Beware of Cultural Blindfolds

Published on 2014-03-06

Salmon:  James Bowe @ Flickr
SALMON, WHILE TASTY, ARE A BREED OF FISH that like to do things the hard way. When breeding season arrives, they head back to their birthplace. This tends to involve swimming epic distances against the flow of the river. Many die from exhaustion and others fall foul of predators who, knowing the habits of the salmon, wait patiently upstream and pick them off at their leisure.
Many Western managers who arrive in China with no previous experience of Asia, seem to mirror some of the salmon’s behaviour. I experienced an example of this first hand in a conversation with a Western general manager last week. When I say ‘conversation’, I actually mean an exercise of me being talked at, and managing quite well to bite my tongue.
To set the scene, this GM is responsible for a club in Beijing. Membership is 51% Chinese and 49% foreign. For a number of years, revenues have dropped as members chose the many other restaurants, bars and meeting facilities offered around Beijing. This GM’s predecessor held the position for less than three months before deciding the challenge or pressure was too great, and disappearing in a puff of Beijing smog. The mission for the GM is clear – raise revenues and membership levels. With this background knowledge I was flattered to be asked for my opinions by the GM on plans for revitalising the club. However, my warm glow did not last long.
In short, if I had a dollar (or yuan) for every time a sentence in the lecture began with the words “Now in the States……..”, then the drinks would be on me for the next few months. “Now in the States, this is what we do. Now in the States this is the way things work. Now in the States the members like…”
“That all sounds great”, I ventured, taking advantage of the GM’s need to take a breath. “But everything you have said is about what you did in the US. I would love to hear what you plan for China.”
“Here is no different to the US,” she snapped back. “Management is the same all over the world and so are club members.” I still have the bruise on my chin from where it hit the floor.
“I would suggest that management style must be adaptable depending on different cultural influences,” I mumbled, rubbing my chin.
“No, no, no”, she assured me. “Management is all about empowerment. Believe me, I have just finished my MBA from …” (name of University deleted to avoid a drop in their enrollment).
Now I must admit, I do not have an MBA and am therefore forced to rely on 20 years of international management experience to form my opinions. However, based on the amount of money invested in Cross Cultural training by multinational companies in China, both for Chinese and Western staff, and factoring in the experiences of many friends and colleagues here with long term China-based work records, I would suggest that operating on the belief that one management approach will work in any country is similar to thinking that any type of ammunition will work in the same gun.
Having only one ‘management hat’ is dangerous and limiting at the best of times. When you are operating in China, and your one management hat has USA stamped across the top of it, well… Pride comes before a fall and arrogance just makes the chances of tripping up greater. Sticking grimly to what you have learned works in the West and refusing to consider any style changes, despite being surrounded by people suggesting otherwise is a recipe for disaster.
Western managers coming to work in China for the first time should come here with their eyes and ears wide open and their mouths less so (unless it is to ask questions). Chinese people in particular will welcome any effort on the part of a Westerner to develop an understanding of Chinese culture and expectations of a manager and will answer questions willingly.
Some salmon do succeed in making it to the end of their journey, so by all means you could continue to try swimming against the current. Just be warned that if the exhaustion doesn’t get you then there will be groups of hungry bears with a taste for tired Western salmon lurking around every corner.