Being based in a foreign country can be difficult. Different languages and customs can create barriers on a daily basis, and frustrations seem to be found around every corner. Of course, dealing with this kind of culture shock is a natural part of adapting to any new environment, and with hard work, it will pass in time.
However, the challenges multiply when you are employed in a foreign country, and are expected to drive business results, as part of a team, or even the leader of a department or office. Fitting into a new business culture, especially if you don’t speak the language, can be very challenging as many norms and rules are left unspoken, especially in cultures that favor more conservative and less direct approaches, such as in China.
The need to understand the behaviors, attitudes, and preferences of local consumers, business partners, media, and even government officials also adds to the challenges, as many of us working in the business world operate in part based on our own experiences, which create a clear map within our own minds of what works, and what doesn’t. Overcoming these existing mental patterns can be very difficult, but ignoring them can easily lead to business failure.
With these points in mind, I’d like to discuss a concept I’ve discussed with students and academics in Mainland China, called “Dual-Culture Management (双文化管理)”. While this may sound similar to “cross-cultural management”, it differs in one core aspect: Dual-Culture Management focuses on simultaneously observing an respecting the values of multiple cultures’ values and beliefs. In my work in China, I’ve too often seen cross-cultural work simplified to the culture with less power becoming subservient to the culture with more power. An example of this could be Chinese workers in Western companies forced to adopt the Western style, and vice versa for Western employees working in Chinese companies, if they are willing to adopt a different style at all.
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I have begun using the concept of “Dual-Culture” as my experience has shown me that working as a bridge across cultures requires a mindset that includes more than a single way of thinking or doing things in order to achieve maximum effectiveness. And here, “success” relates to being able to not only meet your business objectives, but also build strong, sustainable, and trusted teams across different markets. In order to move closer to this type of more balanced cultural style, there are a number of mental adjustments that need to take place, some of which I will discuss below.
- Adjusting your management and communication style
- Adjusting your business instincts
- Adjusting your cultural sensitivity
- Adjusting your working speed (Watch the video here)
Adjusting Your Management and Communication Style
Taking on a management role in a foreign culture can be challenging as there can often be significant differences in things like hierarchy, organizational structure, workplace culture, and other aspects of the workplace. For example, when a Western manager moves to China, it’s very common for them to find that teams need more direct instruction, which sometimes can include direct micromanagement of important tasks and additional training for what might be considered basic skills overseas.
Communicating effectively also can prove to be a challenge when operating in a business environment where English is most often a second or third language. Adding to this unique dynamic is how the need for a more direct management approach combines with the need to also communicate in a more roundabout and respectful manner in certain scenarios, no matter whether you are the boss or an employee.
In China, there is oten a specific cultural idea of correct management practices, which includes concepts such as giving Face, developing relationships, and even showing the proper types of character and behavior, a term call Suzhi, which I previously discussed in a previous blog post as well as a journal publication. Suzhi includes things such as keeping a low profile, showing tact, observing rules of respect and etiquette, and other things. And while every company is slightly different, the above points should help to illustrate how different business management can be in the Chinese context, and the need to adapt.
And while not many Chinese would expect a Western team member, manager, or boss to adapt completely, my own experience has shown that those willing to adapt, find much greater success in daily management and communication, as well as building lasting relationships and business success.
Adjusting Your Business Instincts
When Western companies establish offices in overseas countries such as China, one of the biggest challenges for Western managers on the ground, as well as top management overseeing operations from abroad, can be how often their natural management instincts can often steer them wrong.
It is all too common for senior leaders and managers to strongly rely on their own experiences in overseas markets, as well as what could be considered an unconscious understanding of how things “should work”. Sadly, when making the crucial decisions these instincts can lead to the wrong decisions on a number of fronts, including managing people, building local relationships and partnerships, engaging with the media, and working with the Chinese government (Important for all businesses in China).
One example of an issue that can challenge senior Western managers who are new to China is conducting local media relations. On one hand, in China, the focus in China when dealing with the media often revolves around payment for access and content, vastly different from the focus on relationships and unbiased journalism in Western markets. On the other hand, the government-led aspect of China’s state-controlled media landscape, and the censorship that comes with it, presents many challenges and potential landmines to overseas companies looking to tell their stories in China.
Another example comes from my own personal experience. Once, when attending a meeting with a Western company looking to expand it’s presence in the Chinese market, my team gave a presentation on new developments in China’s retail market and the new business models that were working in China. Unfortunately, at the time, the main feedback from top leadership was that the recommendations presented to them did not fit “their” operating model. This unwillingness to even consider different approaches, can make it impossible to succeed in the Chinese market, where all domestic competitors know the market better than Western managers.
Overall, this type of thinking, wanting to continue with business as usual in a new market, is not uncommon when companies come to China. However, at best this mindset can result in a huge lack of preparedness, and at worse lead to serious market errors. It’s therefore vital for senior leaders and managers who are new to China to adjust their expectations and instincts accordingly, especially if they intend to compete successfully with local competitors.
Adjusting Your Cultural Sensitivity
Different countries and markets also have many types of cultural landmines that can be triggered by regular business operations as well as insensitive marketing and communications work. And in China, with its mobile-focused consumers, bad press can spread exceptionally fast and lead to extremely negative consumer sentiment.
