Friends don’t ask friends for discounts…

I have noted in previous posts a strong uptick in my cross cultural training courses in recent months which has primed me to pick up on some interesting ways that cultural filters show up time and again in business. One of the things we always talk about is how western cultures (particularly the US and countries like Germany) are heavily influenced by criteria decision making while in China things are influenced by relationships. The average tourist in China who was gone off the grid and gone shopping in a market where haggling and fake goods are predominant has undoubtedly run into one of the most common business manifestations of this cultural filter, “the friend discount.”

In 2001 I came back to China for the first time since 1997 (which in turn was the first time since 1989) and spent a fair bit more time sight seeing on my own than I had in previous trips. One of the more exciting places I ran into (and would go back to frequently until moving to Guangzhou in 2005) was the Xiang Yang Market. For those of you who missed out on this experience the Market was THE PLACE to get fake goods ranging from CK underwear, to Columbia Gore-Tex, to CDs and DVDs. This was a great place to learn your numbers and your haggling skills in Chinese because no price was really fixed and if you tried hard enough you could get some “really good deals” on practically anything.

Xiang Yang Market Circa 2004

In 2001 one of the things that most impressed me about the shop keepers was that they all seemed to know some key English and overwhelmingly they new how to give me a “friend discount.” To my understanding all these years later friends will try there hardest to knock at least 10% off of whatever price they would give to just any sucker walking by. Friends would also continue with some protesting to come down on that price and additional 10-70% depending on what you were buying. But to really get you into the shop and get you to “taste the goods” so to speak they would throw that friendship discount out early and fast to let you know they were reasonable. There might be a vague hint to some criteria based haggling (“look how well this underwear is made”) but the underlying theme was deals were being made because they liked you and only because the shop keepers were willing to sacrifice to keep our relationship in good standing were they willing to keep bringing the price down.

Good hagglers knew how to play off this dynamic. Failed bargainers would point out defects in quality and demand a discount, skillful bargainers would point out how their friend over in stall 35 had such and such rate and since you were good friends you were sure they had the best deal, this put the onus on your haggling partner to prove what kind of a good friend they were. Of course the longer you stay in this kind of culture the worse you would feel if you didn’t take some of the deals your new “friends” were offering.

In business dealings the friend discount is still alive and well even in business to business negotiations. Recently I began working with Siemens again had made an initial offer to Siemens Management Institute based on an existing friendship and had concluded that the friend rate was already given and all hunk-dory vis-a-vis relationship based negotiations. Not only was I wrong I actually adopted the e-mail that came in between workshop 2 and 3 asking for a discount as a case study for future cross cultural training as address to points in business negotiations: 1. discounts are never asked for at the beginning of the letter 2. the friend discount is alive and well.

So I now take it upon myself to quote a little higher with Siemens on anything. The reason? So that I can afford to give a friend discount when it comes up. I recently introduced a colleague to them to deliver an intensive business writing course and central piece of advice. Charge them at least 1,000 RMB more so that you can give that 1,000 RMB away as a friendly gesture when they ask about it. You might say, “John, does this mean that you just charge more to anyone because you’ll just give them a discount later?” This answer is, “It depends.”

Depends on what? Well here is where it gets interesting. A few months ago during a TTT we held here with Dr. Greenaway we tried out an activity called “have you ever?” and the question was had a business negotiation in China. We then split off into quadrants of those who had or hadn’t and by whether you did or didn’t like the experience. A fair number of us (including some of our clients) wound up in the have and don’t like it side of things. When asked why we said none of us liked running the risk of damaging a friendly relationship. So what does it mean? Let’s try and wrap our heads around this a minute…

When you have someone who is effectively just a cog in the machine or a vendor friend discounts are pretty common. As you begin to build up friendships with decision makers you will find those friend discounts slowly decreasing. Why? Because it is seen as risking the friendship to ask for a discount particularly if the rate seems fair. So the paradox here is that friends give strangers “friend discounts” but friends, for the sake of the friendship, don’t give discounts. I do however give freebies frequently. Why? Because it shows a commitment to the friendship and if I have the time and interest then all the better.

Anthropology 101 introduced the notion of reciprocity. China business 101 ought to put serious business negotiations and reciprocity hand in hand.


Is it business or is it personal?

