of a key industry sector that represents lucrative potential business.

Although it is vital for a Western manager to understand the necessity of external relationships and the role of guanxi in China, the actual act of relationship building is best left to the ethnic Chinese on the staff. For one thing, they will more quickly understand the expectations of Chinese power brokers; for another, they have a lifetime of cultural habits that will enable them to handle delicate situations with more aplomb than a Western manager ever could. "A white face can throw off the dynamics," says one American IT manager.

"There is a barrier there, and you can only go so deep in terms of a relationship."If it sounds as though there are many cultural land mines in China for the Western manager, take heart. In a couple of areas, Westerners, particularly Americans, have an advantage over their Chinese counterparts. One is directness. Although the Chinese can be notoriously indirect -- they struggle to read the subtle signals in their bosses' manner and body language to interpret their desires -- "they appreciate the Westerner's straightforward approach and ability to break the ice," Fox says. So don't worry if you feel the need to come right to the point. It will be appreciated.

The second advantage Americans enjoy is that the Chinese expect them to goof up. The staff will cut an American more slack and be more forgiving of cultural miscues than they will a Chinese manager or expatriates from Hong Kong and Taiwan. But that's not license to be cavalier; it just means you get a little more rope before you might hang yourself.

Betting on Expatriates

They speak the language, but do they always have the right stuff?In most of the Western ventures CIO encountered in China, the manager of information technology, be it for a single plant for Greater China or for all Asia-Pacific, was not from the mainland. Until recently the mainland Chinese simply lacked the opportunity to learn and grow proficient in Western technology and management principles. But virtually every expatriate manager expressed a seemingly sincere and somewhat unusual desire to plan for their own obsolescence by teaching local Chinese to one day take over the reins.

It's already happened at Ford Motor (China) Ltd.'s joint venture plant, Shanghai Fudian Automotive Electronics Co. Ltd. After serving as IT manager of the company for three and a half years, Commercial Manager Todd Olsen moved back to the United States in June, where he's now Ford's North American profit forecast and budget manager. Before that, he worked side by side with his replacement, Tian Ji, a Chinese national hired in mid-May. Tian learned Fudian Automotive's business and Ford's management values, but he already knew a few things Olsen or another American probably could never have mastered: how to negotiate relationships with local vendors and Chinese regulatory authorities.

Olsen was one of the few American IT bosses CIO met in China. Most foreigners working in China were Taiwanese -- a background that combines exposure to Western business techniques and the English language with fluency in Mandarin and an affinity for mainland culture. Compared with Westerners or Anglicised Chinese from Hong Kong, the Taiwanese have the edge. But Taiwanese managers aren't a sure bet; mainlanders can perceive in them a haughtiness that they resent.

Indeed, managers from Taiwan have a reputation for arrogance, says veteran Chinese-Western business consultant George Koo, a senior consultant at San Francisco-based Meridian Resources Associates Inc. Certainly politics plays a role. The defeated nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Taiwan after Mao's Communist forces defeated it in 1949. Taiwan then enjoyed decades of friendship, trade and protection from the United States, while the People's Republic of China (PRC) refused to recognise Taiwan as an independent nation. Beijing believes Taiwan belongs to the PRC and, like Hong Kong, must be restored. Taiwan is cool to the idea, and while the PRC readily accepts professionals from Taiwan, the island nation does not allow mainlanders to take professional positions in Taiwan.

Happily, the power and dignity of the individual outweighs stereotyping and political posturing in determining a non-Chinese manager's success. System Director Li Tseng, Ford China's top IT manager and a Taiwanese, initially felt his Chinese staff saw him as an outsider parachuting into their midst. Today the affable Tseng has been accepted by his mainland reports and peers not because he speaks their language but because he is a good manager, coach and friend.

Dinner Banquet

At a business meal, etiquette requires everyone to sample an intimidating array of dishes. Often, a dinner for staff, business partners or officials includes more than a dozen items, such as the following.


-- Marinated cucumbers with aged orange peel-- Jelly ham served with Zhenjiang vinegar-- Special marinated bran, Shanghai style-- Chicken rolled with salty egg yolk-- Smoked fish-- Vegetarian roasted duckMAIN COURSES-- Sautéed prawns with mayonnaise sauce-- Sautéed diced chicken with cashew nuts in taro nest-- Shark's fin soup with dried marine-- Deep-fried live Mandarin fish with sweet and sour sauce-- Stir-fried beef tenderloin with honey beans in chili sauce-- Smoked duck with camphor and tea leaves flavour-- Braised vegetables with milky soup in fan shape-- Fried rice, Fujian styleDESSERTS-- Sweetened red bean cream-- Fresh fruit platter(Source: the China Club, Beijing)The Short CourseHere's a handy cheat sheet: -- Do condition your staff that mistakes are acceptable and in some cases expected-- Don't cause an employee to lose face by publicly slighting them or pointing out mistakes-- Do build staff support and loyalty by forming friendships through social events-- Don't overlook the need to cultivate external relationships-- Do explain the rationale of decisions, requests and directions, and the consequences to the business for not following through on assigned processes-- Don't appear to make quick decisions-- Do encourage challenges and questions during training-- Don't hire an IT manager with weak knowledge of leading-edge technology-- Do provide training materials in advance and present information pictorially-- Don't assume an affirmative response means "Yes, no problem"-- Do transfer Western expatriate skills to local managers and replace the expats with locals as soon as appropriate-- Don't assume a Taiwanese expatriate will automatically be accepted by the mainland Chinese

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