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China Cultural Awareness Training – 5 Areas to Focus on

By Keith Warburton

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By Keith Warburton

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I’ve been running cultural awareness training now for almost two decades and during that time it has been fascinating to watch the growth in interest in China business culture during that period. Fifteen years ago, my company Global Business Culture had far more client enquiries about Japan and Japanese business culture, but the balance has definitely shifted towards China which I suppose just reflects today’s global economic realities.

In our experience clients’ interest in China culture training stems from 4 main concerns:

  1. A client has been acquired by a Chinese parent company and is concerned about being able to influence their new head office effectively.
  2. A client has a significant supply chain in China.
  3. A client has a subsidiary operating in China – either manufacturing or sales.
  4. A client is looking at China as a potentially lucrative future market.

Whatever the client’s relationship with China might be, it seems obvious that a better understanding of cultural expectations in China will make any relationships run smoother and China cultural awareness training for key staff then becomes a ‘need to have’ and not a ‘nice to have’.

Keith Warburton

Keith Warburton, Global Business Culture CEO.

So, what should a good China cultural awareness training programme focus on? Well, I’ll start by covering what it definitely shouldn’t focus on – trivia! I recently received an email from a client asking us to cover the following issues in a course for their senior exec team:

  • Best way to greet and introduce an individual
  • If receiving a gift, how to respond appropriately
  • Anything on entertaining/dinner/drinks?
  • Anything else useful

These are the type of areas I would consider to be trivia and they will not have a significant impact (positive or negative) on business going forward. You’ll never lose a deal in China because you introduce yourself ‘oddly’ from a Chinese perspective – they know you are not Chinese!

In our view there are five key areas that a training programme should focus on. There are others, but time is always limited so these are the essential topics:

1. Relationship-building:

China is built on an intricate and delicate network of inter-dependent relationships and is definitely one of those countries where relationships come before business rather than where business starts and then relationships might start to be forged during the implementation stage. Therefore, enormous emphasis must be placed on forming the right type of relationship with the right people in any target Chinese company, department or sector. That’s the easy bit but the hard bit is around how do you form those relationships, how do you build and maintain trust and what might you unwittingly do to endanger the relationship-building process in the early stages? Programme delegates need to also work through the commercial implications of this relationship-building process. Relationships aren’t built overnight – the process needs time, consistency, face-time and an understanding of the end-game. All of this costs money and management bandwidth – neither of which are usually factored into a China strategy. Most of all, you need patience and courage. ‘In China everything is possible, but nothing is easy,’ a wise man once said to me.

2. Hierarchy:

China and Chinese thought patterns are heavily influenced by Confucian philosophy and Confucianism promotes a hierarchical view of the world. Hierarchy is not just about how you organise your internal corporate structure, it impacts on every inter-personal relationship you have in your life – both in the workplace and in your private life. A non-hierarchical world is largely unimaginable to many Chinese people.

Therefore, delegates on any China cultural awareness training programme need to gain an understanding of how hierarchical thinking impacts on business relationships in China and how it can have a significant affect on such disparate tactical areas, such as information flow, decision-making, email communication and project implementation. Delegates also need to be aware of the influence of hierarchical thinking on some key strategic aspects, such as aligning your global corporate structures with the structure of a Chinese subsidiary, the practical roll-out of new global policies and compliance challenges.

A good deal of time needs to spent exploring these issues during any training programme which purports to help people navigate their way around China.

3. Face:

Everybody knows that ‘face’ is important in China (and East Asia generally) and that you should be very careful not to do anything to make people lose face. Once you have alienated people by making them lose face it is often difficult, if not impossible, to undo the harm. This fact is amplified by the fact that, should you make one person from a department lose face, you can often then damage your relationship with whole department who might see you as a ‘dangerous’ person. (If you are insensitive enough to make one person lose face you might do the same to others).

It is one thing to know that you should be careful not to make people lose face; it is quite another to avoid the trap. Very few people would knowingly do something to make a colleague or client lose face, but many people do so unwittingly – unaware of the impact of their actions through the eyes of people with a completely different cultural background with different sensitivities.

A good China cultural awareness training programme should make delegates aware of the potential impact of their seemingly well-intentioned actions in China. Where are the main pitfalls? What is taken for granted in the West but viewed askance in China?

4. Long-term thinking:

China is an ancient country and the Chinese think in decades not fiscal quarters. This is often at odds with the mentality of Western businesses who are driven by short-termism and investor expectations. If you are looking to forming relationships in China, you need to think long-term. What’s in it for them long-term and, just as importantly, what’s in it for China over the coming ten to twenty years? Western businesses all too often approach China with a business model that says, ‘if we do this, this and this we will be cash positive in year three.’ The Chinese listen to the plan but are waiting for what the long-term implication of the plan might be over a longer time-frame. Without those reference points the plan will often seem risky or ill-considered by serious players in China.

Long-term thinking is linked to traditional Chinese attitudes to risk which revolve around the need to consider opportunities at length, in detail and from all angles before reaching a decision (and them probably going through the process again). The risk is perceived to be in lack of depth of analysis and planning rather than on betting whether the market might change if you don’t move quickly.

5. Communication:

The manifestation of all business ideas is through the language that you use, and communication is the key business tool. Communicating with people in your own culture who speak the same language as you can be difficult enough, but cross-cultural communication can be a minefield. Any China cultural awareness training programme should have a significant section which explores the complexities of communicating in China. Key areas to focus on are:

  • Communication styles
  • Using English effectively in China
  • Body language issues
  • Email communication

Not everybody can learn to speak Chinese, but everybody can understand how to communicate more effectively with Chinese counterparts in English. Improved communication results in improved relationships and efficiencies.

A China cultural awareness training (or a series of interventions aimed at different areas of the business) can have a massively positive impact on your business performance if done well; it can also possibly have a negative impact if delivered in a way which alienates the audience and doesn’t focus on key commercial issues. The skill of delivering a good programme is in being able to relate the generic China cultural points to the strategic and tactical objectives of the business – if these links are not made, the training might prove pointless.

If you would like to discuss how Global Business Culture could develop and deliver meaningful training programmes for you, please contact us.

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