Influencing in China: Adapting to culture

I recently read an article on Harvard Business Review’s web site about giving effective feedback across cultures.

The three tips were:

  1. Learn the new cultural rules
  2. Find a cultural mentor
  3. Customise your behaviour


Learn the new cultural rules

I agree that it’s important to understand as much as you can about the culture you are operating. It’ll help you build rapport and not make too many gaffes if you can navigate the basic ground rules. There are some useful models you can use like Hofstede and the GLOBE research. However, one caveat you need to bear in mind is that all these studies are conducted at the macro level and make grand generalisations. The reality of being a manager and leader is that you are dealing with individuals not cultures.


I disagree that cultural rules will help you manage and lead effectively in a multinational in China today. The main reason is that “rules” are viewed very differently from one culture to another. Over many years working with leaders in China I’ve noticed that when people do not wish to change they will use a couple of common excuses like “My English is not good enough to understand my manager.” or “It’s a cultural difference. I can’t work with X because he/she is a foreigner.”


While I agree that culture influences the relationships, it also gives an easy way out if a person does not wish to adjust their behaviour. In the vast majority of cases I found that there was another issue or a deeper concern which was the real reason. If you are a leader or manager part of your role is to manage change through people. Better advice in the China context is Learn the human side of motivation.


Beyond monetary incentives are you aware of what makes your team tick? Are you able to align your feedback to their motivations? Build a good one-on-one relationship with your team. In a Confucian culture your interest and desire to help them develop their skills and career will be greatly appreciated. How you are able to implement this effectively will depend on how good your judgement is on what motivates your people.


Find a cultural mentor

I agree that a supportive mentor will be an asset when adapting to a new culture or overcoming problems that occur with culturally diverse teams. Some companies have mentor programs which offer some informal support.


Finding a good match for your mentor is essential. I’d suggest you have a range of mentors, rather than just one person. You might find it easier to communicate with someone from a similar background who has deep experience in your industry. But they might also have similar blind-spots. You could find someone from the home culture to offer insights and suggestions. It could also be a good idea to have a mentor from outside your organisation and who can give insights free from political considerations.


One downside of a mentor is it’s informal and relatively infrequent nature. Most mentor relationships do not have specific objectives. An alternative solution could be an experienced advisor or coach who has experience working with similar situations or industries. A coaching relationship has more accountability and can be used when situations arise unexpectedly and urgently.


Customise your behaviour

I agree with the article’s suggestion that you don’t need to go native to be successful. In the case where the German manager had a very direct style of feedback, some adjustment was needed to not alienate staff but also importantly the new style had to feel natural to the German manager.


Given the increasingly likelihood that you will need to work with a diverse range of cultures, it’s a good idea to build your own global style. I’ve lived abroad for 19 years and although I retain my British style I’m happy to be regarded as a global citizen who can relate and communicate with a broad ranges of cultures from Asia, Middle East to Europe and Americas. A couple of adjustments I needed to make included slowing down my vocal speed, reducing phrases and idioms that only work if you’re a native speaker. Learning to listen very carefully to the context as well as the words and gestures in a communication. Remembering to check my understanding before responding. Not assuming that my way is the only way. Nor assuming that everyone sees the world the way I do.


Becoming proficient as a leader or manager in a multi-cultural environment requires you to be yourself but to also become aware of how others like to communicate. It’s more about listening and observing than speaking.



Giving Feedback Across Cultures


Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Project

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