This week I am in the process of writing a number of proposals and issuing contracts to be reviewed in what appears to be a set-up for a very busy 3rd quarter. What is interesting from a work perspective is that the majority of this busy-ness is coming from new and unexpected sources. My traditional clients, who have been fairly quiet this year, represent a smaller portion of the workload than at this time last year. So what is driving this sudden boom? Apparently personal referrals from folks I would describe as friends.

I recently sat down for a day of training on the Cartus model for cross cultural training for relocating expatriates. I will be representing Cartus in South China (a part of the new business parade) and had a chance to go over their material with super-star cross cultural trainer Dana Breitenstein. Dana made an interesting metaphor that I had heard before from Chris Barclay (who also cites Dana as source material) that compares our western (especially US) cultural model to the Asian model is like comparing an orange and a coconut. Using this metaphor Dana points out that in western culture we find it easy to compartmentalize our lives into different segments, like portions of an orange, a model that is often used in things like western time management. The coconut of course has a tough outer layer to crack through and inside everything runs together.

Orange slices and coconut juice...

I find this model somewhat challenging. Coming from an Italian-American family background (another potential hybrid orange/ coconut culture) I found the business model in Italy fascinating with the emphasis on small family run businesses that operate in an ongoing guild culture. Work is so integrated into the family mindset that there is an Italian expression that roughly translates into “The first generation builds, the second generation thrives, and the third generation wastes.” An interesting way to think of a business cycle and that most small businesses are family run for about three generations before they tank. The Italian mindset seems to have blurred the size of the orange chunks, but there seems to be a clear division in social roles and responsibilities. So maybe it is a coconut flavored orange hybrid?

Working as a largely independent contractor (building a small business that helps other people be independent contractors) I have to wonder how much of my life operates from an orange perspective or coconut perspective. In the past couple of years my ability to make money has largely been tied to my ability to create and leverage positive word of mouth. I recently went through the process of being vetted to work with the corporate education arm of Duke University and found the process to be an interesting study in how we divide up our personal and private lives.

As I collected referral letters and asked various past clients to keep an eye out for a letter from inquiring administrators I began to look at how I classified these people. By and large I have sat down and had dinner and talked about family with virtually all of them. In some cases I have met their family and they have met mine. The fact that I work with my wife somewhat accelerates this process. While I drew great reviews none of these letters and referrals made reference to these human connections, a fact I accepted as part of the business world. In other words a neat orange slice known as my professional background and professional relationships.

When Michael tells Sonny it's strictly business we assume it's the orange model...

What surprises me is that at the same time I was going through the very American process of being vetted based on referrals I was also being promoted by a friend internally at another company. I didn’t ask to be promoted internally but on his own steam my friend asked for an outline to my cross-cultural program, took it to their management institute, and proceeded to tell them that I was next best thing since sliced bread in someone else’s kitchen. I now have a busy calendar of work with them in the coming months. I am pretty sure he didn’t sell me based on the merits of our friendship but rather on the quality of my work from past projects. Which asks the question, “at what point do we begin to translate our coconut qualities into orange slice context?”

What this makes me wonder then is “When I begin to blend the nicely compartmentalized sections of my life like work, family, and friends is it because I am doing business in a coconut world or is the world of small business inherently more coconut like?” The reality for me at this point is that a coconut world is better in the start up phase (again from my point of view other people may experience something else), but is there a point where it becomes a liability? I would argue that the entrepreneurial model espoused by web 2.0 thinkers is that the new business world is about inherently blending those lines. Working in your passion, creating a loyal tribe, focusing on the 20,000 people needed to grow a highly personalized brand versus marketing to everyone and hoping to be the next big thing. By being accessible all the time and making us the brand we are beginning to erase the idea of our work persona and our private persona being overly different. It will be interesting to see where this trend takes us in the coming years.

Any ideas of this trend? Sound off in the comments…

What do you mean you don’t like Ketchup?

I recently read that children go through their “terrible two’s” in part because they are experiencing the world through a huge cognitive mile stone, they understand that what happens in their mind does not necessarily happen in other people’s minds, which they do up until that point. This of course reminded me of my own son who went through a period of loving ketchup. At some point between the age of 18 months and two years ketchup wound up on his plate and he began to eat ketchup on anything, in large quantities, and by the handful. If that sounds off putting remember this simple fact children at that age assume everything in their mind to be true for what’s happening in our mind. Ergo “if I love ketchup Mom and Dad will gladly eat the ketchup off my hands that I offer to them because they too will love by the tiny fistful.” It is much more off putting to have an infant fist covered in ketchup shoved in your face with the words, “delicious Daddy eat some.”

