Many Western managers stationed in China start off enthusiastically, focussed on getting positive results, but after short time, most of them end up dealing with a case of culture shock for which they are not prepared. After about two months the behavior of the Chinese begins to irritate them; never getting direct answers, always faced with an everlasting smile that says nothing, chaotic traffic, etc. These feelings of irritation come out at the international clubs where expatriates go to share their tales and lick their wounds. However, they seldom examine the reasons behind their irritation. As time passes, they get more annoyed and eventually lose sight of all the positive aspects. I hear them say îthey cannot even eat in a decent manner╣ or îI╣ve already eaten so much Chinese food, you╣d think I╣d understand them by now╣. These are not the same people who went to China full of enthusiasm, and many return to the West within a year.
Why does this happen? Language is an obstacle for many, but the most important reason is that they observe Chinese behavior from their own frame of reference and from their own cultural background. Everything that is not known to Western behavior is labeled inappropriate and the îI know what is best for you╣ attitude soon prevails.
Imagine a Chinese person arriving for his first day of work. What does he see, how does he feel? This should be the first point of reference. You will have to know and understand the problems he sees. This is impossible when you have no clue how he thinks, what he values and regards and how he sees the world. The Chinese worker is insecure in his new career and this insecurity is the only certainty he has. His insecurity challenges him and it will provoke him to figure out what he can learn or contribute in his new position. Chinese workers that seem completely comfortable during their first weeks with a joint venture or Western based company should be judged with suspicion. When problems arise, as they inevitably will, you will see the same worker in a totally different light, his behavior driven by his own culture and upbringing. The idea that a Chinese worker understands what you expect from him is not a given. The Chinese are willing to fit in, but appearance does not make him just like you. I am convinced that the Chinese will remain Chinese, even though they change their appearance to suit the situation.
The central question is: What makes others tick? And with that knowledge, how can you motivate them? A prerequisite for motivating others is mutual trust and personal contact. We must allow the other person a chance to grow. If we apply this to the Chinese, it means we must take an interest in their situation, in the problems they see. We have to figure out their needs and play to them. This means to talk WITH them, not TO them.
A Western manager said: "The biggest problem in China is to figure out how the Chinese way of thinking fits in our Western manner of management".
We can solve this problem by first looking at the aspects of the Chinese culture that make it Chinese. I am not just talking about different customs that are easily observed like eating with chopsticks or drinking tea from a cup with a lid, but also the less obvious differences in customs and behavior. With just a little more attention you can distinguish customs like a person nodding with the head to greet someone, the speaker joining the audience╣s applause, the host preceding a guest inside and saying îgoodbye╣ only when the other person is right next to the taxi, the manner in which one presents or receives business cards, brochures and presents with two hands, etc. These are Chinese customs that all Chinese grew up with, customs that translate into polite and proper behavior.
Even more important for Westerners is to know how Chinese feel about certain aspects of life. Here are some examples:
A questionnaire was filled in by thousand American and Asian managers. The question was: "You are on a ship with your mother, your wife and your child. The ship is about to go down and you are the only one who can swim. Who do you save?" Most Americans chose to save the child and almost none to save the mother. Their argument was that the child should be saved since he still had his entire life ahead of him. Most of the Asian managers, on the other hand, chose to save the mother, the person that took care of them. They justified the decision by saying, "I can always remarry and have another child but I could never replace my mother."
When you are training or educating Chinese workers, testing comprehension with the question 'Do you understand?' they will almost always evoke the answer 'yes' no matter whether he truly understands. 'Yes' could just as easily mean 'no, I do not understand any of it', or 'I understand only a little'. Why? Admitting that he does not understand could imply that your explanation was not sufficient, in effect insulting you. Claiming to understand when he does not could also be a means of saving face in front of management and co-workers.
A job interview with a Chinese candidate could include the question, "will you take personal responsibility for any actions you make on the job?" Westerners would not even ask this question during job interviews because everybody knows you are personally responsible for any actions or decisions you make on the job. In China, this is not a given. Taking personal responsibility opens one to criticism and a possible loss of respect should something go wrong, which is not acceptable in Chinese culture.
When a Westerner manager encounters these examples in the work place, without knowing the origin of the action, difficulties are sure to follow. He will know what he sees but not why. Many of the problems that Westerners encounter in China stem from different cultural definitions of concepts that are frequently used in the work place. When we listen to the Chinese, we find that concepts such as hierarchy, relations, harmony, honesty and freedom have different meanings than those we take for granted.