Working in Shanghai as an account manager for Cartus Intercultural & Language Solutions, I have often been asked by my HR contacts, “Which is more important—corporate culture or national culture?”
I answer them with another question: “How long has your employee worked in the corporate culture, and how long have they been Chinese?” Although corporate culture is strong, its influence doesn’t have the depth that national culture has. Traditional cultural values in China, such as Hierarchy, Face, or the Guan Xi (relationship) are still key cultural business drivers today.
In the Chinese business culture, a clear gap exists between management and the general workforce. The power structure is clear and unquestioned, and everyone knows their role in the group. In addition, age, gender, and position in the company all matter when it comes to interactions and how one is treated in the business hierarchy. How does hierarchy influence work in a multinational company? An old Chinese saying may apply here: “One heart cannot serve two masters.” So matrix reporting lines often cause confusion for Chinese employees, who must ask themselves: Who is my true leader—my direct-line manager, or the dotted-line manager?
One way harmony is maintained in China generally, and in business specifically, is through careful attention to “face.” In China, “face” (or one’s reputation, to define the term loosely) can be lost, given, and/or saved. One can “lose face” simply by causing someone else to lose face. Subordinates usually do not ask questions of their superiors in group settings. For example, if a subordinate doesn’t understand a request and shows his concern, he might be thought of as not smart enough to understand the request. Or, his boss might be thought of as not having done a good enough job of explaining the request. If both parties lose their “face” and this is witnessed by others, the result is a “lose-lose” situation, so why bother?
How does face influence international assignees working in China? In order to save someone’s face, instead of saying “No” directly, your Chinese counterparts will show their concern by saying “Maybe,” “That will be difficult,” or simply remaining silent. Many assignees do not understand such indirect communication and therefore, they miss the key message completely. For assignee success when working in China, the skills of reading between the lines and listening for hidden messages are crucial.