One of the most poignant examples in recent memory was when Italian fashion house Dolce and Gabbana got into serious trouble on social media for releasing ads in China that many viewed as racist. Not only did this decision lead to intense consumer anger, it forced the company to cancel a huge fashion show in China, with many Chinese e-commerce sites refusing to carry their products. Matters were made even worse when racist, anti-China comments made by the fashion house’s co-founder began circulating online.
Decisions that might seem to be a simple part of everyday operations also need to be viewed through a local lens. I remember, years ago, when IKEA got in hot water due to its handling of an issue at one of its Shanghai locations. At one IKEA in Shanghai, it had become common for elderly residents to visit the store and lounge about in the cafeteria to socialize with their peers. However, one day the company decided to force out all the elders, which was met with anger by some on social media.
From these examples, it should be clear that there are many issues and viewpoints that must be accounted for when operating a business inside China. Foreign companies and senior managers do not merely need to adjust their thinking to fit the local market and consumers, but also get in the habit of including local managers and talent in the decision-making process to avoid costly mistakes.
Adjusting Your Working Speed
While many people are aware that different cultures operate at different speeds, the example most are likely aware of, especially business students and graduates, is that of Mexico and Latin American countries. These countries often operate with a so-called “Mañana Culture”, which sees local workers being unwilling to move at the same pace as Western executives, forcing Western companies to adapt if they wanted to do business locally. However, the example more relevant to working in China, especially in the Chinese tech industry, is something I like to refer to as “China Speed”, and it consists of several elements.
First, in the Chinese tech industry, it’s common for white-collar employees, and especially engineers, to handle significant workloads on a regular basis. This has been necessary to both handle demands in the extremely competitive domestic market, as well as those in new overseas markets. It is also not uncommon for schedules to be jam-packed with meetings and business trips. I remember one occasion in 2019, when after taking part in a full day’s work I headed over to a client’s office for a short meeting at 9pm, after which I had to board a flight to New York at 7am. And while in my own experience these types of late meetings were not common, they certainly typify the breakneck pace most Chinese companies are under pressure to maintain, in order to stay ahead of the competition.
Second, employees are very driven, on a personal level, to move fast and achieve results, which is one reason companies are able to handle the massive amounts of work to expand quickly and broadly. On one hand, similar to tech companies in overseas markets, Chinese tech companies offer very valuable compensation packages, which can include high salaries, bonuses, stock options, and other factors. However, many of these compensation options are directly tied to KPIs and producing results, sometimes in an all or nothing fashion, driving employees to not slow down.
It is also very common for employees to believe very strongly in the company’s work, products, and mission, driving them to go above and beyond. Sometimes this is due to their pride in a domestic Chinese company being able to successfully grow and compete on the global stage. In other cases it can stem from wanting to repay the company for the opportunity given to them. Unlike some companies overseas where one needs to have the “right background” (e.g., education, connections, previous employers) to be considered for a position, many Chinese tech companies focus first and foremost on a potential employee’s attitude. These companies therefore often worrying that graduates from top-tier schools will act lazy or entitled, and not be willing to dedicate themselves to their work, instead preferring to give chances to those from less well-known schools and poorer regions.
Third, Chinese tech companies are very ardent believers in the concept of “move fast and break things”. This is characterized by a tendency to focus more on implementation and less and planning, which makes sense when one looks at how the modern Chinese market developed early on in a less mature market without extensive regulations. This can sometimes result in rushed product launches, unclear external messaging, and often a very unclear brand image, as many tech companies put the product/service before all else. However, despite the complications this mentality can cause, it does seem to be related, in my experience, to these companies’ ability to grow and succeed.
Working at “China Speed” can rub many expatriate workers the wrong way, as they often regard their experiences and approaches from overseas markets as the “right way” and the Chinese classification as the “wrong way”. Western workers entering this space for the first time often feel at a supreme disadvantage as Chinese tech companies can have unclear internal structures, less refined processes, longer work hours, and a general mentality to “just get things done” no matter what. However, to succeed there is no other way than to abandon preexisting beliefs one wants to be able to function effectively and earn the support of colleagues.
All in all, there are many exciting aspects to working in China. With the number of global Chinese companies growing, there is in increasing need for those with the skills to help Chinese companies expand overseas, as well as those who are agile enough to handle multiple cultures, and even languages. This can provide a number of potentially exciting career opportunities for those who are willing to take the leap and adapt on the ground.
Working within a different culture can also form the foundation for personal learning and growth. One one hand you will have the opportunity to learn about a new language and culture, and make many new friends. But perhaps even more important (to some), your time working and living among a different people and culture can help expand your worldview and allow you to view many global events through a different lens.
But the key is that the first step depends on you. There is nothing wrong with feeling frustration and even anger or other difficult emotions when experiencing a country or culture for the first time. But to succeed it is necessary to find both the will to push forward, as well as the empathy to accept mindsets and practices different from your own. The choice is yours, but I hope you will consider joining me, either in working in China, or in learning more about China and the Chinese people.
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