CHINA: Cultural Insights for Business Success – Part 5: On the Ground

In this part of the series we’ll discuss practical application and working with the strengths and within the limitations of Confucian culture. There is no formula, and no guide can be complete, so we will examine anecdotally some of the top issues and scenarios one may face.

Staff Interactions

In Part 2 – Confucian History and Elements we discussed the principle of xiào (filial piety and respect for elders) and its extension into general society and business management. Xiào prescribes and proscribes certain behaviors, and misunderstanding of xiào is the single most important factor limiting the success of Western enterprises in Confucian societies. Mianzi (face saving) is likewise a powerful and widespread behavior creating perplexing challenges for management.

Here are some manifestations of xiào and mianzi in real world environments:

  • Managers are expected to issue orders, while staff is expected to follow orders.
  • Individual initiative and creativity will be observed to be very limited – people are waiting to be told what to do.
  • Staff will not object to wrong-headed or ill-considered directives from management greatly increasing the risk of major mistakes – especially in the case of a foreign manager not well experienced in the environment.
  • Local managers who may be experiencing problems will not openly report the problems and ask for help (loss of personal face). Even when asked directly by management, managers will consistently deny issues that may exist.
  • Managers and staff may not of their own initiative bring up problems they are facing and seek assistance from their supervisors.
  • Managers and staff will almost never demand change from top management.
  • Most staff have difficulty “selling up” – that is, working effectively with management within clients who are at a higher level than they are.
  • Quality problems, whose causes may be well known, may not be openly brought to light for fear or offending superiors who may be perceived as responsible for processes or equipment (losing the face of a superior).
  • Innovation and new ideas may be seen to not be forthcoming (for fear of losing personal face in the case of a bad idea or failure, or by reluctance to being seen as challenging status quo put in place by management).
  • Clients will at times give vague or evasive answers.
  • Team meetings in which one may normally in the West expect a free-flow of ideas may not be nearly as productive or effective in developing solutions.

Certainly the list above does not describe an ideal environment. Many of the limitations, however, can be overcome through certain approaches.

Relative to managing internal staff, managers must first be aware of some of the behaviors to expect and their causes. To intercept problems that may be developing out of sight, managers must be ever-diligent in checking the progress of staff. Where possible, managers should be meeting face-to-face with clients, walking the shop floor and so on.

Being very sensitive and always diligent relative to non-verbal cues is a critical skill to develop. Vague language, highly mitigated speech and evasive or defensive body language are glaring red flags to be taken very seriously and often are indicative of significant underlying problems.

After problems are discovered, care must also be taken in finding and implementing solutions. If a manager offers a solution – then the discussion with staff is generally over, and staff will diligently seek to implement the proposal. Much is usually lost in this approach – namely the insights and ideas of staff.

Likewise, if a manager asks in a team meeting for a proposal for solving the problem, he may not hear the best solutions proposed as staff will often be very conservative in their suggestions so as not to embarrass themselves with ideas that may be rejected or out of concern for making a suggestion that may be contrary to the opinion of the manager.

A better approach is often a one-on-one discussion in which solutions or proposals are solicited and modifications proposed in the form of questions or in other mitigated-speech manners encouraging a feeling of safety that staff proposals will be greeted enthusiastically and modified in constructive face-saving manners.

Brainstorming, Innovation, Problem-Solving and Team Meetings

Accessing the best ideas, as may be imagined, is particularly challenging for many of the reasons mentioned.

In my early days in China I led an Asian team to develop regional implementation of strategy. This was a very long two days of blank faces and mostly silence with the ultimate result that our plans were largely developed by myself and one Swiss technical leader.

It is advisable to bring in a professional coach (such as a brainstorming trainer) for some of the early meetings of this type until people get slightly more acclimated to expectations and build a bit more comfort in this sort of environment. Expectations should also be clearly stated in acknowledgement of the very different approach to be taken in comparison with staff’s previous experience. Where possible meetings should be structured such that ideas are written and submitted – somewhat anonymously – to encourage more openness.

