August 14, 2014

Doing Business in China: Cartus Insights

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Doing Business in China: Cartus Insights

Working in Shanghai as an account manager for Cartus Intercultural & Language Solutions, I have often been asked by my HR contacts, “Which is more important—corporate culture or national culture?”

I answer them with another question: “How long has your employee worked in the corporate culture, and how long have they been Chinese?” Although corporate culture is strong, its influence doesn’t have the depth that national culture has. Traditional cultural values in China, such as Hierarchy, Face, or the Guan Xi (relationship) are still key cultural business drivers today.

In the Chinese business culture, a clear gap exists between management and the general workforce. The power structure is clear and unquestioned, and everyone knows their role in the group. In addition, age, gender, and position in the company all matter when it comes to interactions and how one is treated in the business hierarchy. How does hierarchy influence work in a multinational company? An old Chinese saying may apply here: “One heart cannot serve two masters.” So matrix reporting lines often cause confusion for Chinese employees, who must ask themselves: Who is my true leader—my direct-line manager, or the dotted-line manager?

“Saving Face”
One way harmony is maintained in China generally, and in business specifically, is through careful attention to “face.” In China, “face” (or one’s reputation, to define the term loosely) can be lost, given, and/or saved. One can “lose face” simply by causing someone else to lose face. Subordinates usually do not ask questions of their superiors in group settings. For example, if a subordinate doesn’t understand a request and shows his concern, he might be thought of as not smart enough to understand the request. Or, his boss might be thought of as not having done a good enough job of explaining the request. If both parties lose their “face” and this is witnessed by others, the result is a “lose-lose” situation, so why bother?

How does face influence international assignees working in China? In order to save someone’s face, instead of saying “No” directly, your Chinese counterparts will show their concern by saying “Maybe,” “That will be difficult,” or simply remaining silent. Many assignees do not understand such indirect communication and therefore, they miss the key message completely. For assignee success when working in China, the skills of reading between the lines and listening for hidden messages are crucial.

Relationships, or “Guan Xi,” are very important in China. Relationships with family or friends can make a huge difference in the potential for professional development or opportunities. To build trust initially, you will need to make a good first impression by having a third party introduce you to a new group or contact. This demonstrates that you are worthy of being vouched for or are significant enough to be shared with others. “Name dropping,” often frowned upon in some cultures, is actually a good way to demonstrate to others what a strong connection you can be; it gives you value in a relationship or social setting.
How can this concept of relationships increase assignees’ success? In many cultures’ workplaces, it is perfectly acceptable to eat alone in the cafeteria or spend time at your desk, but eating alone in China sends the message that people are not worthy of your time. It’s best to eat in a group and share your food with your colleagues to develop strong relationships. No wonder there is a book on how to work effectively in China titled, “Never Eat Alone.” This is very important for assignees in China, as Chinese contracts are typically finalized at a Chinese banquet after sharing a nice meal together and drinking Chinese white wine (sorghum).
So, even though your corporate culture is very strong, assignees who pay close attention to the above three cultural business drivers in China will gain the important trust of their Chinese colleagues and will have a much greater chance of accomplishing their assignment objectives.
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Jessica Lv

About Jessica

Jessica Lv is an account manager in Cartus’ Intercultural and Language Solutions practice in Shanghai, China. Since November 2012, she has served as a consultant assisting clients in addressing their global workforce development needs.

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