Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Handling Issues in China_Part I

In the Chinese culture, there is no right way and wrong way to do things. In China, there exists an impersonal force of “right” and an equally impersonal force of “wrong” and by chance, by time, by multiple attempts you may….eventually….arrive close to one of those perceived notions.
 Have I confused you yet?  Because…I’m confused..and sometimes I stay confused.  That’s why I don’t try to think about it too often and if I do think about it…it makes my head hurt.  I think that is why you see many grumpy expats in China, they too often ponder on the cultural differences.  The cultural differences that stand out to me the most, after living here for close to a decade are not the tangible differences but the intangible ones.  Usually the thinking patterns.  I blog to inform of my confusion, how I handle my confusion and maybe this will help you.  Better yet, maybe you can help me. 
(Photo Credit: G.R. Sipe)

In China, directly telling someone they did wrong and made a mistake is considered heavy-duty direct blame.  It only has a superficial positive result (ie allows you to vent) but the long-term results are hurtful.  When you inform someone of their mistake, they take it as a rebuke and it is also confrontational.  They will not do better the next time, they will probably digress in their efforts and not only that, you’ve lost favor with that person and are now on their blacklist.  This favor lists exists with everyone:  I think they keep it in their shirt or pants pocket.  From the lowliest pauper to the highest-ranking noble, you don’t want to get out of favor with the folks.     

Problems are approached indirectly.  In fact, the problem isn’t even a real thing.  Like the “right & wrong way”, the problem is also an impersonal, floating entity.  When you discuss a problem with someone, you discuss it as if the problem is also in the room, with ears…and listening.  As if the problem will hear you and handle itself.  Because, goodness knows, no person can ever directly handle, improve or avoid a problem.,.things just sort of…happen.  But they are never the direct result of one individual’s actions. 

So you approach the problem, tenderly, not directly.  You never focus on direct causes and results.  Kind of “beat around the bush” so to speak.  You have to talk a long time about issues that are not even the focus of the problem at hand.  As you drift nearer and nearer to the problem, use language that helps the listener realize what they missed or should have done differently.  All the while, be sure you are not finger-pointing and inspire, inspire, inspire.  

In doing so, you hope that the person who caused the problem, will get your drift.  You hope they will realize there is something they may have been able to do.  Then, after you think you’ve indirectly made your point clear, you adjure the meeting and hope this person can go solve the problem and also avoid it in the future.  If that fails, you do it again…rinse and repeat.  Is it inefficient?  Yes, but not in China..that’s the only sure-fire way to approach a problem without causing another future disaster.  That’s the only sure-fire way to approach a problem in such a way that helps you get things done and still have that person on your list of “helps” and you stay off their blacklist. 

If the process continues to fail, whether it is an employee, factory, house-keeper, whatever, you need to decide what is the best from an economic and timing perspective, when to change strategies and eventually mark that person off your list.  Many folks (I’m looking at you Westerner) would say you change after one mistake.  If that is your mindset, you’ll be changing contacts, employees and friends in China more often than you change underwear!    

The Chinese are good at “catching your drift”.  Westerners are direct and that is why the Chinese think we’re naïve and immature.  They consider directness to be a lack of depth.  This is one of those issues where I see where they are coming from but I still don’t fully agree.  The thing is, the longer I live here, the more I understand it and even start doing it myself.

Part II of this post -check it here

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  1. That one really cracked me up: "Many folks (I’m looking at you Westerner) would say you change after one mistake. If that is your mindset, you’ll be changing contacts, employees and friends in China more often than you change underwear!"...

  2. After reading that again I think it may have been a good idea to choose less colorful language...but am glad you enjoyed it. I think you know just as good as anybody how important it is to keep your cool here and keep things into perspective. Always good to see you Renaud.

  3. In the US, I was taught the Oreo Cookie management approach to delivering criticism.

    Constructive Criticism
    Positive Support (Praise)!

    I always appreciated when it was used on me and have adopted it as part of my management style as well.

    But, come on, who really likes to be told they did something wrong?

    But by supplying positive reinforcement at the end that includes concrete ways in which the person can improves greatly helps. :-)Monica

  4. Always nice to see my good friend Monica here.

    I like that suggestion and may see how it works at the company or with the factories. One thing here, praise can be like criticism. I think this stems from the Confucian philosophy but since nothing was directly done that was worthy of criticism, on the flip-side, nothing was done worthy of praise. Individual mentality versus group mentality. I had to teach one time (and sometimes still have to remind) that a suggestion DOES NOT equal blame. Very hard to directly approach situations here....but I like that suggestion Monica, w/the positive boost at the end, will definitely see about adapting that, "Zhong Guo" style... Now for some reason, I have Oreo's on my mind...