Relative to problem-solving in general, it often works to “assign” a staff member to develop three proposals to solve a problem and to meet one-on-one at a later date. In this case, he has a clear order that he is obligated by duty to fulfill, and the one-on-one review session removes some of the societal exposure and pressure that may be felt otherwise.

Please keep this point in mind: Asking a Westerner to behave in a more Confucian manner requires that we, for example, develop a bit more decorum and restraint. But asking a Confucian to behave in a more Western manner is to ask them to behave in ways that they have been taught are deeply offensive and taboo. It is simply much more difficult for a Confucian to adopt Western manners than the converse.

The challenge of creating a more open and innovative result in Confucian societies is a very significant one, requires patience, careful thought at each event, steady persistence and usually requires years of effort.

Client Interactions

Delayed decision-making by clients can be (but certainly is not always) an important signal that something may be amiss. Clients will often not reject directly an unacceptable proposal and may instead defer direct communication in order to not lose your face. In the case of a proposal that is to be rejected for any number of reasons, senior client members may offer an range of various difficult to deal with objections. A series of seemingly peripheral but difficult to solve objections is often intended as a clue that a proposal has been or is on the way to being rejected. Dogged persistence in the face-to-face meeting is, in this case, ill-advised as it will be perceived as an effort to place the counterpart in a situation requiring him or her to violate his or your mianzi. A better approach is to summarize this portion of the discussion by asking for commitment from the senior counterpart to support follow-up between your and their lower-level staffs.

In other cases answers may not be forthcoming for other reasons. The client senior manager may not know the answer; he may need more information (but may not ask directly due to mianzi concerns); he may not have the authority to make the decision and may need time for internal discussions with supervisors; he may feel a need to consult with his staff to gain consensus and buy-in. All of these concerns, if discussed openly, have the potential create loss of face for the client-manager. As above, it is best in this case to state clearly the question or concern, why it is important, and ask for commitment for the staffs to resolve the issue in “off-line” meetings in the near future. It is often completely acceptable to ask for a due date allowing reasonable time for the types of underlying concerns to be addressed by the client. In this case you gain commitment for internal action by the client, so that you may expect better information in the near future.

Increasing pressure for immediate answers is almost never the correct approach.

Xiào also significantly limits the ability of most junior staff to interact effectively with more senior staff employed by clients. Yet within xiào, senior executives (more than may be the case in the West) make most of the important decisions. The solution to this dilemma is to have at least one more-senior staff in place in China who can interact with the client senior staff to state issues and concerns and gain commitment to resolution. In this scenario the issues may be worked by junior internal-staff working on the same level with junior client-staff – both working in a manner as surrogates for the senior executives from both sides. It is usually effective to state and explore the business issues to the degree possible, then request that any unresolved matters be dealt with by staff-to-staff interactions.


As mentioned in Part 4 – Guanxi, building guanxi should be a regular activity for any executive in China. The role of an executive in China is much more social than may be the case in the West. Opportunities to interact with clients outside the office environment should always be welcomed and sought-out. Executives should always be alert to opportunities to make some contributions to their business partner (clients, suppliers, government officials, etc.) counterparts.

As guanxi becomes established it should not be surprising to be asked for certain assistance, and executives should always seek ways in which to meet the request – if not fully, then at least partially.

True guanxi is a very powerful tool in the executive’s toolbox. But it takes years, decades or a lifetime to fully develop. Keep in mind that individuals – not the corporation, hold any existing guanxi that may be of benefit to a corporation. The trend for corporations to “rotate” new executives into a region for 3-4 year assignments is not conducive at all to long-term development of guanxi.

Read the Series: CHINA: Cultural Insights for Business Success

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Confucian History and Elements

Part 3: Guanxi

Part 4: Mianzi

Part 5: On the Ground

Part 6: Management Staffing

Tracy Crawford
CEO | Rain8 Group LLC
Managing Partner | CHC Couture Hospitality Concept
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