I’ve been mugged, robbed, and hustled in China. I’ve survived sandstorms, hotel fires, coal mines, and state-sponsored industrial espionage. I spent most of my time in places most foreigners have never even heard of, including three years in a town where I was the only foreigner among 500,000 Chinese. I’ve eaten scorpions, ants, beetles, live fish, dried blood, and animal parts I wouldn’t feed to my neighbor’s cat (and I hate that cat). I have pretty much mastered the art of the Chinese formal banquet, including when to drink, how to drink, how to cheat while appearing to drink, and how to stay alive when 50 Chinese people each want to drink a shot with you. I have sung love songs to a male-only audience (senior management of JV partner) and learned to smile when they sing to me. I have accidentally propositioned people, ordered testicles when I wanted meatballs, and misunderstood more conversations than I can count, all on the way to attaining near fluency in Mandarin Chinese. Along the way I had more than ten years of intensive, hands-on, cross-cultural experience doing business and managing operations in China.
Culture wasn’t important to me until I couldn’t ignore it
Before my time in China, I didn’t see culture as being terribly important to business or anything else. I certainly received no training or preparation on the topic before my first assignment overseas. Then came the above referenced experiences which basically amounted to complete cultural immersion. Wow! I was surrounded by cultural differences. I couldn’t turn around without banging my head into one. I couldn’t believe how impactful they were.
Working with foreigners is an intensive cultural experience
Keep in mind, I didn’t move to Belgium or even Japan. This was a very poor country still in the early stages of unwinding communism. I wasn’t just living there and “observing” the Chinese. I worked there, which involved leading, managing, cooperating, disagreeing, competing, criticizing, encouraging, organizing, evaluating, and all the other things that go into working with people. I couldn’t just shrug my shoulders and so “Oh well, I guess that’s how they do it here.” I had to figure out how to get the result I needed. That pressure has a tendency to make you take notice and think things through with a heightened level of intensity.
From the line to the road to the factory floor
Let me give you a few examples. Let’s start with the two issues that almost all foreigners notice about China. First, when it comes to waiting in line or queuing, the Chinese often don’t. They cut in line, gather in bunches and jostle, anything but wait in a single file line. The second thing is how the Chinese drive, which is a lot like how they wait in line—not exactly in an orderly fashion. Not stopping at stop signs, exiting off entrance ramps, NASCAR-like lane changing—one sees way more of this type of driving in China than America. If you aren’t managing a factory in China, then you see these things, tell a few good stories when you get home, and forget about them. I was managing a factory a China. As I did so it become clear to me that how the Chinese organized themselves in a queue and on the road related to how they worked in a production line. To put it succinctly, I realized I needed crystal clear instructions and fairly intensive supervision—more so than I would expect in the US. This was not a difference I could ignore.
Tiger bosses and meek employees
Here’s another great example that comes from a story related to me by a good friend. He took a job managing the Chinese subsidiary of a large US company. The factory had more than 1,000 people. He approached his job with gusto, excited to turn this laggard of a factory into a dynamic, efficient work place. His first two weeks on the job he enthusiastically spread the gospel of “empowerment,” again and again telling his colleagues that this wasn’t “his” factory to manage it was “our” factory to manage together. He said he wanted input from everyone so they could make the factory a success “together.” After a few weeks of this, one of his new colleagues pulled him aside and said, “You have to stop this ‘empowerment’ stuff. This is China. That’s not how we do things here.” When my friend asked this colleague how he should manage, the colleague said “You are the boss. You tell us what to do. We do it. That’s how it works.”
The boss has all the power and makes all the decisions. The subordinates are not expected to think for themselves and are not allowed to question the boss. This approach certainly wasn’t limited to this factory. You don’t have to work for long in China before you see that pattern over and over again. My friend’s story exactly matched my experience. That was definitely a cultural attribute I could not ignore.
I could provide many more examples. In fact I could write a book full of examples. (I already have. Twice.) The point is that, while cultural differences might be easy to overlook from a far, when you are up to your eyeballs in cultural issues that impact how you do your job, you really can’t ignore them any longer.
Another obvious point: China’s culture is changing
There’s one other thing you can’t ignore in a place like China—the fact that cultures change. Queuing and driving isn’t as orderly in China as in America, but both are becoming more orderly over time, as are Chinese factories. As China’s economy develops, its companies grow and its products and services become more sophisticated. Chinese bosses learn that, with larger companies in more sophisticated industries, if you don’t have people who can think for themselves and make decisions, and if you don’t let them do so, you won’t succeed. So bosses begin to “empower” their subordinates and subordinates learn to think for themselves and make decisions. It is cultural changes like these, and many others, that lift countries from poverty to prosperity and freedom. We certainly shouldn’t ignore that.