As you might expect, cultural differences account for many of the potential pitfalls. However, I was struck by how many of these are not absolutes but, rather, differences in emphasis or degree. For example, ‘Face’ is important to the Chinese but, as Frank says, it is an issue for Westerners too.
The issue of “Face” in China will drive you crazy, but only if you forget that you have it too, in smaller doses. Walk on eggshells for a while, until you get used to it.
No-one likes being humiliated in public. If you have to take someone to task about their performance or behaviour, you should do so in private, rather than in an open meeting. Sure, there are differences between what people see as loss of face in different cultures, but to a degree, we all have a certain amount of pride and need for our status to be respected.
Over-management in China is not a big problem. It is the solution. Employees will do everything in their power to avoid giving you bad news. So you have to go find it yourself, before the small problems become big problems.
Again, this behaviour is not uncommon in British organisations. It often manifests itself in the nodding-dog syndrome, where someone will sit in a meeting and claim that everything is on track, then everyone else nods in agreement, not wishing to challenge him because none of their projects are on track either. People often think, or hope, that they can iron out small problems and claw back any project over-runs before anyone else finds out. In a review meeting, their instincts tell them to play for time rather than ask for help. As a manager, unless you probe and ask searching questions, you only find out that things are going to rat-shit when the problems have become too big to cover up. Often, the only way to find out what is really going on is to visit a project team and see what they are actually doing.
Here’s my favourite example from Frank’s list:
Conflict is avoided at all cost, even at the cost of your profitability. Maintenance of relationships comes first in China.
This statement could be applied to a number of organisations in the UK. Many management problems stem from an unwillingness to confront poor performance or other behavioural issues. Look at a list of Employment Tribunal cases and you will find that most of them are the result of festering conflicts that, had they been nipped in the bud, would never have got to the stage of grievances, disciplinaries and dismissals. Failure to deal with performance issues is endemic in British organisations. As in Frank’s Chinese example, the threat to profitability isn’t an issue for the large state and private sector bureaucracies. Managers in many of these organisations are prepared to tolerate inefficiencies, which can be hidden behind big budgets, if it means that they can avoid the discomfort of confrontation. It is only when the organisation is on the brink of failure that poor or mediocre performance is challenged. Too often, managers then over-compensate by turning into mini-Terminators, sacking large numbers of people without due process and, once again, landing the company in court.
There are certainly cultural differences to be considered when doing business in an unfamiliar country. However, in may ways, people are similar the world over. We don’t like to be humiliated in front of our peers, we bury our heads in the sand, hoping we can somehow sort our problems out before anyone else notices, and most of us avoid conflict and confrontation until all else has failed.
British workers might be different from those in China in some respects but we are all human beings trying to survive in the workplace. The strategies we use to do that are, unsurprisingly, very similar.