Tastes good...

From the terrible two’s onward there is nothing as exciting or frustrating as learning that what happens in our mind doesn’t always happen in other people’s minds. As Augustus is now three and a half it is exciting for him to see what we do differently or know differently from him ranging from “do you know that guy?” to “what do cars eat?” there is a lot he wants to know. Unsurprisingly it is when we don’t match up our thoughts or we as parents are inscrutable to him that we have conflict. Whether it be because we expect him in bed at a certain time, we don’t understand what he wants to watch on TV, or we expect him to wash his hand after going to the bathroom all of these incidents are rich with potential for an argument. Throw in the inability to really communicate well with an agreed upon language (or three in his case) and things can get rocky really fast.

That said it isn’t too hard to draw parallels from my son to anyone living and working in a “foreign” culture and environment. On one hand we really want to understand (or in many cases be understood) as we as people want to know what it feels like to be other people. We want to be able to see or feel what it’s like to be any another person’s shoes in part to look for similarities and in many cases to see the differences. Consider this parallel it’s like meeting someone with a very exciting day job like fire-fighter, when we ask about that person’s job it’s in part because we want to know what it feels like to rescue someone from a burning building because let’s face it as much as we might love our own jobs in most cases we are stuck at desks and not out saving the day. We want to experience the differences in our lives to enrich our own day to day experience, I can only imagine my disappointment if I met a fire-fighter and discovered he/she spent several hours a day making power point slides and designing workbooks.

On the other hand once we have a degree of familiarity in our day to day lives and we are in a context where those differences are no longer greeted with wonder we have a potential for a true failure to connect. As people we are conditioned to sort for similarity and difference we either expect things to be the same and therefore see similarities or expect differences and therefore only see those differences. In NLP this is one of many “Meta-Models” that describes how are brains work.

Now imagine you work regularly with someone who comes from a different cultural or national background. The odds are about 50-50 that every time they have a conversation with you (and you with them) that the conversation is already being drafted from the point of view that a. you both already will look at it from the same perspective and should expect a harmonious chat or b. you two are inherently different and things could go bad very quickly if that one thing you/ or they do happens again and people can’t seem to understand each other.

I know this isn’t only relegated to cross cultural circumstances, you can think about interacting with anyone close to you and see where the first example either went over well or ended in shock or in the second example where things were set to fail from the beginning. So what does this all mean? It means to make the way we communicate across cultures we almost need to come up with a “C” model that blends both. Like saying, “This is ketchup I like it a lot. How do you feel about ketchup? I somewhat expect you won’t like it but I think it would be great if you do because I like pleasant surprises. Also it’s no big deal if you don’t like Ketchup.” Of course on larger issues politics, religion, personal hygiene it can sometime be hard to accept the last line, “it’s no big deal” but really if everything is a big deal aren’t we really setting ourselves up for a failure to communicate to begin with?

I’ll leave today’s somewhat random post with a story of how I made someone uncomfortable based on his cultural projections and then seemed to redeem the day. Let’s rewind to April 2008, I was in Beijing for a workshop and enjoying one of the nicest month’s to visit China’s capital. It was the first time I had visited the city in nearly four years and I was struck by the changes as the city ramped up for the Olympics. This was also about the same time as riots were going off in Tibet and there was a government crack down that was very un-mediapathic happening on the international news and Beijing was getting flack for having forced many citizens out of old neighborhoods during the city clean up. As I rode in a taxi to my hotel I leaned forward to the driver who had been chatting with me and I said, “Hey Cabbie there is something I have to say about the Chinese Government.” He tensed visibly (in retrospect I think he was expecting the worse as Beijing often has highly opinionated foreigners who speak Mandarin unlike Canton) and said, “oh what’s that?” Picking my Chinese as best I could I said, “I really think they have done a good job with cleaning up Beijing I can’t remember ever seeing such a blue sky or so many green trees here.” He breathed a sigh of relief, “oh yes it’s true the city is much cleaner than in years before” he replied.

