The Chinese book, "The Art of War" is widely used in business schools around the world. In it, Sun Tzu advises, "know your enemy and know yourself and you will win all battles." Whether one is a human resources professional dealing with Chinese employees, or an executive heading to China, it is imperative North Americans dealing with Chinese people in business make an effort to educate themselves on the intricacies of Chinese culture and recognize how their own culture differs.
A director of human resources from an Ottawa company called one day in distress. She was concerned and confused as to why the sympathy flowers she sent for a Chinese employee were rejected at the employee's door. The parent of the Chinese employee who lived in Toronto had passed away. The director was unable to send the flowers to the funeral home in time. So instead, she ordered the flowers to be sent to the employee's home.
Little did she know China is a nation with many superstitions. In Chinese culture, those flowers are associated with death and viewed as a bad omen should they have been accepted. They would have been lovely and much appreciated at the funeral home, however, to accept such flowers into one's house would bring the association of death into that home.
Another important cultural reality to understand is in many Asian countries, especially China, the "we" always comes before the "I." The interests of the nation, company or family as a group always come before those of an individual. Decisions can be made without individual's consent if they are perceived to benefit the collective good.
For example, a few years ago, a Chinese automotive supplier changed an American customer's product without asking permission. The customer was furious, but the supplier did not understand why. "Not without my permission" is an important phrase in Western cultures, because it shows respect for individual authority and individual choice. In China, it is common for supervisors to make decisions that effect others without consulting anyone else, because they believe they are acting in the best interests of the group.
A lack of understanding between the mainstream North American culture and Chinese culture can lead to a relationship rift in the workplace. It can also have a direct impact on productivity and career advancement of employees.
Today, China is a major source of immigrants and Chinese make up one of the largest group of workers in both the United States and Canada. Tapping into their talent and maximizing their capabilities in the workplace has become imperative for companies. But without understanding their culture, and thus consequently their behavior, it is impossible to motivate and get the best out of a Chinese workforce.
When a management position opened up at a mid-sized Canadian company, a call for applications was sent through the internal e-mail system. Senior management had hoped a Chinese employee with the perfect experience and background would apply for the position. Ultimately, however, Canadian employees without management experience applied, and the more qualified Chinese employee with prior management background did not.
The senior manager set out to find the reason behind all of this and he learned employees of different cultural backgrounds perceive such opportunities through their own socio-cultural filter.
In this instance, the Chinese employee was suspicious of the authenticity of such a job opening. He believed if company principals had wanted him to apply, they would have approached him directly. Had he perceived the job opening as legitimate, he would have embraced the opportunity to put his management skills to use.
Also, he believed if he were to jump at the chance, his co-workers might think him too ambitious. He feared pursuing the new opportunity might jeopardize his excellent relationship with his colleagues. The would-be candidate determined applying for a different position could negatively affect the security of his current position, as his superior and co-workers might feel that he wanted to "jump ship."
The Chinese employee also weighed the chances of failing to earn the job after completing the application process. If senior management already had another internal candidate in mind, the Chinese employee might feel humiliated to apply and fail. It is important not to "lose face" in Chinese culture. The would-be candidate determined the risk in applying for the job was simply too great compared to the reward.
Many of the factors that went into the Chinese employee's decision process were culturally biased. If an employer is unaware of such cultural factors, he would not be in a position to encourage his Chinese employees and thus be unable to maximize their talent.
As China rises in the world's economy, understanding of the Chinese psyche becomes invaluable in negotiations of contracts, management of supplier relations, and many other business situations. China is also one of the largest sources of immigrants for both the United States and Canada. Understanding Chinese employees allows employers to maximize the potential of their workforce to a huge competitive advantage.
Huiping Iler is the president of Wintranslation.com, an Ottawa-based language service that specializes in multilingual communication. A native of China, Iler leads a workshop on intercultural communication and has delivered on site and Web training for Breconridge and Marketingprofs.com. She frequently speaks to the media on the importance of cultural sensitivity and has been quoted by "CNN Money," "Fortune," and "The National Post."