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Interconnectedness: hurried executives vs. enduring partnerships

The second foundation of our Ethical Triad is “Interconnectedness.” According to Chinese perspectives on ethics, to say that something is “just manners,” “just superstition,” or “just a local social or cultural norm” but not “real ethics” makes no sense. Those distinctions, often so carefully drawn in the West, do not apply in Chinese culture contexts. We call this “Interconnectedness.” It means that the divisions between what counts as philosophy, religion, superstition, culture, and tradition are much fuzzier in China, and in much of East Asia, than they are in the West. A classic example is when visitors to China (or for that matter students in a Chinese culture or philosophy class) ask whether Confucius was a philosophical figure or a religious figure. Frustratingly to many Westerners, the answer is “yes.” This is not because Confucius was somehow both Socrates and Jesus rolled into one, though it is sometimes said that Confucius’ influence is comparable to that of Socrates and Jesus combined. Rather, to really understand the cryptic “yes” answer to an apparently “either-or” question, one must understand that religion and philosophy, as Western minds understand them, are not typically distinguishable in Chinese contexts. One must resist the expectation that Western concepts, or in this case Western distinctions, should always map perfectly onto non-Western cultures. For another example, Zen (W, in Chinese, Chdn) Buddhism is simultaneously religious and philosophical.

Instead of trying to export concepts, distinctions, and categories to cultural contexts in which they do not function well—effectively trying to fit a conceptual square peg into a round hole—we advocate taking up a new concept, Interconnectedness, and becoming familiar with applying it in Chinese culture contexts, specifically in business. An application of Interconnectedness may be familiar to those who have lived and/or done business in China: what is personal and what is business is not as clearly separated as is typical in the West. The Western catch-phrase “it’s not personal, it’s business” makes no sense in China. Consider the story told by Stefan Verstappen about “The Hurried Executive,” an inexperienced American executive sent to China and given three days to negotiate a new contract with a supplier:

The welcoming committee of bubbly smiling middle managers greeted him at the airport. He told them that he was on a tight schedule and that he would like to arrange an appointment the next day with company Executives. “Yes, Yes,” the managers said as he was whisked to his hotel. At this point in the story . . . more experienced “China hands” . . . know . . . the executive had already made three mistakes. The next day the executive was picked up at the hotel by the welcoming committee and whisked off to tour the company’s manufacturing facilities. Throughout the day, the executive kept asking when he could meet with the senior manager to start negotiations. They assured him that the meeting would occur shortly and meantime there were other places to visit. Exhausted, the executive returned to his room still without having started negotiations or even meeting the senior managers.

On the third and final day of his stay, the executive was now in a panic. He only had a few hours left to negotiate a contract before his return flight. After desperate pleading with his welcoming committee, they finally assured him the senior manager would see him before he left. The welcoming committee picked up the executive to drive him to the airport and on the way, they also picked up a senior manager! With only minutes left to negotiate, the executive signed a contract that was highly unfavorable to his company.

. . . The first mistake was to start discussing business right away; the second, believing that only one person in a Chinese company is in charge of making decisions; and the third, expecting quick results.

(Verstappen, 2015)

Of the three mistakes, the first is most relevant to Interconnectedness. In an environment where business is personal, in part because there is no Westernstyle rule of law to effectively regulate business interactions, the Western executive needed to cultivate personal relationships with the Chinese partners before any meaningful business relationship could be built. (It is also worth noting that three days was quite an unrealistic timeframe for building such relationships.)

Further in the spirit of Interconnectedness, the story of The Hurried Executive is also an illustration of certain famous ideas from The Art of War. Typically, in situations like that of the story just recounted, Chinese managers and executives view themselves as out to negotiate the best terms for their firm, not to help the Western business executive promote the interests of their firm. While the Western perspective might be that of looking for partners, the more typical Chinese perspective will be that of ensuring as much competitive advantage as possible for one’s own company. The Chinese middle managers in the story did just that by putting the Western executive in a panic to the point where he became willing to sign a contract unfavorable to his own company. In terms of The Art of War, the Chinese managers maneuvered the Western executive into “encircled terrain” where the Westerner was effectively trapped, such that there was only one way out if the executive was to have a contract signed before his flight left (Sunzi, 2011, pp. 73-74). The Western executive did not understand this mindset of Chinese business negotiation and, moreover, unbeknownst to him, he also failed to take The Art of War’s advice to make plans to avoid being put into such a position (i.e., to avoid being pushed onto “encircled terrain”). The Westerner not only failed to understand his opponent, he failed to understand that he had an opponent. In general, once in China, one only becomes partners (in a Western sense) once one has built personal relationships that in turn serve as a foundation for building business relations.

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