In this one chat we see a microcosm of what was going on. I had assumed that the driver was pro-urban clean up and was also attuned to this aspect of government. In other words I was in the mode of assuming the driver was in the same mind-set as I was. He actually might have been but, as it seems to me, he was sorting for difference and expected a conflict based on possible prior experience and what the news was emphasizing about the foreign perspective on China at the time. At that time local news had been covering how foreigners had interrupted the torch run in protest and there was an outbreak of patriotism/nationalist sentiment at the time. Instead we were both pleasantly surprised that the conversation went well. On my part because the driver understood what I was saying and on his part because I wasn’t there to point out to him the “failures of his country…”

To me the lesson here was approach each interaction with someone else with the patience this cab driver showed. Expect what ever you want, but let yourself be pleasantly surprised. Try to understand that no matter how good their language skills are if they are not a native speaker there is always a chance that things came out wrong. And finally be able to laugh at your discomfort and expectations because they are probably what is making communication so hard to begin with.

The kids are alright. Comparing leadership in China and America’s young people

Recently I agreed to help a friend with promoting his company that specializes in mobilizing recent college graduates in China and helping them develop and fill into specialist and leadership roles. It’s a cool idea and one worth supporting. Every other month I will spend a couple of hours talking about leadership and what that means. This in turn got me thinking about what are some of the blocks that young people here face as they begin to take on leadership roles. As with many things in life, early life education is key to what happens later in life and the gap that I will address for these young people is one that kids in the US have a leg up on. This post is about some of those cultural differences in education style for young people and the impact on adults. I’ll try to make a little less boring than it sounds…

Just to praise Jeff and his team, they has identified a real need in China and that is to take the initiative to help young people accelerate their job opportunities. The simple reality is that most leaders here are a decade, two, or even three younger than their counter parts in the US or Europe. This is due to rapid growth in the private sector over the past decade and what is effectively a shortage of qualified managers and leaders. In effect there is a lot of “On the job training” for supervisors, team leaders, department heads, and even plant managers and executives. Working in the consulting and leadership development I have met a wide spectrum of leaders and high potential candidates and have seen a variety of successes and failures. What follows is my analysis for why this happens.

As most of you, who read this blog, know I had an unusual childhood that sent me to different countries across three continents. Doing the nitty gritty math I have spent more of my life out of the US than in. Despite this, culturally I identify with being from the United States, in no small part because of having grown up in the US public school system. Making comparisons about education and it’s impact is based on my experience in Oklahoma at public school and Israel in private school, both of which were based around a US curriculum. My comparison points in China are the public schools in major cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Now a lot has been written about school systems in both countries which a Google search or Amazon search can shed some light on. Most things written about both systems are pretty damning. Let’s face it nobody writes a book with the hopes it will sell well or get read by a large group of people and writes praise about education systems. So taking into account all the things written about schools that already indicate what they are doing right or wrong I am only going to talk about what they are doing to create leadership traits. One other addendum, it is only practical to talk about leadership in China in terms of the private sector as the public sector has a very different set of criteria and is largely closed off to the average citizen. I also have no real idea what one does to get ahead in the public sector here, but I am pretty sure your soul doesn’t come out of it intact.

That is a very long framework. Like it’s own blog post, thanks for showing the resilience to keep reading. There are two possible extremes that happen in the US and Chinese education systems. I’ll use an example to set the tone for both. One of my favorite movies (in part because I relate so well to it) is Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. In Rushmore the main character, Max Fischer, is described early on as the founder and president of many of the student body functions at the Rushmore academy, including but not limited to the Yankee Racer Society, the Bee Keeping Society, The Rushmore Players (a drama troupe he directs), the Model United Nations, and a model plane flying society. He has so many in fact that his academic scores suffer and as the story opens he is jeopardy of being expelled. Among my group of peers in college we felt a connection with Max Fischer and his numerous extracurricular activities. In my own high school I had maxed out the amount of extra curricular activities and student body government roles allowed. In effect I had expanded the amount of roles available to me to the absolute maximum and still wanted more. It is this trend that sets American education and early leadership apart from what we find in China.

Max Fischer founder and president of the Model UN club

A few years ago when I first moved to Guangzhou I helped to organize a social networking group called “Oriented.” Early on I drafted a young volunteer who had gotten her MBA studying in England. She was hard working and dedicated to working with the group. On a few occasions when I wasn’t available to organize an event she did a good job of taking over and setting things up. I learned that Oriented was her first time to take on these kinds of roles. When asked about her experience in London I expected to hear about her experience meeting students from around the world and getting to know London and England. I was surprised to learn that she had effectively sealed herself off in her dorm room to study for two years. I am sure that she learned a lot about business and performed well in her class. But for all of the world outside of her dorm room she might as well have been in Guangzhou. She had been the anti-Max Fischer who instead of over expanding her world had focused it down to a narrow role focused on studying.

