One of my most challenging cross-cultural experience was defining a global Information Technology (IT) plan for all subsidiaries of my company in Asia-Pacific. There was a large number of Joint Ventures, half of them in China, and all of them used to have independent IT plans.
My assumptions about Chinese people were based on my interactions with very internationalized Chinese friends in Europe. I had heard about the differences between Chinese and Western communication. I knew I had to communicate indirectly with Chinese people. But until I arrived here and experienced it on the real world, I did not really know how to do it.
During six months, I visited subsidiaries across Asia and interviewed local staff from different departments about their software applications. I was interested in their problems, needs and plans. I had prepared very specific questions and imagined they would be happy to talk about this, as it would have been the case in France.
Unfortunately, apart from technical software specifications, I got little information at the beginning of these travels. I found problems conducting the interviews. I was using a translator and the atmosphere was very cold. There were very long gaps after questions, translations and answers. Moreover, answers were short and vague. accounting for differences between Asian cultures, this is the way they were responding to me, regardless of where I was.
I had this frustrating experience in four plants before I arrived to a subsidiary where the General Manager was a Chinese who spoke French. I told her about my interviewing problems and her advice was: “Start with some small talk. Then, make open-ended questions and get very slowly into the details”.
In that subsidiary, where the local Management supported me, my interviewees were much more engaged than in other places. This made me realize that many interviewees were passive because they were afraid of getting in trouble by saying something the Joint Venture management would have preferred to hide.
This General Manager’s advice worked very well. I asked an HR officer in that subsidiary what he would do if a new staff arrived. This was an indirect question. I could have asked how the employee arrival procedure was implemented in the IT systems. He answered he had to create accounts in Systems A and B, which were not interconnected. By using follow-up questions, I found out that both systems did not exchange any data and he had to synchronize this systems manually after every staff-related data change. He spent around three hours a week doing this.
After that subsidiary, I confirmed in other subsidiaries in China, Korea and Thailand that the incompatibilities between system A and system B were resulting in a lot of extra work for local staff. Back to the headquarters of the company, I informed the Directors of Department A (the headquarter department managing System A) and Department B (the headquarter department managing System B) about this.
Director A and Director B both came from Greater China. They both spoke English but were not really westernized. They blamed each other for the issue. I tried to arrange a meeting with them but they did not want to work together. I could never get them in the same room. I made many proposals, like for example sharing a common database, but they refused them with a harsh tone highlighting the disadvantages. They did not want to be told what to do by a new employee like me. An answer I heard from both directors was that her system could exchange information but the other one could not because the other department was more concerned about its own interests.
I did not know how to handle the situation. I was totally disoriented. Then, I got an interesting feedback, which reminded me of the French-speaking Chinese General Manager. One senior colleague told me: ‘Lead them indirectly, in such a way they feel they are still in charge”.
I guided them separately to brainstorm about possible solutions focusing on the pros and cons. Then, I shared the solutions with them. I avoided digging in their personality conflict.
I knew Director B did not consider this issue as a priority. I explained to her why that was a problem for her. I told her I met some local staff, who were reluctant to use her system because it was not compatible with System A. I explained how the information of System A was useful for her. Then, she proposed sharing data automatically. However, when I presented this idea Department A, Director A argued this would involve confidentiality risks. This answer was final and blocking. During the following month, nobody talked about the issue.
I had studied how those risks could be managed but could not tell Director A directly because I knew she would react defensively. Instead of telling her, I asked her how to avoid them and she proposed controlling this sharing manually. Then, I told Director B about that and she did not object. I drafted a preliminary project definition and discussed it with them. This way, I reached a consensus to launch a project to connect both systems by a manual data interface.
Thanks to this experience, I improved my indirect communication ability with Chinese people. I learnt practical skills to ask questions and get feedback indirectly. I also learnt I had to understand people’s feelings, fears and agendas so that my interlocutor does not feel embarrassed, uneasy or annoyed. My interviewees in the subsidiaries were afraid of getting in trouble. Communicating indirectly reassured them. That is why I had to be indirect too.
The second thing I learnt is that effective leadership does not necessarily mean other people recognize you as a leader. This is another aspect of indirect communication. Leadership is about getting people to work together for a higher purpose. Sometimes, you need to guide people subtly so that they find their own reasons to give you what you need, as I did with Directors A and Director B.
I discovered this communication and leadership style in China. Obviously it also exists in the Europe and in the USA. It just depends on people’s personalities and personality depends on much more aspects that cross-cultural or international factor.
Image: I found the picture on copyblogger