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Busting the myths of Chinese business culture

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Erin Meyer, author and professor at the International Business School INSEAD and an expert in cross-cultural management, and Elisabeth Shen, a consultant who helps westerners moving to China understand the business culture, bust some common Chinese business culture myths. 

China may be the world’s focal point of business, but the country remains an impenetrable mystery to most western executives.

It goes without saying that the culture in China is different. No prizes for knowing that. The real problem for westerners with little work experience in China is that Chinese culture isn’t different in the way they have assumed.

Over a period of 12 months, we interviewed dozens of expatriates living in China about what they had heard Chinese business would be like before they moved and what they experienced when they arrived.  Our findings reveal three myths in particular.

Myth 1 – Long-termism: Think Three Times before You Act
“In the west we always talk about how long-term the Asian cultures are in their business approach.  This myth could not be more inaccurate when applied to China,”  observes Frédéric Maury, a French business leader in the technical services industry.

“In the West, we spend time trying to predict the future and getting it wrong. In China no one thinks about the future.”

Michael Drake, a British logistics executive says: “My diary is full of appointments for a month ahead. But for many local business people everything is ad hoc and on the fly.”

One European interviewee, who has worked for the World Bank in China for over 10 years concludes: “They are amazing at ad hoc logistics. I’ve attended dozens if not hundreds of workshops in China, and not one has gone according to plan. Things change the night before – speakers, topics, even venues. But it all always ends up working out fine.  They are extremely flexible, and you just do the same.”
You know the old proverb that when in Rome, you should do as the Romans do? Marco Gentili, an Italian executive from the industrial machinery business, who has lived in Shanghai for over a decade, gives exactly this advice to fellow-Romans coming to China.

“The Chinese will often pop in to see you with no appointment. This used to make me angry, as I felt they didn’t respect my time,” he said.

But now I’ve learned I can do this too. If I have 30 minutes to spare, I just make a quick call from a taxi and visit someone working in the area.

Another tip applies particularly to westerners managing Chinese employees. Pieter de Waart, a Dutch manager for an international manufacturing company explains. “If you ask someone to do something, you’d better be careful!

“They won’t say, ‘OK, if I do that, I can’t finish this.’ Instead, they’ll just drop what they’re doing for the new task. So, if you want them to do something by Friday, don’t tell them now. Put it in your own diary to tell them on Thursday.”

In other words, you have to adopt a ‘just-in-time’ management style to match the culture you’re working in.
Myth 2 – Collectivism : No matter how stout one beam, it cannot support a house.
“Before being expatriated to China,” says one Canadian national and pharmaceuticals executive, whom we’ll call Bill Canon. “I’d heard it was a great collective environment and everyone worked well together.”

This commonly held belief is certainly reinforced by the cross-cultural literature, not to mention the training that Canon and so many others have received. But Canon also took the sensible step of consulting people with recent experience.

“Right before my move I went to visit a friend who had lived in China for five years and really loved the culture. One of the questions I asked him was what do the Chinese people really care about? He thought a moment and said, ‘Well, each Chinese business person I have worked with is focused above all on his own individual success’.

“Of course, I refused to believe him.” But on arriving and working in China, he realised his friend’s comment had some truth to it.

“There is an intense self-interest – more important than company, community or nation,” he said.

During the cultural revolution, when family members and neighbours turned against each other, the Chinese learned that in the end you only have yourself.

Canon also believes that the one-child policy has had a major effect on the younger generation, who are accustomed to being treated like ‘little emperors’. And these two triggers of excessive individualism are exacerbated by a third: Mass migration to big cities, which has unravelled family and community ties over several decades.

Wei Chen, a Chinese manager now living in Paris and working in the luxury goods sector, has a different explanation for her country’s new-found individualism – its suppression for many generations.

“Traditional Chinese culture is deeply rooted in in-group harmony. As a child I was punished for stepping out of the box and told to ‘be average’. But we have left this mentality with a passion. In China, we are so eager to move ahead,” she says.

“Westerners often feel our style is pushy and aggressive.”

Myth 3 – Risk aversion: The bird who sticks out his head gets shot first
As Michael Drake puts it: “In the West we like to debate something, print it out, debate it again, do some analysis. But in China it’s, ‘Right, we’ve decided, boom, off we go!’” The behaviour he describes is obviously risky, but it’s a recurring theme of our research.
Bill Canon sums it up: “In China, there are fewer opportunities than in the US, so when opportunity does arise, you have to seize it. Life has been so hard so long that the Chinese can’t afford not to take a risk. It’s probably this attitude that has helped them to shake off 30 years of communism so quickly.”

And Wei Chen confirms it: “We don’t want to lose a single minute! We have a lot of confidence and we are very comfortable with risk.”

So, once again, if you can’t beat them should you join them?

Expatriates have to handle their contribution with cultural sensitivity. As another French national, Edith Coron, intercultural consultant and coach, explains.

“In an environment where GDP is growing at over 10% a year it’s understandable that the level of entrepreneurship and risk-taking should be so high.”

And as we’ve seen before, perhaps it’s important for westerners to shift their own mindset and accentuate the positives of the situation. As our World Bank executive puts it, “The Chinese have a culture of trying, which makes them dare a lot. And in some ways trying is more important than planning: the more you try, the more you learn – and the better your chances of winning.”

When myth meets reality: If there is a wave, there must be a wind
In reality, anyone working with the Chinese will probably find a subtle blend of old myth and new aspirations. This may be particularly true when working with the Chinese government or older generations. In addition, in comparison with the west, while decisions may be short term, relationships most certainly aren’t.

It takes comparatively a long time indeed to build business bonds in China. And those bonds are likely to be the key to success.

Chinese culture is  a multi-faceted, many-layered, fast-changing construct of cultural factors. Old myths co-exist with new realities – and unravelling the two presents a major challenge to westerners.

But then the truth about culture is rarely simple. And if that isn’t an old Chinese proverb, it ought to be.
Image: Shutterstock

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