If you’ve had a chance to pick up Malcom Gladwell’s book


you might remember that some of the stories of exceptional people who took leadership roles like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had early access to topics that interested (computers and in Jobs case Caligraphy) and the freedom to pursue these kind of eccentric (at the time) interests. What the US does very well is create opportunities for students to follow some kind of interest (even if it needs to get funded by a bake sale or twelve) that lets young people take opportunities to be leaders. Students are encouraged to do extra curricular activities that align with their passions and run for some sort of internal leadership position. Even in times of budget crises young people are still encouraged to find some sort of activity that let’s them be themselves.

In cross cultural terms there are a couple of key cultural traits that are expressed here. The first is called PDI (Power Distance Indicator) and can be described as the perceived gap between “leaders” and “followers.” It also can be used to evaluate a cultures willingness to tolerate unfair practices from the boss. The US is often described as having a very low PDI or in other words it is often the case that people can and do challenge leadership and speak out when they are unhappy or feel they have been treated unfairly. The other is Individualism (it’s counter point is Collectivism) and unsurprisingly the US has the highest Individualism score of any cultural group surveyed. Any other words if you want to be an eccentric like Max Fischer or go rogue like certain political figures someone (certainly not everyone) will be there to support this kind of behavior.

In China there are sports teams and extra curricular activities. There are student leaders and there are social clubs. But consider this story I got a few years ago at a Leadership workshop in Hong Kong. When I asked participants to describe a time they felt like a leader one participant told the story about he ran away from home when he was eight. The reason why? Because he and his six year old brother had failed to be in the top two in their classes. Anyone who has ever worked in China will recognize this behavior from full grown adults. There is first a Collectivist idea about what everyone is expected to do (top 1 or 2 out 30-40 kids) and if you can’t live up to the (unfair) expectation of the “powers-that-be” (Mom and Dad here) your only recourse is to hide, run away, or as the young adults do, go to a new job. It is expected that running away (in the story to Grandma’s house) will be safer than staying and being accountable for not living up to an unfair standard.

Before following any sort of passion or interest kids are first expected to put in the hours to be at the top of the class. One of the messages international MBAs and EMBAs have been harping here is that the most successful CEOs are not the one’s with straight As but in fact have C averages in college. Because they actually experienced leading and interacting with other people. Parents I am not suggesting your kids should get C averages, in China getting to a good university makes a big difference in future earnings and getting hired. That said having met numerous successful Chinese executives most of them do not report having all gone to Beijing University or having been top of their class. Many of them have studied abroad but that is not the key to being successful as young leader, what made them good was that they got out and explored the world around them and took the initiative to stand out.

In many ways China has become the land of opportunity for young people. Many of the 30 and 40 something year old managers and executives I meet come from economically disadvantaged areas. One plant manager at a major fortune 100 company has told me stories about growing up without shoes at times. He is next in line to oversee their Asia operations. He is only a couple years over 40 and if you ask him what the keys are to leadership he will emphasize initiative and accountability. The law of averages dictates some young people are going to fit this mold in China. When we can expect to see China break away in a big is when young people people feel encouraged to challenge a high PDI and high collectivist mind set and take the initiative to follow their passions.

So consider the case of a solar energy company we worked with last year. We had several of their brightest young engineers join us over a few sessions of drafting their vision and value structure between their Chinese and American side. Some of them had doctorates in engineering and were working on projects that were ahead of anything comparable in the US. In their limited field they were brilliant and ahead of the curve but the idea of taking the initiative to lead the organization was new to all of them. In the long run by being involved in those workshops they hopefully will begin to feel empowered as leaders but it was clear that expectation to go beyond their studies and focus group was new.

So what can I do with these young professionals I will see every other month. I think the key is to get them to redefine leadership. The high Power Distance Indicator in China virtually makes young people exclude themselves from being a leader based on their own definitions. As a results there is a tendency to describe leadership as trait held only by a few and that those few are at a safe distance from the average Joe. This belief structure is what keeps young people from taking the initiative to start their own ideas and the accountability to follow up on their own leadership ideas. Can these beliefs change? Undoubtedly, the question is not can they change, but what they will do after wards.

