Chinese Culture: 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.

Xiáo and Mianzi – What to Expect

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.

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