If you want to do business with Chinese you’ll want to be aware of several important cultural elements and how to approach them. That’s why Quality Wars is kicking off a new series, Cultural Caveats, where I’ll dig into some common differences in custom and etiquette –beginning with collectivism. I’ll tell you how to make the most of your business in China and how to avoid running aground on your next voyage to the Middle Kingdom.
Collectivism is an ideology perhaps most apparent in Communism. Collectivism made its way into politics in Marxism followed by Leninism, and finally, in Maoism. It comes as no surprise that the ideology can be found not only in Chinese business practices, but also those of other countries in East Asia. The ideology emphasizes equality, sharing and cooperation between members of a group or organization –all noble traits. But it’s where individually and out-of-the-box thinking are really valued that collectivism can stand in the way of success. One can see how collectivism might dissuade a unique way of thinking by examining the following Japanese proverb: the stake that sticks up gets hammered down. This is to say, those who disagree with the group or clash with what it stands for will be subject to criticism, or maybe, outright condemnation.
By now I know that you’re probably thinking, thanks for the philosophy lecture, but what has this got to do with my business Factory visits and other supplier interactions in China virtually always come in groups. Chinese management would, in nearly all cases, prefer to have a team of their staff members meeting with the client all at once, as they will feel that this structure will naturally hold those staff members accountable to their organization’s best interests.
The Chinese staff members themselves are also more comfortable in groups, as their society and understanding is historically more collective, and they do not want any action or decision to stick out as one made independently.
This is where you need to be a bit careful. This collectivism does not work in your favor.
Pump your brakes! I’m not telling you to openly denounce your Chinese supplier or business contact just because they have a different philosophy on life. First, see if you may be able to use collectivism to your advantage. Getting the majority to rally behind your cause might be a way to change policy without going against the grain.
Conversely, if you think you may encounter some resistance from the group, and you want to know the real scoop on a particular project or a supplier’s financial situation, opt for a one-on-one discussion. Your Chinese counterparts will be much more likely to divulge to you sensitive information when you have them away from their team. Furthermore, spending time with the Chinese individually will allow you to form a bond and secure a personal friendship. It’s not unlikely that, as your friendship becomes stronger, your friend will start to become your biggest proponent when discussing matters with their team that are related to your project.
In many cases they may actually prefer to meet with you one-on-one, since they would never speak their minds with others around. So if you get the feeling that someone wants to speak to you, work quietly and politely towards a private meeting.
Collectivism can take many forms. You may see it in a formal business meeting or at a casual social event. When you’re met with the collective psyche it can be a challenge, but if you’re careful and avoid rocking the boat you will find it to be much less of a threat and more of an opportunity.