Angry, Adjusting, or an Ass?

I have a hell of a temper. I am not sure if it is a Nature or Nurture issue. Am I pissed at the world because I got the genes from my father who in turn got them from his father or did I learn it from him and he from his father? One thing I have learned though being angry doesn’t make me genuine. Maybe I should say two things, the other being having easy access to one emotion doesn’t make me any more in touch with the situation just because I feel strongly one way or another.

Your Step Dad's not angry he is just adjusting...

I have been toying with this topic for a while because it isn’t an easy thing to write about. Let’s start from an example, to talk about it. A few years ago we helped a Taiwanese trading company run an organizational culture survey on the branches around China with their HQ in Dongguan. For whatever reason the data was calculated wrong in one sector (the question was something like, “we understand the vision for our company and have a clear direction of our future) the sales team was directly overseen by the GM and to him this group ought to be the most aware of the company’s future. In fact they had scored higher than any other group, but due to the error they had the lowest score.

To be fair we caught this mistake very quickly and before their scheduled date to share back with their employees. Their GM though, upon receiving the data, was caught up in the spirit of the moment and dragged his sales team into the meeting room and started a tirade about how they, better than anyone else should know their vision. Be rest assured that everyone heard him, but they all had to be wondering who hadn’t heard the GM’s message on vision before, since by and large they had all scored this area very well. The sales team was left with an impression that the company’s vision mattered a great deal to the GM, but also that they had received a verbal beat down unfairly and without having a chance to be understood. Needless to say this group was doubly suspicious of all future surveys and for some time walked very gently around the big boss.

I was in Shanghai a few years ago visiting my then HQ for an annual performance review. At that time one of my co-workers had decided to leave the company to go on to a more stable job, this was after all at a time when said company used to regularly miss our pay checks and issue half pay late and the other half even later. Given the size of our company the GM (see also CEO or big boss) was doing our performance evaluations. There were department and team leaders but they didn’t actually handle performance reviews except in the case of regional offices (mostly because it wasn’t financially feasible to bring people in, not because the GM wanted to decentralize authority) so we all had the perks of personal attention. Early on our colleague (let’s call him “Bob”) got his chance. What followed was, behind a thin glass door, a one way shouting match from an older experienced GM and his younger employee about how Bob leaving was personally disappointing to the GM because it put even more work on his shoulders and how Bob was letting us all down.

Here is the thing we all knew that the Boss cared about the company. We also knew Bob cared too and that leaving wasn’t easy for him. We all knew that the Boss felt like crap for missing payment and we knew that he felt we should feel like a family and a team. We knew he cared. We also felt at that moment that the Boss was full of conviction and passion. We also felt scared shitless of telling him how we felt. Who would dare go in there and say, “life is tough when I don’t get paid, it puts stress on my whole family” if we thought we would get blasted like that?

To my knowledge everyone in the office that day has since left that company. Very few of them after the incident with Bob sat down with the GM and said, “I am leaving soon” without some sort of fear of abuse or reprisal.

In both of these cases the leaders of their respective companies thought that showing their conviction through anger also showed their commitment. A few years ago I found myself in that same cycle with my own employees as a manager, because I had seen it so often in my education as a manager. “If you feel strongly blow up.” Not surprisingly every single time I lost it I had to work my way back from a deficit that I created in the trust in the office. People respect passion and conviction, but the distrust someone who can’t control their temper.

It’s a lesson that spills over into many parts of our lives. Want to be a better spouse? I am sure that people have said how we should show passion or show our convictions to make our relationships work, but don’t go off on our spouse. Somewhere there are battered spouses echoing, “he/she doesn’t mean to be abusive he just is full of passion.” The rest of us watching stand back and say, “nope he/she is just a jerk and it’s unfortunate that you feel you have to put up with it.”

In another role as parents we want to communicate the best way for our kids to act and it can be frustrating when they don’t listen, but being angry never gets the best results. Again having conviction and standing by your points as a parent is very necessary, having a three year old I know that if I bend on certain issues it can actually be dangerous, but being angry creates the least results or counter productive results.

So I still spend a lot of time figuring out the best way to not be so angry. I am less worried about the roots of the problem as I am about getting past those emotions and finding ways to show passion, conviction, and resolve without building distrust in my relationships. I regularly ask if it is worth getting angry about. In certain contexts I ask if I feel this way because I haven’t adjusted to the situation the way I need to to be at my best. Finally I ask if I might not just happen to be an ass. Going through the check list let’s me get objective and find a better solution than blowing up.

