By Dr. Dirk Frese, Director Marketing and Sales at JULABO USA Inc., Allentown PA
This is the final installment of the blog mini-series about foreign business cultures and leadership. This week’s focus is Asia with a special emphasis on China.
Once more, I stress to clarify that my observations are based on my very own experiences and are not intended to come across as generalizations or stereotypes of any kind, nor should they give rise to any.
When it comes to the Asian-Oceanian region and the context of conducting business there, I first wanted to break the region down into smaller categories, as I have done in the earlier blogs about Western Europe and Eastern Europe. However, I am going to digress from this strategy now. The more I thought about it, the more it became apparent that the single most important country in this context of business in Asia seems to be the People’s Republic of China, which I will highlight in this article.
The Chinese Experience
What do we need to consider when doing business in China? What are the strengths of this culture, what are the risks and opportunities in conducting business with the Chinese?
It is expected that when working with the Chinese, you must communicate in the context of their culture and according to their expectations Period. Be polite and make your point. The risk is that you come across as too soft and, hence, do not gain ground. Additionally, keep in mind that the Chinese culture, and specifically Chinese trading history, dates back thousands of years compared to our relatively new experience in the West. Their trade skill set is second to none. Even if you might think you cut yourself an adept negotiator, the real winner might be sitting at the other end of the table. The stereotype, that fragile Chinese women do not share this talent and skillset is completely wrong. Do not make the mistake of underestimating their talents and power.
To have a good starting position in any negotiation, you might bring in your personal interpreter. This helps especially, considering that you have to realize that he or she might not always translate what you have said. This is not to twist your message but rather to assist you in securing your position by staying true to Chinese culture – more so than your words would have. It happened to me a few times that my translator softened my points (not that my Mandarin is above any noticeable level, it is body language which gave this away). When I asked him after the meetings, he admitted that my Chinese counterpart would have considered my unadulterated statements rude – I believe that no European or American translator would ever have stated this to their clients at all.
Body language, one of the most powerful communication channels, takes on another level of importance when working in China. Make sure to be aware that there are significant differences to what you have learned about body language in Western countries. In brief: Use both hands presenting or receiving something such as business cards; never point with your feet, put them firmly on the floor; signal “come over here” with your hand, palm down; tap two fingers for saying “thank you”.
If training of these communication techniques is still rare in our cultures, it is even rarer in China. Moreover, the general lack of training is a major problem. Chinese workers tend to hop from job to job; collecting significant pay rises each time. Chinese entrepreneurs are less likely to spend money on training employees who they perceive as transitional. This phenomenon has recently been recognized as a problem and countermeasures are now being taken to increase loyalty and to retain talent.
When I gave a training session in Beijing, I was extremely impressed to find the most attentive audience ever – at least until lunch. At that point, something peculiar happened: After lunch, staff members rolled themselves up or hung over chairs or whatever else was available, to take a nap. This has apparently been common practice for ages and I have even witnessed it with Chinese colleagues in my biochemistry lab decades ago. After the mandatory power nap, however, the energy level was back to normal again! What looks weird to our eye is highly efficient and we Westerners should think about ways to re-energize ourselves as resourcefully. Already, trends of meditation and relaxation techniques try to mirror this in our culture.
After work, your business partners will invite you to dinner and are very generous hosts, displaying lots of pride in their culture. Show them your respect, which will be well-deserved. Whilst you travel through the cities, you can rest assured to be surveilled by thousands of CCTV cameras or even plainclothes police. This is to make sure that you are aware of not doing something inappropriate. We are used to the cameras in the US and other places as well now, but often these are employed not by police but by private enterprises like shops etc. In China, however, they are used by state authorities.
This offers a good segue into the topic of modern communication in China. On a positive note, the mass distributions and availability of the mobile phone are a breeding ground for new social networks. Unlike in the Western world, one app became prevalent, called WeChat. It is the ultimate app since it combines all thinkable networks and options and functions. Everybody is constantly online and users are constantly connected with each other. Every aspect of life is managed through this app. Allowing users to make appointments, using live streams, video chats, online shopping etc., makes it more important than any other websites or platforms today. When I recently flew back from China, I met a Chinese girl on her trip from Brazil to New York City. When telling me about her experiences at the Olympics, she mentioned that the most horrible downside was how WeChat was not available for communicating with friends. To her, having to send separate texts or even e-mails instead of broadcasting messages by the hundreds simultaneously seemed like Stone Age communication. It appears to me as if this modern communication and link between millions of devices, and souls, gives rise to a new mind or self, comparable to what currently is discussed as Neuron Sociology.1 Therefore, it is not surprising that China was the first country to acknowledge smartphone addiction as a pathological disorder.
Another part of the business tradition is centered around “Art of War” written by Sun Tzu in 500 B.C.2 This book later became a hype for management, leadership, creativity and more, despite its original military intent. We can definitely learn from it in all those areas, and also learn to see how it has influenced the Chinese culture. For example, one of the enigmas in dealing with Chinese companies is always how intellectual property is handled. Many foreign people think that the Chinese copy all products in their own manner without even considering any potential copyright infringement. Having read Sun Tzu, let’s try to take a different perspective. Warriors have learned to attack where the enemy is weak, picking their battles, and acquiring all intelligence about the opponent and the battlefield. Strike the mountain snake “Shuai Jan” either at the head or the tail and it will counter the attack with the tail or the head respectively. If you are going for the middle, you will be charged from both ends. In this light, it makes sense to take other company’s products, analyze them, respect them highly and take the best parts from them instead of wasting time and resources to reinvent the wheel. After that, you can go ahead in refining and in improving. With the ingenuity and high education of most personnel, this is an easy task and can be done quickly. There is not the slightest feeling of committing an illegal act at all. The engineer often thinks that it is his duty to improve the item and he or she does not understand that others and competitors do not do it as quickly. If as a consequence, they are left behind, it is their fault, not his. I do not intend to judge at this point, although we might consider rethinking our customary approach.
Quality is another area that is approached similarly: Quality is not low, it is smart. The quality delivered is of the level as it is needed or requested. This is totally antithetic to the imminent Swiss drive to deliver the best possible quality at all times. All in all, the Chinese economy is successful and will be for a long period of time.
Understanding the mindset of the other culture is a great step towards being competitive or using and adopting these capabilities yourself.
And again, you can succeed as an American manager in the above-mentioned geographies and vice versa if you take to heart the following actions:
Continually put yourself into the other one’s shoes!
Perpetually give the benefit of the doubt.
Invariably look for the big picture!
Consistently be tolerant!
About: Dirk is a German citizen, studied Chemistry, achieved his PhD in Biochemistry there and lived and worked for nearly two decades in Switzerland managing companies and teams in 17 countries before he moved to Pennsylvania in 2014.
1: Paul L. Nunez, The New Science of Consciousness, Prometheus Books, 11/2016.
2: Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Shambhala, 2002.