Philosophy vs. Science

I am back from the Chinese National Day holiday and preparing for a two-day Introduction to Leadership workshop I’ll be conducting on Saturday and Sunday.  Since February of this year I started include a new portion to this workshop about management science and management philosophy.  This is the background about how I began including this material…

At the beginning of this year I had an opportunity to take the train home from Guangzhou to Shenzhen with my friend Angelo Chiu.  Angelo is highly inquisitive and very much multicultural/lingual having been raised in Hong Kong, educated in the US (as a testament to what a nice guy he is I can even look past his undergraduate degree from UT), and has been running his own company out of Guangzhou.  I could spend a 1,000 words writing about what a good guy Angelo is, but let’s just use this intro to address a point that he introduced to me.  Our discussion focused on a book that Angelo had just picked up and read from a Chinese entrepreneur at the train station bookstore.  The gist, or at least the gist that stuck with him, was that management has two aspects: science which is largely immutable and philosophy which is can be impacted by factors too numerous to list.


"Chairman Mao is the everlasting red sun in our hearts". Can you spot the leadership philosophy?


Take that in for a moment.  Management (and leadership by extension) must have certain factors that persist across cultures the way that gravity does.  At the same time, like language, certain parts of management (and again leadership by extension) make absolutely little or no sense out of a cultural or philosophical context.  Most leaders working in cross cultural circumstances have at least once been frustrated by how what works at home doesn’t work abroad at the same time we have all noticed that certain actions always create results.

As Angelo and I were chatting we were talking about some of the parts of situational leadership.  We were discussing whether or not the model was based in management science or philosophy.  When we came to discussing the latter quarters of situational leadership we began to discuss some of Angelo’s angst with acting as a leader in China after having started his career in the United States.  One of the hardest stumbling blocks that he faced were in the supporting and empowering sections.  In the US it is a no-no to be more hands or actively discussing the details of a competent subordinates projects except at designated review and evaluation periods.  To do otherwise is to step on that person’s individual contribution and active free will.

What he had found over the years was that not only was it accepted by his subordinates to have informal and unscheduled check ins but it was actually desirable.  This was a source of angst because philosophically it flew in the face of what he had experienced in another context.  It took a bit of soul searching and self awareness for him to realize that there was a different set of expectations in the office culture he was facing.  These days he is better at balancing the science of situational leadership with the context of how empowerment is viewed in his work team in this part of China.

Not long ago I made a note on checking our egos when working across culture.  Leading across cultures is naturally no different at a certain point we have to ask ourselves, “am I creating an ‘us against them’ atmosphere by expecting people to create results based on management science or my personal (ethnocentric) management philosophy?”

This does not mean that we have to re-write ourselves and our philosophy in order to be a different kind of leader.  What we can do is be aware of the differences and be able to talk about them candidly.  The picture of Chairman Mao as the “everlasting red sun” earlier in this post would certainly be an anathema to most western educated business leaders.  Western, particularly US, business philosophy espouses that anyone can be a leader and that leadership can be like a relay race with each person shining and leading when it is both practical and necessary.   In other words we would expect a very different propaganda poster in other places, maybe something with a slogan like “Yes WE can.”

In Geert-Hoffstedde terms any of the key cultural dimensions can impact leadership philosophy.  Leaders from the US and Germany (two groups of leaders I work with most frequently) commonly feel philosophical friction based on the dimensions of Power Distance Indicator and Individualism.  In a recent corporate culture session with a German manufacturing company their CEO was confounded by the idea that leadership, as described by a sizable portion of his leadership team, came from a position of power.  From his perspective even a child who took charge of his/her group of friends in kindergarten could qualify as a leader.

From a practical training and coaching perspective this gives a lot of material to work with when we talk to leaders.  Being able to talk about certain elements of leadership as a universal science cancels critics who like to point out “that may be how you do things over there, but not over here” and at the same time gives plenty of room to create discussions of about the subjectivity of philosophy.

Ethnocentrism, Mother Theresa, and You

It is increasingly obvious that being able to function across cultures is a prerequisite competency for anyone, not just leaders.  There are times though that being able to function is simply not enough and you must, because of choices made somewhere in your life, learn to do business in other countries and accordingly in other cultures.  As exciting as that may sound there are times we have to overcome the single biggest barrier we have to doing business, ourselves.

Nearly fifteen years ago a research project was under way in the United States.  The goal was simple, to see how people viewed themselves in comparison to some of the most important names of the times.  The benchmark was to ask respondents how likely they were to go to heaven after they died.  This of course indicates that the respondents did believe in an afterlife, but one would assume that even if they didn’t it would balance by the end of the research.  Researchers then listed out some of the most famous names time including Billy Clinton, Michael Jordan, and Mother Theresa.

Most people (over 80%) indicated that they were likely to get past St. Peter and through the pearly gates.  Slick Willy had about 50% of Americans convinced he would get through, Michael Jordan around 70% and Mother Theresa a solid 79%.  Notice something here?  Taken in aggregate the average US citizen viewed themselves as more likely to get into heaven than Mother Theresa.

So what does this have to do with culture?  Imagine for a moment that you are doing business in a foreign land and you encounter a snag in negotiations.  Let’s take a real life example like the one I ran into this morning.  The client wanted to add additional trainees to a leadership program an increase of 50% more participants than originally discussed.  I kind of think this happens anywhere, not just in training and not just in China.  I believe the world over  it is called “pushing your luck.”

What stuck out is the final line of the e-mail I received, which I quote below:

“There is more chance to cooperate next time with you and your company, anyway hope you could accept I mentioned above.”

According to the Geert Hoffstede Cultural Dimensions what this young man was letting surface in his e-mail is a cultural dimension known as Long Term Orientation.  The Chinese set the benchmark for this traits they actually score over 118 on a 100 point scale.  No Joke.  The irony is that in most every day situations like going to the supermarket my business counter part would never ask for 50% more produce than the price on the bag of already weighed apples, and certainly not in the context of doing more business in the future.  Then again maybe he would…

Let’s look at something from my own life while we think about that… At around the same time that study was going on in the US, I was enrolled in my first physical anthropology course.  I was a Sophomore and really buying into the Socio-Cultural dogma that preached that race was an outdated concept.  There was a lot of data looking at the distribution of physical characteristics to support this idea.  So my professor, a PhD candidate at the time, arranged a simple quiz for us when we started the course.  We were shown a variety of pictures corresponding to blanks and a quiz sheet with the task, “identify their race.”  Like a good socio-cultural anthropologist I cleverly wrote “race is obsolete.” and continued on.  When we got to the end of the quiz another set of pictures came up with the task “identify their nationality or ethnic background.” Being “well traveled” I was all to happy to suggest where these people were likely from based on clothes and physical features.  I was also completely oblivious to the contradiction my answers created.

What had happened was that my conscious mind knew what I believed, and still believe about race.  But my ego and desire to show off my knowledge took over and overrode my “programming.”  The lesson for me?  Well it was a quick lesson about how things weren’t so post-racial, but it also taught me that my gut reaction could lead to a need to show off, but not just me an overwhelming 35%  of my class who did the exact same thing.  In fact everyone who put down that race was obsolete took their best crack at labeling nationality and ethnic background.  It’s almost like our need to provide the correct answers based on surface facts took over.  Most likely because our egos were screaming into our head that we new the answers and that we had to be right, after all this was our chosen major…

The problem for those of us doing business is what to do to reign in our instincts to either

a. take offense

b. give offense

c. put our foot in our mouth

d. all of the above

As it is, this morning while wrangling with my ego, I wrote about three drafts of my e-mail running them by my colleague before I settled on one that hopefully did as little as possible to offend or shove my foot in my mouth.  In the end everything seems to have worked out as the participants have gone back to the terms of the proposal after it was clear that their request seemed out of place given the terms previously outlined.  I also, after reflection, added a comment that should there be future business we would give them some kind of preferred treatment.

So why take this all so seriously?  Mostly because when living away from “home” we have a tendency, no matter how favorably we view our host nation, of thinking our model of doing things is superior.  Like the average citizen on average we begin to think more of our selves than others, like say Mother Theresa or the guy on the other side of that e-mail.  After all our culture is an important part of who we are and for the most part we believe we should like our selves and therefore also our culture. No model of cultural understanding or practice of cultural relativism can begin to replace a bit of humility in the face of adversity.

So the next time you think of singing up for a course that teaches you how other people “think,” consider first if you are ready to put it in the context of how you think and what you are doing to make the most of it.